“The society which has abolished every kind of adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.” Paris, May 1968

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Taking a stroll into town.

I suppose that London has always been a destination . Always been a place to arrive at having journeyed from near or far in order to find work, escape persecution, seek excitement or make a fortune on those famous gold paved streets. Empires, the British, the Roman, the Russian, they have all resulted in legions of incomers from exotic and barely understood corners of the world. The spread of the suburbs and the coming of the railways brought about a whole new order of human being-the commuter. This much maligned object of pity, derision and contempt was to turn travelling without hope into a way of life. For many newcomers arriving in the capital today the journey will be, for all the misery that it may entail, the adventure of a lifetime. Go back a hundred and fifty or so years and even setting off for the city from the surrounding Home Counties was not the simple undertaking that it is today. For members of the upper and middle classes traveling from what are now the London suburbs into the City or West End would entail a journey by coach or on horseback; or perhaps a Thames waterman would scull the party on the tide. For the labouring classes who made up the bulk of the population such luxuries would be out of the question and the only option would be to walk. I got to thinking about this a couple of years ago and imagined someone walking to London from Teddington where I now live. Perhaps the individual had the opportunity of employment in town or was just taking pot luck and throwing off the restraints of life in a riverside village to seek a new life in the capital. Perhaps my imaginary pedestrian was a young girl going into service in one of the big houses, or they might have been a boy setting off to start an apprenticeship with a master craftsman.
I decided to trace the route my traveller might have taken and walk it myself. Looking at the map I was delighted to see that I could walk to central London in more or less a straight line. Crossing the Thames at Teddington meant a stroll over the footbridge but a hundred and fifty years ago we would have had to take the ferry to the other bank. The land now occupied by the housing estates of Ham would have been market gardens in those days but the grand houses of the gentry would have bordered the sides of Ham Green just as they do today. On the eastern edge of the green stands Ormley Lodge, now family home of the notoriously non-dom Goldsmith Clan. From here you can walk straight across Richmond Park to exit at Roehampton Gate. Our 1860 traveler would have been able to do the same because although Charles I had enclosed the park for his own use such was the outcry that the right of way and the right to gather firewood had been retained. From Roehampton Gate we start the walk downhill to Putney. Housing now covers what would have been open heathland in the mid nineteenth century. After crossing Putney Bridge to the north bank of the river, it's a straight walk up the New Kings Road and the Kings Road, past the grounds of Buckingham Palace and along Birdcage Walk into the heart of Westminster.
For me It was just a matter of making my way to Waterloo and catching the train home. We can only wonder about what happened to my imagined new arrival in the capital. Much as I do for today's incomers, I can but wish them well.

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