At times I’ve found the last year reminiscent of my teenage years. All those extended periods of longing for something to happen, for life to get going, to have stuff to look forward to. All combined with often intense feelings of boredom and frustration; alleviated to various degrees through reading, listening to music or simply gazing out of the window.
This time, rather than parents, age, or funds, holding those longings in check, it’s a global pandemic and the government that’s been doing it. And now, a little to my surprise, I’m also finding that the sudden re-opening of choice, needing to make plans, decide things, go places, brings with it other new, or perhaps old, fears. I keep thinking of a line, repeated by a character from the Machine Gunners – a Robert Westall book that was also a TV programme when I was a kid: Where we going now? Where we going now?
I’m not sure I want to go back to exactly the way things were.
I’m not complaining – I’m lucky enough, privileged enough, to be able to work from home, when I have work, and I share a house that has a garden and is near various parks and greenspaces. The people I share this space with I’m either married to, or parent, so the teenage angst analogy can only stretch so far. Though that youthful sense of waiting, nervous uncertainty, wanting to get out, but unsure exactly what you want to find, has returned with a vengeance – and I doubt that I’m alone in feeling it.
A few days ago, with an unexpected free day (at least within school hours) before me, I got on a London Overground train for the first time in months. This was at once exciting and weird. Orange Line carriages look more like tubes than normal train ones, with no doors between them, so when you look along the length, especially if empty, you get an odd corridor effect, as if the same nightmare scene has been stretched along a pipe, in a reflected, repeated view, like the ones you can see when sat between a pair of facing mirrors.
Coupled with the fact that mask wearing makes my reading glasses steam up, this jarring glimpse of the familiar with a twist, meant my short journey began with an unaccustomed sense of unease.
I didn’t go far, looking only for a different area, or park to walk around in. I got off at Brockley and made for Hilly Fields – figuring a different view of London from height, might cheer me up, or at least rekindle some lockdown-worn enthusiasm for my huge, adopted city.
After half an hour of desultory walking about through a wooded area on the edge of the park, I stopped to watch a grimly determined magpie drag an unidentifiable carcass into the dark underworld of a cherry blossom thicket. I couldn’t tell what it was – a rat corpse, a pigeon, or someone’s tossed fried chicken – but the bird wanted to have it.
Leaving the magpie to its grim feast, I stepped out of the trees and into a stone circle. For a moment I hoped that some sort of timeslip had occurred and I’d inadvertently wandered into a prehistoric, London before London. Shouts from nearby five-a-side pitches quickly disabused me of this fantasy. The stones in the circle however, I learned later, had come from Mount Strouie in Scotland and were around 400 million years old. The circle, introduced in 2000 by the Brockley Society, is now a pilgrimage site for London pagans.
From here, I wandered to a more open area and found a view that did at least reinforce just how vast a metropolis London is. Not sure exactly what direction I was facing, I was also reminded how very hilly – an appropriate observation from my vantage point – the city can be in places. Nearby, church spires seemed to poke up and out from spring-thick copses, while green ridges, topped with houses and tower blocks stretched over various parts of south London. Elsewhere, what seemed like tree covered islands erupted out of the greys, yellows and reds of the buildings and roads beneath. All these hills and ridges, in Nunhead, Blackheath, Norwood, Sydenham and elsewhere, appeared for a moment to be engaged in an act of geological defiance, the land refusing to lie-down, grasslands and woods bursting through all that iron and brick and tarmac.
This unexpectedly strange vista must have confused my senses, because I then managed to get lost. Instead of following streets back to Brockley, I ended up emerging somewhere by the A20 in Lewisham. Suddenly in the thick of busy, traffic crawled London, it seemed as though perhaps nothing much had changed. Huge new blocks were going up above the roads, cranes, rather than green hills, were the tallest things down here. Although people emerging from the station, wearing masks were a clear sign, that covid still haunts our lives.
More than a little bewildered by this abrupt sensual assault, I crossed a couple of roads and then stumbled once again into another place that didn’t quite seem to belong amidst all this glass and concrete – although actually long pre-dates it. Next to a newish housing development around Cornmill Gardens, I’d come to a stretch of the Ravensbourne – a tributary of the Thames that runs through Bromley, Lewisham and Greenwich, until the confluence at Greenwich Reach, facing the Isle of Dogs.
Here was a thin blue ribbon, threading through the restless pulse of 21st century London.
Having volunteered with London Wildlife Trust and for a longer period, explored many of the city’s backstreets and greenways, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the built environment so closely jammed together with more organic developments.
Perhaps, because the contrast seemed so stark here, at first, I found it hard to take in what I was seeing. I followed a footpath for a while – willow and alder carrs lining green banks of the river, ducks calling out, signs displaying the types of fish that might be found in this part of Lewisham (yes, also litter and temporary metal barriers, but still…) And then, mentally blinking in confusion – below the housing blocks of Waterway Avenue, waiting patiently for a meal, stood a heron. I stared, even turning to point it out to a woman struggling past with her shopping – ‘Look, a heron.’ She, nodded, half-smiling at this random male stranger gawping at urban river wildlife, then hurried on.
That morning, when I set out in search of something, I had no idea what I was looking for, but by accident, apparently, I found something to treasure after all.
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