A Very Pedestrian Life

Puke, dog shit, road works, puddles,

I walk everywhere I can, living in London now it’s kind of unusual for someone to walk everywhere.

When I tell people I walk over an hour to get to work they are baffled, most people get public transport, many people cycle. Cycling gets promoted all the time to encourage people to be fit and healthy, reduce traffic, and reduce pollution. But pedestrians get little regard.

That’s not the point though, I like walking, cycling would cause me stress, and public transport does cause me stress. By walking to work I significantly reduce the impact of other people and other people’s timings and systems on my life, so when I get to work I’m feeling much better, not to mention the endorphins released due to exercise first thing in the morning.

The same for going home, when I get home after work I can relax or get on with things I want to do because I’ve removed the commuting stress from my day.

That’s one significant virtue to walking as much as possible, reducing contact with others, particularly in the cramped environment of buses and tubes at London rush hour. Secondarily is the exercise, it’s good for me. But that’s not what I get out of it the most.

Thinking, time for reflection is the key reason. I don’t meditate exactly but I do two things that have a similar effect for me, playing music (half an hour blowing a saxophone does wonders) and walking, walking gives time and space to let the mind wander. Sometimes when on my way to work I’ll think about the day ahead of me and organise my work plans, other times I may be thinking about music, song titles, ideas to follow up on later. Other times I might just be looking around taking in the world, and sometimes just listening to music and walking.

All are good things which help me feel relaxed and energised at the same time. Walking helps me get to my calm/alert state which helps me function at my best. We all want to be in our calm/alert state as much as possible, where we are relaxed but awake, our brains are functioning well, our senses are acute, nothing distracts us from whatever it is we are trying to do. The only time you don’t want to be like this is when you are trying to sleep.

I’ve been plagued by sleeping problems for my entire life, I wouldn’t call it insomnia exactly but I go through phases usually lasting 2 or 3 weeks where sleep is highly elusive, and I’ll go for several days without real sleep, then crash completely, then back to a few days without real sleep.

It usually materialises as being very tired and nearly nodding off, then I get in bed and am wide awake again, then if I’m lucky I’ll get an hours sleep in total over the night, morning comes along and back to work.

Obviously this is not ideal. I’ve tried many things, tried reducing my coffee consumption (I am a coffee addict, I’m OK with it) that doesn’t help, tried to stay up and out of bed as long as possible in the hope of a few solid hours, that doesn’t help. Tried to remove what may be stressing me, to no avail.

At times when something significant is happening in my life, good or bad, this can be a contributing factor to my sleeplessness, but these phases happen at times when everything is good, no worries outside the normal day to day life matters. It’s not about stress. The simple fact is I’ve never figured it out, maybe I never will.

During these times I still insist on walking to work, it’s become something of an addiction to me (people get addicted to going to the gym, or jogging… it’s the same for me), no matter how tired I will still walk, it may not help me sleep but in my head there’s a faint hope it will, but what it does do is help me feel structured, systematic, gives form to my morning which the chaos of the London underground will not.

 

The Underground, or tube as Londoners call it is the nervous system of the city, the veins that keep the blood flowing. It’s also a crutch, that when it goes wrong whole sections of London stop functioning as normal, it causes great anger and aggression.

 

People rely on it, which means they can’t cope without it.

 

Buses here are good, they work well enough, but they are too slow for most Londoners, part of living here is the fast pace, I like it but I can understand why some people have enough and start an organic farm in the country side.

 

But walking takes time, it slows things down. I walk fast mostly, faster than Google maps has ever suggested, I pass almost everyone on my journeys to and from work. But I could be at work in 30 minutes from home, but I choose to double my commute time by walking, which means getting out of bed earlier.

I’m not a morning person, which makes rising early difficult (coffee helps) I have to do something which is counter to my nature, but the virtues far outweigh the challenge of facing the early morning.

I’m fortunate to have a job now where I mostly control my schedule, I decide what happens when, so showing up at work at 10:30 am doesn’t cause any hassles.

I do take the tube or bus at times, when I have a meeting on the other side of London at 9 am, even I won’t get up early enough to walk 2 and a half hours. But that’s not every day, some weeks that may happen 3 times, and I don’t feel good about it until I get in a few hours walking.

Despite the time commitment though, I’m never late for anything, being on time is important for me, I’d rather be too early than late. Some people cannot manage their time, I think it’s one of the keys to success is being able to manage your time well.

Success for me is not monetary, and not about status, success for me is doing something, completing something, getting done what you need to or want to do. Even managing to walk to work and back is success for me.

But you can’t avoid people in London, it may even be I come across more people when I’m walking than I would on a bus or train journey. For the most part I can avoid them, I’ve mastered the art of darting through crowds, side stepping push chairs.

Occasionally I’ll be walking down the road and ahead of me I can see 5 or 6 teenage boys, walking across the footpath, taking up as much space as possible, all walking very slowly, like old men. Maybe when they get older they’ll realise how much time they’ve wasted strolling home from school, maybe not, but I have a life to live, I love my walk but I still need to get places. As I approach, I wonder will they have the spatial awareness to move, or will they attempt to be macho and act as though they have a right of way over all others, maybe they are just too caught up in whatever they are discussing to notice others, either way I’ll zip by before they notice.

Push chairs can be a hassle, slow, in the wrong place, immovable, I dart around.

Some people do actively make sure not to move, they want to prove some kind of power, some kind of importance in owning the walkways of London.

