Friday, 30 October 2015

W is for Walk (after Helen Macdonald’s book. H is for Hawk.)

I went for a walk recently  from my front door in Motspur Park into the centre of London. Ever since we returned from the Coast to Coast Walk, from St Bees on the Cumbrian Coast across England to Robin Hoods Bay on the Yorkshire Coast I have had the thought, almost a nagging request, at the back of my mind, to go for a walk again. Not just to the end of the road or round to Tescos to shop for food, but a long walk. Today I walked into London. That is about eighteen miles. I know the route I took was eighteen miles because the health app on my i-phone told me so. I have it set to miles. What has got me so interested in walking? It is not actually a conscious thing. I have tried to reason it and work out why walking is so important in a logical analytical way. I can reason it, enumerating fitness and health at the top of the list but it is more than that. I have a deep gut feeling about it. It’s something deep inside my brain that needs me to walk. So what is this walking? It is simply placing one foot in front of the other I know and getting i a forward motion going. It’s a fluid motion. An unconscious motion. Its about moving forward rhythmically. Nobody gives the actual process of physically walking much attention. I flowed along using an easy stride. There was some urgency to move so I didn’t dawdle. I wasn’t walking aimlessly. I gave myself the target of reaching Trafalgar Square. The speed I walked, about three to four miles an hour, I have discovered, is an optimum pace. Walking is a way of communing with the world. I hear and see things and they enter my brain and thoughts, ideas and imagination. There is something psychologically deep seated in our psyche making it necessary to move and change. We are not creatures designed for staying still. “Time and Tide wait for no man,” as the saying goes. I have got this idea, which keeps coming into my head that walking is a metaphor for life, for living. You are born, you grow and move about, love, experience things, some hard and painful and some joyous and love filled and then one day it stops because you die.  Taking a walk is a small illustration of life. Its purpose is the act of walking and experiencing. The whole of your life is just a longer walk with many more experiences along the way. I feel that is what we are made for. Our bodies are made to move and do things. If we stop moving we become unhealthy. If we stop moving both physically and mentally we ossify and stop living.

Some road works in Worple Road

London is an amazing place. It is a gigantic living organism. People are the living cells of the body. I walked along Worple Road towards Wimbledon High Street, People were rushing by striding towards bus stops or further towards Wimbledon Station. A woman strode out of her flat entrance purposefully past me, her wet hair straggly about her face straight out of the shower apparently. A young suited man, a briefcase gripped knuckle white in his hand, powerwalked on by. I could sense the early morning, going to work, tension. Strange contrasts occur everywhere in London. As I walked out of Wimbledon Village towards the A3 and the Putney, Wandsworth roundabout I had Wimbledon Common on my left and some large expensive houses on my right. On my right side I had bricks and mortar with neat structured gardens and on my left I had a whole variety of trees, shrubs, birds and wildlife, an untouched and untamed expanse. There is a wild pond at the side of the road, on the common side. I saw a heron standing perfectly still in amongst some tall reeds contemplating with the utmost patience one particular spot on the surface of the pond. It was waiting. There is a bus stop near the pond and suddenly a red London transport double decker bus roared to a standstill next to the pond and a passenger got off. The heron did not move. My mind was split. Two very different sensations were arriving in my brain simultaneously. A strange and slightly disquieting contrast of built order, a transport system and untamed nature. Bringing diverse things together can be very creative. Unexpected contrasts can create new ideas. This is one of the many things London enables, a coming together of unexpected contrasts which create a climate for new ideas. Maybe this is why London, as well as all its other aspects, is such an amazing, creative hub.

