I had the luxury of a couple of hours to myself last Sunday after BML17, so I set off on a solo Instawalk across the heart of London.
If you haven’t heard the term before, an Instawalk typically involves a group of people exploring a location on foot, documenting their journey by means of Instagram photos. On this occasion I was flying solo and, in truth, glad to have only myself for company after a late and heavy night. However, buoyed by a full English breakfast, I set off from my hotel near Waterloo station under grey skies and a persistent drizzle with the intention of documenting something other than the landmarks for which London is renowned.
My starting point was the Leake Street tunnel which passes under the train tracks from Waterloo and emerges behind the London Eye. This particular spot is well-known as a hub for the city’s street artists. Every inch of its walls and arched ceiling is covered with graffiti, turning a dingy tunnel into a 360-degree display of urban art.
As I was passing through, a dozen artists were starting to whitewash sections of the walls to create a blank canvas for new works. I love the idea of a perpetually renewing mural. Return in a week’s time and you will be greeted by something new. Isn’t that wonderful?
Outside of peak summer season, even Westminster Bridge is relatively quiet at 10am on a Sunday. Despite the scaffolding surrounding the Elizabeth Tower, there are few sights as iconic as a red double-decker bus passing in front of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It’s an instantly familiar image.
What is less familiar is this next shot, taken from the same spot but at a lower angle. It’s just a few metres from where, in March, a car was deliberately driven on to the pavement, killing four and injuring over 50 more. These kerbside barriers are a new addition to prevent a repeat of the attack. They are an ever-present reminder of the ongoing threat all major cities now face.
From Westminster Bridge I made my way up Whitehall past red phone boxes, Downing Street and the Cenotaph. My progress was interrupted by people asking me to take photos of them – five in the space of 15 minutes – in what is one of the most heavily photographed stretches of the city. They were probably wondering who the strange chap taking photos of everything but the famous landmarks was doing!
On this morning there were two prominent types of tourist. I passed several groups of Chinese visitors – Horse Guards Parade was particularly busy as they queued to take photos with the uniformed horse-mounted guards. And there were a large number of NFL replica jerseys milling around, taking in the sights before a game at Wembley later that day. Regent Street was festooned with flags and banners to mark the NFL’s presence in the city. It made for a very different vibe.
Before Regent Street, however, I passed through Trafalgar Square, where in a few weeks’ time we’ll see the traditional Norwegian spruce in the run-up to Christmas.
A recent addition to London’s most famous square is the pedestrian signals on the traffic lights surrounding it. These were replaced in mid-2016 to show London’s support for the LGBT community. I remember there being a certain amount of consternation – in British terms, ‘consternation’ is one step short of all-out rioting – at the time. I rather like them and I’m glad they’re still there.
I stopped in Leicester Square – one of my favourite spots to people-watch over a smoothie – before resuming my walk, which I realised was taking me both further and longer than I had originally budgeted for. So I skipped straight past the Lego store (sorry, kids) and Chinatown (which I know all too well). Regent Street was merely a cut-through to get me to Oxford Street where, taking inspiration from the NFL presence, I put my shoulder down and charged through the building mass of people at top speed (well, a brisk-ish walk) before veering sharp right at Marble Arch.
I’ve walked the length of Edgware Road a number of times in the past. Not because it’s a particularly scenic walk – it isn’t – but because it’s one of the most multi-cultural thoroughfares in central London. Visitors tend to know Chinatown – which, in comparison to its namesakes in cities such as New York, San Francisco and Sydney, isn’t actually that impressive. Hipsters know spots such as Little Portugal a little further south. But Edgware Road is a studied contrast where (Middle) East meets West. A few paces will take you past a Tesco Metro, Lebanese restaurants, cafes where men are smoking hookah pipes, a chippy next to a halal restaurant. London is a cultural melting pot and this one street sums that up as much as any in the city.
And so, nearly two hours, nine kilometres and four developing blisters later, I arrived at Paddington, where I rewarded myself with the culinary delight that is Burger King and boarded my train for home.
I love London. I grew up there. I regularly return there. And it will always be my spiritual home, even though I have now spent half of my life outside it. But too often I’m guilty of seeing it only in terms of its most famous locations. It was a rare luxury and a pleasure to see it through a different, fresher lens.
In truth, London is two cities: the one you see in tourist photos and guide books, and the real city that over eight million people call home. The two co-exist but it’s easy to only see one and not the other.
If I was Bill Bryson, I would have something suitably wry and pithy to say at this point. But I’m not and I don’t. So let me just say it again: I love London.