I was awake and it was daylight; rather than night. I was on a friend’s sofa but usually wake up during the night anyway, going to bed earlier than many people.
After a night not spent in your own bed it takes time to work out where your stuff is. Time to fumble for my clock.
A quarter past 5! I’d hoped I’d get up early and this was ¾ of an hour before I’d set the alarm. No point in trying to sleep then for if I succeeded I wouldn’t feel like getting up and could screw things up.
My friend was a member of a group I’d organised sponsored walks for 20 years ago. Quietly I had a shower, got my gear together then looked in on him. He wasn’t awake. I crept out of his flat.
I know how hard it can be rise early but if one wakes early on a summers day dawn and can get up it’s worth doing so to relish how beautiful a sunny morning can be then. The brilliant sunlight warms your cold body in a comforting way rather than with the serious heat of later in the day. The air’s fresh in an undisturbed way, with a hint of the scent of trees and green growing things around one, in a way that it can’t be later. Above all there’s the lack of humdrum sounds and movement; there’s even a sense that the psychic presence of others is absent. A parallel virgin world made for you and the few who are able to rise early, in which the millions normally around one just aren’t there, just somewhere else, which is spiritually true since they’re asleep.
That was how it was as I walked from my friend’s block of suburban flats to the nearby bus stop. One of the few was there, a coloured guy with a mobile phone, but there was enough room in this world for both of us. Nothing else around otherwise apart from the odd now and then car which seemed to emphasize the emptiness of the tree lined road; oh and birds in the trees and squirrels like the ones I’d seen from my friend’s window.
A bus came. An underground link to the centre of London was about a mile from here. It had been hard to reach here yesterday from Tooting when I tried my free bus pass. I’d coincided with rush hour and eventually had to take the tube; but it was going to be easy to get in with the lack of traffic and the underground if I needed it, despite being on the north west edge of London.
London Bridge! There it was, the start of my latest bid for victory! (strength and honour, strength and honour) What better place to start a trek across southern England? For it was the only bridge across the river and the gateway to the south when London was called Londinium.
What a sight too at twenty past eight on a Saturday morning. Just like at Stanmore there was hardly anyone around under a sky as blue as Heaven. Instead of the clutter of traffic and people one expects I could only spot one lone WPC guarding the whole expanse of the bridge, otherwise empty. Unreal, almost like a huge stark stage set with the great gleaming spire of the Shard Tower on the south bank like an abstract stage design, maybe with an unseen audience waiting for my epic effort.
The guy I spoke to in The News had asked me for photos of myself in prominent places such as London Bridge; so the first thing to do was ask that policewoman for this. Hang on though; walking on to the bridge I’d just spotted another one – Tower Bridge – almost silhouetted against the eastern morning light with the interlocking rings of the Olympic Symbol hanging from it. Irresistible for a photograph so I crossed over to take it. By the time I’d finished that and got back she’d walked off to the north bank, but there was a policeman coming up to take her place.
“Excuse me; I’m doing a sponsored walk, could you please take a photo of me on this bridge?”
“Er..well, if you don’t mind I’d rather not. Sometimes people try to sue for camera damage.”
“What kind of a world are we living in?”
We commiserated on this. Believe it or not people had tried to feign camera damage and sue him 4 times! I felt that legal excesses like this were worthy of jeering contempt, even if we had already become a society of scheming self seeking nit picking cowards. It’s unwise to overdo this in the presence of constabulary though and I felt his comment “I feel your pain” should be taken as a cue to move on, even if he didn’t mean it that way.
Luckily there was usually the odd soul in sight wandering towards the bridge. So after not a long wait in a spectacular place I got a lady to do the honours; with the Shard Tower in the background. It looked as iconic to 21st century Londinium as the Colosseum was to ancient Rome.
I started walking with a sense of real freedom. Down past London Bridge Station and the base of the Shard Tower. Down the road and off to the right was a gym for celebrities near Borough tube station. I knew that because Darth Vader of all people ran it and I’d met him! Or rather, the actor who’d played Darth Vader. He liked my photos. Let’s hope ‘The Force’ was with me this time. Onward down the road passing the British School of Osteopathy on the left which I’d visited with an Osteopath friend in Reading, having lived over a surgery of them. Beyond the buildings ahead was another 21st century skyscraper at Elephant and Castle looking like a outsize example of a technical drawing I’d worked on at school. Rather than take a photo of it I decided to have breakfast.
