Walking By Water: Prologue

Posted on January 18th, 2016

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I watched the buildings flicker past, too fast to notice anything other than vague smudges coming and going in the blink of an eye. I’m not paying attention, really. I’ve seen this all before – they offer nothing new to me, so I’ve no need to expend energy on them. I’m conserving it for a return trip that will be much more draining than the outbound journey.

I had decided that I was going to go on a long walk. I was going to get off the train at Willesden Junction and walk back down the Grand Union and Regent’s canals all the way back down home to Haggerston. It would be a nice little physical and mental project to undertake.

Why walk? Because it’s the best way to get a feel of a place, on foot. Taking time to look, being out in the open, able to absorb it all in, rather than observing from the confines of the bus, or treating the passing city as a vague distraction from within the train . Exposure is the way to get a sense of a place. Also, I could do with the exercise (because it’s one of the most natural and common things that we humans do, people forget that if consumed in vast enough quantity then walking counts as a physical activity, and this distance would definitely count).

Why down the canal? Well, as walking routes, canal towpaths are so great. No cars to worry about, and only the odd cyclist. And because it’s fascinating to see how they’ve been co-opted into the city in differing ways. The differing stagings alongside the canal changed the way I saw it, from industrial to recreational, from intimidating to aspirational. The canal is all of these things. It just depends on where you are. Plus, there’s just something soothing about the water, even if the water in the canal looks like something an ill animal would have to pass out of its system.

Why from Willesden Junction? Honestly, because the Overground stops there, and it’s the furthest stop down the Overground that also intersects with the canal, meaning that just as there’s a direct train route from Dalston to Willesden, there’s also a direct walking route back in the opposite direction. It felt neat to take the two intersecting direct paths between the two places. A natural there-and-back-again that can be read from the city’s jumble. A quick look at Google Maps Pedometer revealed that including the brief appendages at either end of the canal, the walk would cover very nearly exactly 10 miles, and I’m such a sucker for round numbers.

I use the last stretch of the planned walk, between Hackney and Angel, all the time as it’s a scenic route in an otherwise familiarly urbane environment, but I knew very little about the rest of the canal. I thought I might take this opportunity to change that a little. To see how the rest of the canal compares. To see what was different and what was the same.

As I watched the shapes of the city glide past outside in the opposite direction I stared thinking about practical matters. How long would the walk take? I mean, I’m in reasonable shape and certainly didn’t feel intimidated by the distance, but I was worried about my foot giving up on me. My body has betrayed me on many occasions, prone to little resentful acts of revenge for the years of abuse I’ve put it through. I had a bottle of water and a box of Brunch Bars in a backpack, but little else. I’d also taken a thin coat with me, in case the elements decided to make themselves known during the walk, but the weather forecast seemed to imply (for what greater certainty can one take from the Met Office than implication?) that I wouldn’t need it. The few strains of pure, undiluted sunlight that had been bursting forth when I got on the train were starting to thin out, clouds starting to patch together into a puffy protective blanket. That’s a good thing. I didn’t want to be walking on scorched earth. London is not a city that copes well with extremities of heat, and cooling breezes don’t tend to roll in off the canal.

The train pulls into Willesden Junction station, a place impressive in its ability to stay both so large and so featureless. I disembark into the labyrinthine mess of passages that make up the station and find my way over to the correct exit. It’s slightly colder than I was expecting, a light breeze delicately glazing me with a sense of regret for not bringing something long-sleeved other than the coat. Nothing to stop this expedition, mind – it would be fucking stupid to fall at the first hurdle over such a trivial matter, wouldn’t it? I had no doubt that if I was wearing a hoodie that the sun would be scorching down right now, trying to melt the cloth into my skin. Sod’s law. Can’t fight it.

I headed towards the canal, ready to get this thing started. Time to get this show on the road. Or the canal towpath, even.

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