As I arrived at the corner of Wimbledon Common where it meets the Putney Roundabout there is a tunnel system for pedestrians and cyclists which take you underneath this busy junction of roads.
This pathway system is unobtrusive. In its construction large smoothly shaped mounds of earth, like small hills are piled up on the land in the middle of the roundabout and at various other places in this complex maze. They are smoothly grassed and have small copses of silver birch and rowen populating them.  I say complex because the pathways cross each other through tunnels taking you to the A3 and West Hill which continues into Wandsworth, to the A219 Tibbetts Ride leading to Putney and Wimbledon Parkside, which I had just walked along, or along the A3 back towards Kingston Vale and Kingston upon Thames. The clearly displayed blue information signs with their simple letter design make it easy to follow your intended route and the, brutalist, simplicity of the curving, sinuous, concrete paths and pillared tunnels lead you on your way with the minimum of fuss. Everything about brutalist architecture from the late 1960’s to the late 1970s is minimal. Brutalist architecture excites me. There is no flamboyance, or intricate detail to it. It is simple and straightforward. It has a new fresh feel about it even today. It is built strongly with reinforced concrete. It uses basic geometric shapes, squares, rectangles, cubes, cuboids and cylinders. I remember visiting my brother Michael at Sussex University in the 70’s when he was a student there. Sussex had been built in the 60’s and designed by Sir Basil Spence. It felt modern. It felt cutting edge and as such gave me and everybody else an uplifting feel. The feeling of going forward into the future, is the feeling a university should instil in its students. I think the term, brutalism, has done this form of architecture by the likes of Erno Goldfinger, Richard Seifert and Basil Spence a disservice. The word derives from the French word for raw, brut. The French called the material used,”beton brut,” (raw concrete). An English art critic, Reyner Banham, used the word brut, and turned it into brutalism, which obviously gives it the idea of being brutal in a different sense. The term has given this type of architecture a bad press. The many high story blocks of flats, that were not socially compatible places to live, it turned out, created in the brutalist style, probably, did not help its reputation either.

The simple clean lined design that is called Brutalist. The underpass at Putney Roundabout.

I took my camera with me on this walk, thinking I would use it to take pictures of things I could write about in this essay. However, in the end I took, maybe, two or three pictures with it. I was much more interested in looking, listening and just walking along. I used my i-phone camera on occasions when the urge became overwhelming. Marilyn has told me off for taking pictures when we have been out together. She informed me in the past, “You are not with us.” I didn’t know what she meant. Perhaps it was difficult to admit it. I knew that by taking pictures, or so many of them, I was making myself detached. I was a pace or two behind, always. When you go out with people the point is to be with each other and relate to each other and experience things together. Is it really important to photograph what you see?  I have had mixed feelings about taking photographs for some time. We live in an age when people are seemingly always taking selfies, photographs of their food, continually recording what they see everywhere. What is the purpose? Recently I have read Helen MacDonald’s intense, personal account in, ”H is for Hawk,” She writes about her father, who had died and who was a photojournalist.
 Putting a lens between himself and the world was a defence against more than physical danger: it shielded him from other things he had to photograph: awful things, tragic things, accidents, train crashes, the aftermath of city bombs. He’d worried that this survival strategy had become a habit. “I see the world through a lens,” he said once, a little sadly, as if the camera was always there, stopping him getting involved, something between him and the life that other people had.
This is exactly how I have become to feel about using a camera. So on this walk I took very few pictures.

My camera. The cause of controversy.

There are bits of history that came to mind everywhere as I walked along. Every inch of this country has layers of history going far back into the depths of time. At the bottom of Putney High Street is St Mary’s church on the right, next to the bridge and positioned on the river bank. This church has a very important role in our present constitution. In the summer of 1647 after the First Civil war, General Cromwell and General Ireton had tried to negotiate with the King. This had lost them support amongst military and civilian radical thinkers. In October five cavalry regiments nominated, “New Agents,” to represent their views. They endorsed the proposals put down in the Levellers document, “The Agreement of the People.” The Levellers wanted a new constitution based on manhood suffrage, one man, one vote. They also wanted all authority invested in Parliament and not the King or the House of Lords. The Grandees, Cromwell, and Ireton invited the New Agents and their civilian supporters, the Levellers to a debate in front of the General Council of the Army. The debates began on 28th October 1647 and were held in St Marys Church Putney. They were chaired by Oliver Cromwell. The Levellers, regarded the right to vote as the right of all freeborn Englishmen. Cromwell and Ireton regarded the idea of manhood suffrage as a recipe for anarchy. They wanted only property owners to have the vote. After several days of heated debate the Levellers agreed that servants and alms takers should be exempt. The Grandees decided that soldiers who had fought for Parliament should be allowed the vote. Cromwell and Ireton were alarmed at the extremism of The Levellers and suspended the army council. The Agitators were ordered back to their regiments. A new council was formed of only officers. They created a set of new proposals that were not acceptable by the radicals. A near mutiny took place. Meanwhile Charles1st had escaped from Hampton Court and a second Civil War loomed. The army closed ranks. The representation of rank and file soldiers on the Army Council was dropped and things continued without reform. Inside the church there is a quote from, Colonel Rainsborough, who was the highest ranking soldier who supported the beliefs of the ordinary soldier during the Putney Debates.
“I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he.”
The Levellers and those who agreed with their beliefs wanted the sort of democracy we have today. Oliver Cromwell at the time, thought that this would amount to anarchy and a fragmented state.
There I was at the bottom of Putney High Street walking past the very spot that this drama, unfolded. The ideas expressed at the Putney Debates never went away and resurfaced and resurfaced for hundreds of years afterwards. I walked over the very ground the representatives of the Levellers, The New Model Army and Oliver Cromwell trod. That gave me a thrill.  It was not ghosts but it was the past that I walked with.

