I had spent an entirely unwholesome day at my desk eating pastries and writing about how to be healthy. The irony is not lost on me. That evening, one day after midsummer, was a beautiful one and offered me the perfect opportunity to detox with a walk home.
You’d be forgiven for thinking a walk through London’s inner wouldn’t be a particularly enriching activity: negotiating traffic, massed hoards, smog, dirt, fag butts and dog turd, all whilst enclosed within towering concrete, metal and glass. But whilst new skyscrapers materialise on an apparently weekly basis, craning necks and occasionally melting cars, it’s important to remember that 33% of Greater London is green space, 47% if you include private gardens.
In my Instagram bio (a piece of text instrumental to the identity of the modern human), I describe myself as a “frustrated city-dweller”. London does get me down. A nice mountain or two squashing somewhere like Watford or Enfield wouldn’t go amiss. But London’s redeeming greenery can bring me all the pleasures of somewhere more remote. My job this evening was to link it all together – the green amongst the grey.
Stepping out of my office near Liverpool Street station, you are immediately immersed in the world of suits and finance. Slightly eastwards, I tumbled into Spitalfields and Brick Lane, the land of topiaried beards, extensive tattoos and amusing (if a bit respiratorily challenged) dogs.
I chose not to linger in this area where people spilled out of the pubs onto the already narrow streets. I instead diverted down a backstreet past my first bit of big green – Allen Gardens (with the second L painted over so as to read “Alien Gardens”).
Nuzzled up to its eastern edge is Spitalfields City Farm. A bizarre and incompatible medley of animals call this small patch by the trainline home. Does the alpaca care about the noise of the London Overground train rumbling by every 8 minutes? What does the donkey think about the Brexit-induced panic rattling through the City’s banks just a quarter of a mile away? Do you think the ferrets are bothered by the increase in ride-by moped crime in the area? My guess is they just want some more straw and an occasional pat on the head.
A diagonal cut through the parched grass of Weaver’s Fields, through the middle of a game of rounders, brought me to the bustle of Friday evening Bethnal Green. Once beyond and onto the arrow-straight Roman Road, grey begins to dominate once more.
This road specifically, has a dedicated charitable initiative backing its regeneration – encouraging small businesses, diverse shops and community togetherness. I failed to appreciate this walking past the gloomy-looking occupants of a BetFred bookmakers that sat next-door to an equally gloomy off-license. Presumably, the community togetherness here means people losing their every penny, to then frequent the adjacent business and drown their sorrows, or equally rob the place to continue funding their fruitless addiction.
The borough of Tower Hamlets lives up to its name with the monolithic blocks of Cranbrook estate. Soon though, this gives way to the verdant mass of Victoria Park with Regents Canal tickling its southern edge. This network of waterways contributes to the 2.5% of London that is water. They are echoes of Victorian engineering, blue space emerging from the grey and black of the Industrial Revolution.
In a beautiful metaphor for London’s diversity, I was squawked along the towpath by masses of London’s newest avian immigrants. These red-beaked, bright green parakeets are native to India but now call London home. Presumably escaped pets, they have found our unremarkable weather and a diet of chicken and chips somewhat amenable. So much so that they have proliferated into their thousands and are a common feature of many of London’s parks and green spaces.
Some lucky souls live in the houses that back onto the canals. A couple sat on their decking, remarking at how big the ducklings had gotten lately as they paddled hard to keep pace with their mother. Further along, I wondered if the families living next to the constant fizz of water streaming out of the lock found it soothing or bothersome. It was still nice to think that this natural sound drowned out that of the A12 only a hundred metres away.
I ducked underneath the tendrils of willow trees hanging over the path and passed a woman sketching the scene along the canal. The scene was worthy of being captured: the water meandering under the wrought iron bridge, the roofs of barges festooned with herbs, flowers, bikes and tools – miniature floating gardens adding further greenery to the landscape. Impressions of a serene lifestyle bobbing along the water were quickly snuffed as I emerged into gridlock at the Olympic park.
I got that pleasant surge of smugness as I picked my way across the road, through the stationary traffic and its weary prisoners. Just as soon as I entered it, I was out again, this time taking a seat on the concrete steps aside the park’s wetlands.
This piece of land is nice. Not stunning, just nice. What’s wonderful is its origins. This small piece of wetland, completely given over to nature, was previously a railway yard. Before 2012 it was simply a place where trains went to die, decorated with piles of industrial detritus that was a substantial blot on an already-quite-crap landscape. The modern world seems to be characterised by the artificial snatching space from the natural. This little piece of nature is bucking the trend and is doing so beautifully.
I sat for some time, listening to the interesting soundscape of bird chatter, wheezing joggers and the hum of distant traffic. The surroundings are undoubtedly green; an abundance of reeds, trees and shrubs, periodically broken by an emerging red bus on the far side.
A flash of fluorescent blue disturbed the reeds beside the water and aroused the small birdwatching part of me. This indicated the presence of the elusive and beautiful kingfisher. Indeed, I was sat underneath a large wooden box adorned with 2 inch wide holes – a kingfisher bird-box – but until this point had only spotted finches and tits bothering its edges.
I waited longer which gave me time to appreciate the scene. There were a few reminders that this is still very much East London. First there was the smell. Then, inspecting the water, I remained convinced that shopping trolleys breed in London’s waterways, stockpiling traffic cones and mopeds as their sustenance. They always seem to end up there. Bear in mind this is nowhere near a supermarket.
I started up the slope to leave and took a glance back to see if my kingfisher friend would pluck up the courage to emerge from the reeds. Alas, it did not. Though evidently, a large rat had been waiting for my departure before he came out into the open, scurrying over the very step I had been sat on for the last fifteen minutes. Still definitely in London.
I trotted over a footbridge where I could survey my route and look back on the buildings I had left behind two hours ago. This brought me to my final bit of designated green space, Linear Park. This park is truly crap. It is good for two things: taking your dog for a shit or your can of strong lager for a drink. It has two gates, both facing the same way, coming out onto the same bit of uninteresting road. So it goes absolutely nowhere.
Regardless of its quality, those that put it there cared enough to give it a name. They cared enough about the area to put something green there as opposed to more betting shops or fast food E.coli factories.
In being a frustrated city dweller, it’s important to care about the greenery that is there. Evidently, the man walking in front of me cared enough about the local flora to repeatedly stumble into the hedge along the road from the train station. Linear Park aside, London has some truly great green spaces that so many of its inhabitants don’t appreciate. Seek them out, go for a walk and the reward is yours for the taking.