I waited until I got to the Elephant and Castle road junction but it was in shadow there. I took a shot but realised my attempt to limit photography to one a mile or not much over that was losing me good images, so from now on I would become more or less camera happy.
Speaking of which there were some interesting domed play structures in a childrens playground and sculptures that looked like a gathering of puffballs in a park. I never knew any green space existed at Elephant and Castle and after capturing these features digitally was able to extend this safari down through Kennington to the Oval through another park where I could walk parallel to Stane Street. Near the end of that was an Olympic sculpture titled “GIFTS FROM THE OLYMPIC GODS: SHOT PUT” complete with sculpted broken paving. There’d been warnings about the effect of the Olympics on London but I’d discovered a new danger: shot puts twice the height of a man being hurled from a great height. I’ve just read there’s a giant javelin in another London park. That’s what the sculptures were supposed to warn about anyway.
It was just across the road from the Oval tube station with the Oval cricket ground itself visible beyond as a fortress of brick and mortar. The Northern Underground line followed the old Stane Street all the way to Morden, revealing it was under the road with a chain of grey modernistic stations built in the 1920’s and 30’s. Useful for a record. I could hardly be accused of making numerous one stop train journeys ascending through each station to photograph it.
By that time there was more traffic and after a stretch of that I was feeling the first signs of physical discomfort as I ascended a slope to Clapham. There was a pub with tables and chairs outside just before Clapham North tube station. 4 miles from the bridge. Good place for a break. It seemed deserted apart from the barmaid who became interested in my adventure so we got chatting. She was coloured, curvaceous, young and from Birmingham. She’d studied fashion there and had come to London because there was nothing fashion-wise in Birmingham. Now she was doing PR work and adding to her income by working here. We thought it was fun for me to photograph her at the bar but I felt it was intrusive to ask for an email so I gave her a card saying if she wanted a copy she could always contact me. She seemed enthusiastic but I also felt it wouldn’t happen. It didn’t matter. I was sitting outside in the sun and this was a pleasant life I was leading.
A man approached me and started a conversation. This became a ploy for a handout. Feeling mellowed out I didn’t mind much and flatly offered him a pound. He looked as though he wasn’t satisfied but caught the look in my eye, thinking better of it. Just before there was a surprise appearance of the manager and the man was moved on.
It reminded me of the downside of life here but a mile up the road was another opportunity to relax: Clapham Common. Another long stroll through green pastures parallel to Stane Streeet. It was a late Saturday morning of sunshine and clouds bringing Londoners out on to the common’s green expanses. Some relaxing, some at play with group games, frisbees and in one place loud music. I like lying on summer grass and had a nap in a quieter place as I often do in my home at midday. Further on there was a pond with fishermen and birds. I made the most of Clapham Common for there were no green spaces for the next 4 miles.
After stopping just in time for a honking SUV swinging across my path I left the Clapham Common and decided to stop at a cramped but trendy fruit bar for liquid refreshment. I should have been more alert with that SUV and this would help. There was a conversation with the owner about emergency vehicles while I consumed a mango juice. It must be especially stressful being an emergency vehicle driver in London, I thought, as one whooped and screamed past while I was there. Stane Street in London was often full of traffic, true of the city generally. The owner agreed and said the siren got worse when they got held up in traffic, a pain if you owned a place on that road. What was I doing by the way? Oh walking from here to Chichester and I had to keep my liquid intake healthy to stay alert. The guy next to me laughed and the manager caught the sense of humour: an epic pub crawl across the South East! Their reaction though when I mentioned the possibility of mugging indicated that I was over-reacting. Good.
I entered Balham, similar to Tooting further on but more stylish with trees relieving its inner suburb-scape. An uneventful walk took place through it to Tooting.
My driver and I had got to the land of Tooting yesterday afternoon via the Kingston bypass. Stane Street was a long narrow gut of a road there, devoid of trees, full of traffic and teeming masses. And it was raining so it reminded me a bit of Blade Runner minus the huge buildings and aerial advertising. Instead we were hemmed in by all sorts of architectural tat. The pie shop was a hole in the wall a short way down a side street.