St Mary's Church, Putney. The scene of The Putney Debates.

Normally when I drive into London I go via Wandsworth. I decided to walk over Putney Bridge because I don’t know that route nearly so well. I wanted to experience new places.
Once over Putney Bridge, which crosses that piece of the Thames, although at low tide it is more mud banks than river, where the Oxford verses Cambridge Boat Race starts, on the last weekend of March or the first weekend of April, I turned right into The New Kings Road. Most of the buildings and houses are late Victorian or Edwardian and have a dull grey brick look with black slated roofs. One remnant of an earlier Victorian past is the solitary brick beehive that is all that remains of the Fulham Pottery works. South London rivalled, “The Five Towns, “on the northern border of Shropshire for its pottery production. The Thames River has many clay deposits along its banks an ideal resource for pottery. The London Basin is mostly clay.

An original pottery kiln in Fulham.

I walked along the New Kings Road reading street names and places I have heard of and probably driven past in a blur in the past not taking any notice of them and having time to enjoy them. This is what walking does. It gives you time and space to have a good look, take things in, and absorb your surroundings.

I passed by Parsons Green. I had a feint recognition of the name before. Was it famous for something? I found a board explaining its history. It is not a place of fame. It is merely a piece of common land that has survived from the Middle Ages as land belonging to the local community for their use. It probably had the sheep of villains munching on its verdant surface long ago. It is set amongst Victorian terraces and Victorian Villas. It a lovely leafy bit of Fulham and Chelsea that people have enjoyed for centuries. The day I walked past people were walking their dogs on it. One large Victorian house, on the New Kings Road side of the green, caught my attention. I took a photograph of it on my i-phone. Unfortunately the name of the house, carved in stone over the front door, is partly obscured by some foliage in the picture and memory as it is does not help.  I think it is called, Romona House. The letter R is hidden behind a leaf in my photograph. What seemed special about it was the size and height of its windows. The rooms inside, I could see, were flooded with light. The large front window of one room at the top of the house enabled me to see up to the ceiling of the room but there was no ceiling just large glass panels forming the ceiling and roof above. It looked unusually well lit. Parsons Green is not far from the start of The Kings Road and Chelsea where many artists, especially in Victorian times lived. Some of the Pre-Raphaelites lived in Cheyne Walk beside the Thames at Chelsea. I could only think that perhaps this was a Victorian artist’s house with that room in the roof that appeared full of light. It would have made a great studio. It faced north so perhaps the artist may have been interested in a subdued even grey lighting in the winter and autumn. On a clear summers day it would have been a vivid blue light but not the blinding white light of direct sunlight coming from the south.

Romona House. Possibly a Victorian  artists studio at Parsons Green.

I walked on. My legs were feeling good. However, I had blisters on my left heel. They were sore. This brought a wry smile to my face. All through the Coast to Coast Walk with Clive and Michael, the three of us were aware of getting injuries both serious and minor such as blisters. I think Clive got a sore heel at one stage but the application of blister plasters soon solved that. We wore walking boots which had spent time breaking in and using often before we started the walk. I think we had virtually sorted out any boot problems before we began The Coast to Coast. However, on my walk to the centre of London I decided that It seemed a little silly to wear my walking boots. I wear Dr Martins which are tough shoes and designed for urban walking. I thought I would be fine, especially as I have worn them every day for the last year. But no, I got blisters. I stopped at a Boots the Chemists and bought some blister plasters which I applied to the red raw heel but it was too late. The damage had been done. The plasters alleviated the pain but it still felt uncomfortable. I merely continued walking and tried to forget the discomfort.

