Friday, 16 September 2016

The Rewildings Tour: Walking out of London on a line at 200°

Rewildings is a year-long series of walks that I heard about through the Walking Artists Network. I did not know quite what to expect, the instructions were starkly simple: "Meeting @ statue Charles I, Charing Cross Roundabout" ... "come prepared to sleep wherever we get". Oh and over the day we would walk in a line at 200° and should avoid electronic communication and purchases. I arrived a little before the start time of 9AM and sat solitary at the base of the former monarch, notable for being executed for treason and soiled by London traffic fumes. More or less on the stroke of nine, the other five of the group descended upon the traffic island, we exchanged pleasantries and were off.

For the most part we stuck to the roads and public paths and only once did we find ourselves in a true impasse needing to retrace our steps. A little later, in a park, we had to climb out, a task made more sporting by the backpacks laden with camping gear and provisions. 

The river interrupted our flow south south west and sent us upstream in search of a bridge. We were dressed as hikers not urban walkers so, encountering perhaps the single most important landscape feature of the city, we were, in a sense, meeting a kindred spirit.

This was a common dilemma: which direction to follow at a junction? We tended to decide through a form of collective navigation. If you had a compass, you had a say, and we went with majority opinions. There was some room for manoeuvre and persuasion and I heard things like, "it could be argued that it is this way." Walking at 200° was an art not a science and the principles by which we proceeded were never formalised. We instead decided through action such questions as, "how far do you insist on holding to the straight line? Do you go through buildings? Do you allow yourself to act upon foreknowledge of the route? If you are diverted, do you then try to correct for it and find again your original line or do you simply proceed from where your diversion has taken you? 

We passed many curious sites that could be written into a narrative of their own but, in my mind, they simply remain nodes of a suburban esoteric map that slipped by either side of us. This walk was much more about the journey, for me, than about sensitivity to the sites we passed through. The purposeful line and target of reaching the limits of the city saw to that. What remains in my memory is the transformation of the city over the course of the day and the company of the group. These were the two constants.

The southern suburbs also included an industrial estate with an ironically pastoral name. This brought me back to a walk I undertook some years ago, a walk which also started in Trafalgar Square, though at dawn, and which had me walk for one day in the direction of the sun. That walk revealed South London in a different way: grittier estates and industrial decline sat alongside banal burbs and all of them cut across by many more train lines that required continual picking around. Was this difference in texture purely due to the luck of the route? Or, perhaps unconsciously, was I attracted to squalor, or this group to respectability?

We came to the River Wandle. This river has come into vogue of late with a resurgence of interest in the lost rivers of London. That interest is not so far away from the spirit of this walk which reframes the city as the interplay between the natural environment and the very human historical and contemporary construct. I asked the initiator of these walks, a tall energetic research scientist named Morgan who once walked from Mexico to Canada, what the inspiration or purpose of Rewildings was. The walks, he said, were something he wanted to do to gain a perspective upon and connection to London, a city he had moved to after spending several years in California. Taking pictures, scribbling notes and dropping into conversations throughout, I can see how this could, over a year, offer a very rich and rewarding experience of the city.    

As the afternoon wore on, the city started to thin out. We were in the land of the dog walkers. After this came the hills of the North Downs and secretive mansions hidden away behind high wooden fences. We had entered Operation Yewtree arrest zone.

The early evening took us as far as Banstead in deepest South London. While there had been talk earlier of breaking out of London's girdle, the M25, we were consulting no maps and this barrier was still out of sight. We had been walking over unpaved paths for some time and while the presence of the city was never entirely lost, we were in the rolling North Downs and avoiding golf courses more than shopping centres. The line we held, it tuns out, was not at 200° but closer to 190°. Maybe there was some over-correcting for the Thames dragging us westwards, maybe we were not as faithful as we could have been or maybe the roads really do lead in that direction.  

We gazed over the patch of green that chance had brought us to and drank wine as the dusk gathered. When the last of the late summer sun fell behind the trees, we retreated to our woodland clearing campsite. While the communal dinner of smoked tofu and vegetable stew was heated up I picked out stones from below me and set up my tent. What a difference a hot meal makes! Early to bed with warmth inside, I crawled into the tent and quickly relaxed into a deep, restorative sleep.

Restorative, that was, until I awoke with flints poking into my back in the depth of the night. I should have been a little more vigilant with clearing the ground earlier with the price being nocturnal twisting like a kebab turning in slow motion. The following morning we rose early, phones came out in force, located us and plotted a route to the nearest station. The cold light of day revealed us to be depressingly close to London and well within the Oyster card zone. Climbing aboard one of the beleaguered Southern Railways trains, we headed back into the city annulling a day's walking in less than half an hour. The Rewindings walks continue till the end of the tear with a highlight being the 320° New Year's Eve walk.

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