It was similar to what I remember from when my parents acquired a car and we went through these parts up to London. I remember it before then in fact for Tooting has 2 undergound stations and the name struck me as silly, humorous, but possibly accurate: it seemed to sum up an over-bustle of activity and sound there that wasn’t necessary. Still does I guess.
Now though it had become really ethnic with multiracial throngs of people. An old style grocers with a big and brilliant range of fruit greeted me near the first underground station, along with banners on lamp-posts: ‘Welcome to Tooting.’ Venturing on I saw that one of the more archaic buildings had become the ‘Khalsa Centre Tooting Gurudwara’ complete with big prints of Indian temples including the one at Amritsar I believe. The architecture was just right for a profusion of small shops selling what looked like stuff from just about anywhere in the galaxy. Welcome to multicultural Britain.
Never dull either. Outside a corner loan shop – judging by larger than life yellow signs – a police car with screaming siren tried to slip between 2 buses and got stuck behind a protruding car, while another car tried to edge into this from a side street past the loan shop. I can’t imagine a worse place to try to drive through in a hurry but the siren’s only solution was to go ballistic which sounded – for want of a better description – like a Martian having a fit. Nothing else for it until the car was able to edge past the obstruction. I photographed the scene calling it ‘Tooting Chaos.’
Finally I came upon a sight which may or may not have summed up life here, but where the title of my photo had just got to be ‘It’s tough on the streets!’ A unwanted grubby teddy bear had come to a sad end propping up the side of a litter bin with its head, along with the bin bags on the other side. ‘I’ve been around the galaxy and seen a lot of strange things’ but I’ve never seen a teddy bear with such an appearance of being down and out. Its bowed but standing stance seemed to declare ‘lost me ‘ome, got absolutely rat arsed ‘ammered in the gutter ‘cos nobody loves me, drunk all my dosh, all ‘ope too, and ah fink ah’m gonna throw up! (Judging by the posture.) Comical but tragi comic! I felt sorry I didn’t live nearby so I could clean him up and give him a home again, be it mine or one with a child or two in it. Surely some child could badger a parent into doing that. (Mummy Daddy pleeease I wanna drunken teddy!) I really felt for that bear. Rejection brings out the worst in me too.
A downward slope brought me to a bridge and I was able to say goodbye to Tooting: a realm verging on chaos and devoid of any trees, or any sign of nature in fact, cluttered with commercial bric a brac and the crush of humanity from just about anywhere, but I’d had no problem there, apart from tragic teddy bears. Tooting had soul. Against my better judgment I liked it.
Then I walked into Collier’s Wood which was more of a wasteland. A mauve and blue colour schemed off licence had thriving weeds growing with the flowers in its upper windowboxes. Down the road Stane Street disappeared at a big fork. This Roman road wouldn’t be reappearing until beyond Morden. Beyond the fork was a derelict grey office block. I hadn’t seen such monumental desolation since Detroit. The wasteland continued with tarmac and cars, massive chain stores and pylons. They ought to give me a clue and I consulted the map. Hmm..some help but it was easy to get lost here.
I found what I wanted more by luck than management. The River Wandle. More of a stream at this point than a river. There was likely to be a footpath along it leading to Morden and there was. A themed pub marked the entrance to this greener refreshing stretch. Complete with a preserved mill water wheel; totally at odds with with the dead zone from its future a stone’s throw away! I wandered off down the tree lined path.
On and on. But the stream was running the right way for where I should be headed. I wasn’t bothered anyway because I hadn’t expected such peace and quiet within London; eventually reaching a point where I couldn’t see any buildings, just trees and tall grass.
Then I came to a railway crossing, a single track railway line that I saw from my map was a line coming down from Wimbledon, so I was able to pinpoint where I was. The blue crossing signs though read ‘Tramway’ so this had been converted into a rapid light transport line. A tram coming down the track confirmed it.
On the other side was Morden Hall Park. The river became braided so the park was one of water meadow lawns under welcoming trees with bridges over small rivers and streams wandering here and there. I saw a father giving his toddler paddling lessons in one of them, shallow and clear. There was the old pile of Morden Hall too and another water wheel. Upstream from here is a place called Carshalton with large ponds by a narrow main road and a park like this one but smaller. My father used to work there as an architect.