Bishop's Stores in The New Kings Road.

 The part of the New Kings Road just before it becomes The Kings Road has many shops. There was a local newsagents, BISHOP’S STORES, its name emblazoned across a red and white Coca Cola swoosh that went from one side of the shop to the other. It looked particularly scruffy and untidy. The crowded mess of advertisements stuck across its frontage, shouted out to the passing world. Walls Ice Cream, Hermes delivery vans, Lotto and Lottery tickets sold, grocery’s  and off licence alcohol, posters for LOVE magazine all crowded across it. The patchwork effect of contrasting colours, fonts and photographs make it look like a glorified side of a fridge covered in fridge magnets and reminders.  Maybe we have grown used to being bombarded by pictures and slogans in our society? It has become a familiar assault on our senses which we don’t take notice of but would feel something was missing if it wasn’t there. In this part of the New Kings Road, Bishop’s Stores was in the minority. Most of the shops, set within Victorian Shop shells, were specialist shops. There were lighting emporia displaying glittering chandeliers. There were specialist shoe shops with shoes displayed like sculptural works of art. Shops for hats, gowns, and bespoke tailors proliferated. Hand crafted furniture pieces were displayed in one shop. The style and moneyed wealth of the Kings Road area was near at hand. Chelsea beckoned. The blisters on my left heal numbed.

A luxury bathroom shop in The New Kings Road.

As I walked along looking at buildings and gardens and passing people the thought occurred to me, how is it actually possible to walk along a street with people in front, approaching you, walking past you, you walking past people, somebody crossing in front and various other random and unexpected movements  without having a collision? We don’t think about it. It a appears to be a subconscious skill to avoid, step aside speed up slow down and perform whatever swerve and change of direction that is needed to negotiate all these human obstacles. I suppose we are actually aware of what we are doing but it takes minimal thought. There must be a hierarchy of problem solving. We do some things with no thought at all. Breathing for instance. We do other things such as walking at a very low level of consciousness. We buy a newspaper at a more sophisticated level of awareness and we rea d that newspaper and think about the ideas at a much more aware and sophisticated level still. There must be a hierarchy of thinking skills. Walking along a street includes a mixture of these different levels of thinking abilities.

One thing I always look out for or rather they grab my attention are the blue plaques. The following is a quotation from the English Heritage website. It tells us something about blue plaques.
 “By showing us where famous people have lived and worked, blue plaques celebrate the architecture of London’s streets and the diversity and the achievements of its past residents. London’s blue plaques scheme founded in 1866, is believed to be the oldest of its kind in the world. The iconic Blue Plaque design has been the subject of regular experimentation over the years. Plaques have been made of bronze, stone and lead, in square, round and rectangular forms, and have been finished in shades of brown, sage, terracotta and – of course – blue. The earliest plaques, commissioned by the Society of Arts (in 1886), were handmade by the pottery firm Minton, Hollins & Co. The inlaid or encaustic roundel had a distinctive border pattern with the letters of the name of the Society of Arts worked into the decorative design. Some were set into a painted wooden mount.
English Heritage plaques (today) are made by highly skilled artisan craftspeople, Frank and Sue Ashworth of London Plaques who have been creating them for the charity since 1984. The surface is slightly domed to encourage self-cleaning, and the lettering, because it is handpiped, is slightly raised. As long as the plaques are protected during any building works, they will last for as long as the building they are attached to.”

Number 9 Paultons Square just off The Kings Road.

