In the fourteen years I’ve known it so far, my relationship with London has changed a lot. The first time, in my mid-year break as a final year uni student, as my entry and exit point to Europe it was as wet-your-pants exciting as it was cack-your-pants expensive. Four years later, thanks to the generosity of friends living there who provided free places to sleep, it became my temporary base for a few days at a time while I was off madly exploring other places in Europe and North Africa. Another three years after that, and it was my fly-in Monday and fly-out Friday workplace through what seemed like a dull summer of almost constant drizzle. In the years since I’ve passed through a few times for training courses or conferences, always feeling familiar with the place but never with enough time to notice whether I actually enjoyed being there. But today I had a glimmer of hope, skipping a final mid-afternoon conference session for the allure of a gorgeous blue sky that promised an early summer evening of long and glorious twilight.
Ecstatic to leave Marble Arch and the shopping crowds of Oxford Street behind with a clear conscience, I zigzagged through the handsome, upstanding Georgian terraces of Marylebone. As clearly unaffordable as this area looks for mere mortals, it’s a peaceful place for a stroll – though I always feel a certain affront at the private gardens that line some streets, little pockets of green always fenced in black wrought iron and locked gates, with signs reinforcing, just in case there was any doubt, that their utility was for local residents only.
But after dodging the heavy vehicular traffic on Marylebone Road (and then the heavy tourist traffic going all Sherlock Holmes-crazy at 221B Baker Street), I found some green space that would accept the likes of me – Regent’s Park. After my very first visit to the major cities of Western Europe, one of the things that most struck me about London was the quantity of enviable public parks around its centre. I was reminded of it once again, crossing the familiar south-west corner of Regent’s Park at the Boating Lake and taking what seemed an age to pass adult football games and exercise classes to the London Zoo edge of the park at the north.
My goal had been to reach Primrose Hill, the popular lookout point that I’d somehow never made it to before now, and after a brief but surprisingly steep climb that was enough to make me sweat a little, I’d made it up the grassy incline to the lofty height of 78m above sea level. Compared to everyone else here I was clearly ill equipped to take in the view – I was lacking both a picnic blanket and a bottle of wine – but I was nonetheless able to get a decent first look at the latest addition to London’s skyline, the Shard.
I may no longer be the most well-read person around (that once keen childhood interest was killed by a few too many years of academic study), but I was immediately struck by noticing a second of George Orwell’s 1984 prophecies coming true – this building is surely the monumental pyramid-shaped Ministry of Truth headquarters that towers over London. The first prediction I’ve noticed is the close pairing to 1984’s Telescreens and our now inescapable laptop webcams.
Beyond the slightly sinister thought that Orwell’s authoritarian dystopia is only a generation late, I couldn’t help but marvel how, despite the upward pressures on growth in one of the world’s most prominent cities, the modern skyscrapers have so far more or less been limited to the financial districts in the City and at Canary Wharf, allowing the classic outlines of Houses of Parliament at Westminster and the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral to remain clearly visible from here. But, judging by the number of cranes also in view, that may not be true the next time I ever make it to this vantage spot.
Even without a picnic blanket and liquid accompaniment I could have enjoyed the view from Primrose Hill for longer, but there was far more I wanted to go before the afternoon was through. As a probable member of 1984’s Proletariat I returned back down the hill to where I thought I belonged, the industrial age Regent’s Canal. Though the coal barges of the early 1800’s had long since given way to romantic looking narrowboats, and were backed by now uber-fashionable terraces with trendy gardens. I continued along the horse towpath of the canal to Camden Lock where another 1980’s theme (if not 1984 exactly) appeared, this time in the form of three men in punk-era denim and coloured mohawks loitering above on the bridge at Camden High Street, unashamedly angling for visitors to part with a few pounds in order to take a photo of them. I did my best to be anti-establishment and non-conformist by completely ignoring them.
I was eager to continue on along the canal towards St Pancras, where the concentration of moored narrowboats increased and new office and housing developments jostled with a diminishing number of gritty industrial allotments, before the pathway opened out onto Granary Square. This place screamed new-trendy, far more hipster beard than Camden Town mohawk, but I liked it regardless. With an artificial grass terrace and ultra-modern fountains occupying a former goods yard in front of a six storey mid-nineteenth century grain store, its post-industrial makeover to a precinct of bars serving up overpriced cocktails in jam jars is all set.
With the canal soon to disappear for a while under Islington, I turned towards King’s Cross. I would have liked to walk the remaining miles of the canal all the way to Limehouse, but I didn’t really have many more hours of daylight left to play with. Instead, I headed towards this area of the Thames by Tube and then the DLR bound for Greenwich. Passing through Canary Wharf with the evening peak now done and dusted, the only activity happening around here was the lights from the empty office towers beginning to contrast with the darkening sky and glisten in the quayside waters of the former docklands.
But this wasn’t the view that I had come out this way for. That was to come as I got off the train at Island Gardens, the last stop before the DLR crossed under to the south side of the Thames. From a riverside park here, I was able to look across the river to the regal three hundred year old symmetry of the Old Royal Naval College, another fine London vista that was previously unknown to me.
In order to cross the river to get to the complex itself I figured I’d have to get on the DLR again, but as I left the park I spied a Victorian era brick roundhouse that looked like an entrance to an old Tube station. Inside, the spiral staircase led down to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, a pedestrian under-river crossing for over a hundred years. Amongst the many rail lines and, latterly, roads, constructed under the Thames I had no idea such infrastructure existed, but like its twin of the same design a bit further downstream at Woolwich, it provided a way for dockworkers living on the south side of the river to get to work without hampering shipping access to the river. At this hour it was very quiet, with only a cyclist or two using the tunnel as I crossed, and the old tiled walls gave the tunnel a slightly dank and creepy feel, as if I had indeed stumbled into a disused and haunted Tube station. This was my favourite discovery of the day.
Once on the Greenwich side of the river I was surprised to find myself wandering around a university campus, as the Old Royal Navel College buildings were now used by the University of Greenwich and the Trinity College of Music.
From there I walked behind Queen’s House, the last remaining building from an area of English royal palaces since Tudor times, and up to the Royal Observatory sitting at both the top of Greenwich Park and 0 degrees longitude. It was almost dark now, and from this vantage point I could look down at all I had passed over the previous hours since afternoon: the Queen’s House, Old Royal Naval College, the winding bends of the Thames and beyond to the clusters of skyscrapers at Canary Wharf, the City of London, and inevitably, the Shard/Ministry of Truth.
Orwell’s Big Brother may well have known I was in Greenwich Park at that moment, but I couldn’t be sure that the park rangers, now coming to close the park gates, would get that message or not. It was time for me to move on, as much as I enjoyed the view, as I didn’t really want to be locked in for the night.