I walked through an organic fair by some outbuildings to a park entrance in a wall along its southern border. Morden itself was on the other side. It was an outpost of my childhood world and a gateway to travel. The southern terminus of the Northern underground line was there. When I was an infant and many aspects of my world were like that of another planet just being explored I was mightily impressed by this terminus. I mean; it was this huge place with 2 tunnel mouths like eye sockets or even nostrils out of which these giant red clattering mega-monster worms emerged! And you actually got into them? Brilliant! And on top of that were taken by them back into those tunnels again! A small impressionable boy’s monster adventure for real or what?
Morden was the beginning of outer London suburb: a region of predominantly 1930’s housing estates that extended around the inner suburbs of London like a growth ring on a tree. One could see the sort of house spawned in this period stretching up the main road from the centre of town. Mostly semi detached, often with circular bay windows and mock Tudor influence, along with bigger gardens and more foliage than the cramped Victorian dwellings which were mostly further into London.
Morden itself was dominated though by its civic centre, which (I’ve just checked) was built during my final childhood years in Cheam: a massive curved block pocked by small square windows in the brickwork at either end and black squares of panelling between the tiers of windows on both sides. It had gone cloudy and there was a dark cloud gathering over this building with a rent leading straight down to it.. Time to photograph it towering over everything squatting beneath, giving Morden a curiously bleak feeling. There was something vaguely Orwellian about the way this building was situated and the cloud enhanced this feeling on the photograph. It would have made a passable Ministry of Plenty.
Or maybe it was something to do with the name Morden, which as a boy I’d felt was ever so slightly sinister. Funny how it wound up being similar to Mordor. Also remember the smooth sinister Mr. Morden on Bablyon 5.
It was only early afternoon but my friends wanted me with them in west London by 6 and the next station was 4 miles further on. Stations rather than bus stops were necessary for a quick start in the morning and I’d make slow progress taking photographs between here and there, especially as my childhood haunts were included in that distance. So I decided not to take the risk of being late and settled for the minimum first day objective of Morden. Rather than take the tube though there was a station on the south side of Morden which would be a small gain. This turned out to have a big Islamic centre right next to it. A prayer tower overlooked the platform.
My friends lived in Perivale, in a quiet backstreet crescent in one of those 1930’s housing estates around that outer tree ring of London development. They’d managed to buy a semi detached block and knocked the internal walls through to make 2 homes into one. I’d warned them that I was likely to be manky and in need a shower because of my hiking so that was the first priority. It was another reason to book accommodation south of London rather than lugging a tent.
Afterwards I found Gerry working at a table in their small back garden.
“What do you want to drink?”
“Beer!” I announced decisively, as you would after a long hike. There was enough alcohol here to float a pub; with wines and spirits anyway.
Gerry wanted me to help him which I was happy and honoured to do. He ran a satellite company and wanted to run a talk and a few graphs by me he was preparing for the British Interplanetary Society. I loved getting involved in anything to do with space. A beer never went down so well as when relaxing after a physical task achieved too; so relaxing under the influence while discussing stuff I was keen on was a pretty good way to end a day as the sun set I thought.
And it got better. Gerry suggested that I give a talk on my planets to the British Interplanetary Society and would help with contacts there. Excellent development! It could be a way to really reverse what had happened in January. What with the walk in progress and now this I was really going places now.
My friends had admired my work and were truly good to me. There was wine and a great meal prepared by Gerry’s Sri Lankan wife Mali and their son Alan. By then I’d been introduced to a Russian girl. My friends worked a lot with the Russians and often went there. I should have talked more to the girl – who was somewhat quiet – and in future will make more of an effort. Maybe though my powers of focusing were relaxed by the alcohol after the days challenges and successes; and by entertaining them with tales of my adventure and listening to Gerry who usually held forth a lot. He was a fan of the Roman Empire and had framed 2 aerial views of Rome as it was, one being over the dining table; so a toast or two to ‘strength and honour’ was okay here. His son though – who was at University in London – appreciated my tale of the Tooting teddy.
One other plus I remembered before I went to bed. I was going to be here for tomorrow night as well so that meant I wouldn’t have to lug my backpack on the walk tomorrow. That would make the increase in distance of 15 miles instead of 10 – half as much again – much easier.
© D Angus 09 12