On my walk, legs striding forward, my eyes, ears and other senses alert to the environment about me, ( a little like Helen Macdonald in H is for Hawk) I came across a number of blue plaques. The names I saw and read, the houses where they lived, the thresholds they crossed and pavements they must have trod, where I was treading myself, gave me a thrill.
The first I noticed was that of Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969) who was a naturalist and writer, famous for his book, “Ring of Bright Water.” He lived at number 9 Paultons Square just off the Kings Road. I could see his blue plaque standing out from the white stuccoed surface of his house from a distance. It was just another blue roundel until I approached it and discovered who it commemorated. Maxwell lived in Paultons Square from 1961 to 1965.
A walk is full of unexpected occurrences. The blue plaques were another pleasant series of unexpected discoveries and memories. At the sites of the blue plaques, the locations gave me time to pause in my walk and read about and remember what I knew of the people. I didn’t have to go far for the next blue plaque. It was on the opposite side of Paultons Square to that of Gavin Maxwell’s home. Jean Rhys (1890-1979) lived at flat 22 Paultons Square from 1936 – 1938. She hadn’t published The Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jayne Eyre by then. Even so the name Jean Rhys conjured up thoughts of the mentally deranged creole, Antoinette/Bertha, Mrs Rochester. A disturbing consideration, standing in the street and looking up at the blue plaque high on the brick wall under the window of the flat Rhys lived in. 

Jean Rhys lived here in Paultons Square.

The next blue plaque I came across was very intriguing. Flat 22B Ebury Street, Belgravia was the home of Ian Flemming. The entrance lobby to the various flats is open to the street. Four doors lettered E, F, G, and H are presented to you. It appears that Fleming’s flat was either E or F because they are on the side of the building the blue plaque has been placed, but which one? It’s enough to throw any self-respecting Russian Spy off the scent. The blue plaques in London show you where the famous and infamous lived/. People who have made their mark on the world and usually, as with the cases I have just mentioned, have continued to be important to us all.

Ian Fleming lived here in Ebury Street.

Onwards I walked. I must admit by the time I got to the top of The Kings Road in Sloane Square I was getting tired. I didn’t really feel the blister on my heel anymore or rather it had become bearable. There, in Sloane Square is The Royal Court. It’s an ordinary looking theatre from the outside. It was opened on 24 September 1888 as the New Court Theatre. Designed by Walter Emden and Bertie Crewe it is constructed of fine red brick, moulded brick, and a stone facade in free Italianate style. Originally the theatre had a capacity of 841 in the stalls, dress circle, amphitheatre, and a gallery. By London standards that is pretty ordinary. It doesn’t stand out as anything special in the myriad of architectures and the built environment of London. In 1952 The English Stage Company took it over. It was home to avante garde playwrights and stage productions. John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, was staged here. Laurence Olivier appeared in The Entertainer. Arnold Wesker and John Arden wrote for the Royal Court.
“In the mid-1960s, the ESC became involved in issues of censorship. Their premiere productions of Osborne's A Patriot for Me and Saved, by Edward Bond (both 1965) necessitated the theatre turning itself into a 'private members club' to circumvent the Lord Chamberlain, formally responsible for the licensing of plays until theTheatres Act 1968. The succès de scandale of the two plays helped to bring about the abolition of theatre censorship in the UK.”(wikipaedia)

The Royal Court Theater in Sloane Square.

I have a sense of attachment to The Royal Court, its rebelliousness, its artistic challenge to society, its questioning of the status quo. I wish I went to more productions there. In fact that is my promises to myself, “go and see more productions at The Royal Court.” Marilyn and I go to the National Theatre quite often so in one respect I do see challenging and thought provoking plays.
Chelsea and the Sloane Square area at the top of The Kings Road is renowned for its rebelliousness, to a certain extent. It is an area where world renowned artists, writers and musicians have lived and worked. It is where Vivienne Westwood designed the clothes that epitomised Punk Rock and where her then lover and partner Malcolm McLaren produced and promoted arguably, the most iconic Punk Rock group of all time, The Sex Pistols. It is a shame that John Lydon alias Johnny Rotten, their lead singer, nowadays promotes Country Life Butter in TV adverts. However on the other hand was Punk Rock always about selling something? The Sloane area is also famous for the, “Sloane Rangers,” the wealthy heiresses, of multimillionaire and billionaire, “daddies.” It is home to, “Made in Chelsea.” My feet are beginning to drag, just a little by now.

The Duke on The Green. A typical Victorian style pub on Parsons Green.

Walking was becoming a matter of will power. The graceful effortless stride gone.  Seventeen miles walked and still a mile to Trafalgar Square my destination. So onwards once more towards Buckingham Palace Road and, “Buck House.” The streets get darker here somehow. Tall Victorian mansion houses where the nobility of the past had town houses near to the Palace and giant plains trees turn the light down a few lumens. I got to Beaston Place and Victoria Square. Beaston Place has the Gresham Hotel with its brightly lit chandeliers and doormen wearing top hats and gold braid. Smart, straight backed gentlemen. They all look ex-military. The Gresham was where the then future Duchess of Cambridge with her mother and father stayed the night before her wedding to The Duke of Cornwall. Here I am going on about Royalty, using their title. We British think nothing of giving one family millions of pounds every year to live in luxury and splendour and on the other hand our Conservative Government is desperate to take tax credits away from the families living on borderline poverty who could starve. The argument is that the Royal Family are an integral part of our constitution and have to perform on the world stage. Isn’t it an immoral and a twisted sort of thinking? So I struggled on past the palace, not struggling physically but with mixed emotions and thoughts of republicanism fizzing around my brain. “Send the Queen and her leeching family into retirement!” Crowds of tourists were filling the pavements. The Mall was festooned with Union Jacks interspersed with the national flag of China. The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, was to visit our democratic shores within days and he was to visit the Queen at Buckingham Palace. It was to be a brightly coloured, pageant laden sales pitch. Britain needs investment. The Queen and The Royals were going to earn their exalted position for flag and country.

The Irish Guards in The Mall

As I got close to Trafalgar Square at the end of The Mall, The Irish Guards band marched past on their way to the Palace. They looked splendid in scarlet jackets and black busbies. I don’t know what they were playing but it sounded wonderful and inspiring. I stopped to look and listen. Trafalgar Square is famous. There are all the obvious things, The National Gallery, South Africa House, The Canadian High Commission, the empty plinth, St Martins in the Fields and of course Nelsons Column. There are two things which make it extra special I think. The first is an awareness of something we might not have been told. Look at the four bronze reliefs positioned around the square base of Nelsons Column. They depict four battles that Nelson was most famous for, The Battle of The Nile, The Battle of Copenhagen, St Vincent and of course Trafalgar in which he was shot and died. The relief that faces south, towards Whitehall, is a scene of battle on one of Nelsons ships. It shows detailed close ups of various officers and ratings in action. One of the ratings is an African. It is good to remember that a great number of the ordinary crew on British 18th century naval ships were press ganged from nations and ports all across the world. The number of languages spoken must have been diverse. It is a tribute to British naval training that Nelson’s crews worked efficiently and with great expertise. 

Part of one of the bronze plaques at the base of Nelsons Column.

Another thing about Trafalgar Square that is special to me are the activities that go on at St Martins in the Field Church. It is a glorious specimen of Georgian church architecture form the 18th century but firstly it is also famous for its free lunchtime music concerts. I have attended a few of these over the years. They comprise performances by up and coming new young musical talent from The Royal College of Music. Very often they are young musicians completing PHD’s in some aspect of music and just starting on their musical performance careers. Every concert I have attended there has, “blown,” my mind. They are terrific. The other thing about St Martins in the Field is its charity work and work with the homeless of London. A gentleman called Dick Shepherd who was the vicar of St Martins from 1914 to 1927 opened his doors to the homeless of London. The crypt of St Martins has been turned into lodgings. The homeless can still stay there. I always think I might need its services one day. I hope not though.

The rear of St Martins in The Fields.

When I arrived at Trafalgar Square I touched the stone base of one of the four bronze lions that surround Nelson’s Column. I can remember when my grandmother first took Michael, my brother and myself up to London the first time for a day trip. Michael was six years old and I was nine years old. We visited The Tower of London. I remember climbing some wooden steps to enter the Norman Keep, the White Tower. I leaned forward and touched the stone surface. I felt as though I was touching the past. I felt connected to a time a thousand years ago. I have tended to do that whenever I visit an ancient site or place of historical interest. I touch it, surreptitiously, when nobody is looking. Just a quick brush with my hand. It connects me.
After this I had a pub lunch at The Princess of Wales in Villiers Street and then walked my tired legs across Hungerford Bridge to Waterloo and used my London Freedom Pass to get me home on the train.

No comments:

Post a Comment