The worst thing for pedestrians in London, is cyclists on the footpath. I can handle a child of 8 or 9 who maybe isn’t confident yet, children certainly shouldn’t be cycling on busy London roads, but when it’s a 20 year old fit and healthy male on a mountain bike or BMX speeding down a footpath, that’s not good. What choice does the walker have but to move, if the high speed cyclist hit me, I would take the most damage, so there’s no point in playing chicken.

Obviously there are many other obstacles, traffic, pot holes, council works, and scaffolding, ladders, and so on. But you get used to dodging these things.

 

The spatial awareness of people is the main problem. When I am walking, on the rare occasion that a person is walking faster than me I am acutely aware that they are nearby and will move accordingly so they can pass. But so many people don’t seem able to do this, they keep slowly plodding along with no idea that the rest of the world is trying to circumnavigate them. This is not necessarily people wearing headphones, I listen to music all the time while walking. It’s also not people who are distracted at times, sometimes you approach a person engaged in their phone or reading a sign, they still notice your presence, there simply seems to be a percentage of the public who have no spatial awareness. This also relates to people waving their arms around when talking and walking and not thinking that space may be limited and their sudden movements might hit someone in the face. Some people don’t think about their environment and the other people who share it, some people don’t care (they OWN the footpath)

Sometimes when you’re walking down the road, you’ll see a person approaching, there’s a tacit way of communicating whereby you both acknowledge that you have identified each other’s existence and you will both make a small adjustment to ensure you both are able to pass each other without coming into contact or having to exchange pleasantries. Although the English say sorry all the time and apologise often, often the apologies are in fact passive aggressive ways of telling you how unhappy they are with your behaviour, but that’s another issue.

 

But there’s a subsection of people who despite this very subtle pedestrian communication and unspoken understanding of behaviour, they purposely break the rules. You see a person coming towards you, you think you have made the necessary brief eye contact, acknowledgement of which side you or they are going to walk on, but this person keeps edging towards you, not staying on their path, but actually coming closer to you. You accept that maybe they have misunderstood the communication so you make a sharp move to the other side, but they drift towards you again and manage to brush shoulders or bump you. This is different to the “footpath dance” it happens to us all, where you encounter a person and you both move the same way, then the other, then you both stop and laugh and one lets the other by, happens to even the most seasoned walkers, but this is about people who actively make contact, it’s not aggressive, but it is purposeful.

 

My completely unproven theory is this:

 

Some people have grown up with such a lack of positive physical contact, or have none in their lives that they feel the need to make contact on purpose with random members of the public, a little human touch. I suspect for the most part these people are completely unaware of the fact they do this. Just a theory, but I can’t think of any other reason.

 

Being in London gives a variety of other challenges as a pedestrian, the weather for one. Although it’s certainly warmer than most parts of the UK, it can and does rain often. This is usually the only thing that will stop me choosing to walk, as I can handle being sweaty when I get to the office, but I’d rather not be soaking wet. But a good coat solves that.

The main problem with walking London streets when it’s wet is the buses, and some other motorists is they will drive through one of the many puddles that have formed in the gutters and soak you from head to toe in dirty drain water… that sucks. Not so bad on the way home, but if you’re on your way to work or going out after work it can be annoying.

Once I went home, then had a shower, got clean clothes on, while walking to the bus stop to go where I was going a car zoomed by a drenched me with filthy gutter water.

The other side can be an issue for me, I love summer, I can walk around in a T-Shirt, but I don’t do too well in the sun, so I have to adapt my route to remain on the shady sides, not a major issue but can extend the journey.

People are strange though, I remember back in New Zealand going past the same people every day, one young woman who lived near me I passed by every morning on our respective journeys to work, eye contact was made but we never exchanged words. Then one day after I had moved to London I was wandering around exploring the city (another reason to walk, you can miss things when on a bus) I was near Euston Station which is on a huge busy road and I see a young woman coming towards me with a suitcase… it was her, the same girl from Wellington. I stop and stare, but she didn’t notice or acknowledge me, what are the chances?

But this happens all the time in London, on my journey I often see the same people going the same or opposite way to me, sometimes they do nod maybe, or smile but never do you talk to each other. The people that do talk are the random ones who you’ll never see again. One morning recently up the road around 100 metres from me I saw an elderly man fall over, as I’m approaching he gets up, dusts himself off and carries on, but as I pass him he stops me and begins to explain that he has had surgery recently and his balance has been effected (I wasn’t sure if he knew I saw him fall) He was obviously embarrassed but dealt with it in about as cool way as you could. Not to forget the many people who will ask for a cigarette, or a lighter for theirs, or money or food…

These can be a nuisance at times, but you stare forward, shake your head and move on.

I’ve seen many odd things on my many walks, mostly its part of the charm, things that make you puzzled or make you laugh, but there’s also plenty to make you feel queasy. I’m not talking dead foxes or dog shit of indescribable consistencies, but one day I was walking past a bus stop on Holloway road and I saw a rather heavy elderly woman squat down and urinate on the bus shelter, then casually get up and walk away.

Another issue I have encountered many times is having to deal with a crisis, they can range from mild to serious, once I saw a woman at a bus stop, her English was limited but she breathlessly managed to tell me she was having an asthma attack and needed help. Another time about to cross a road out the side of my vision I saw a woman trip and hit the concrete face first, another ambulance. Yet another time I found a man lying face down on the footpath not appearing to be alive. An ambulance was called, attempts at first aid made, turns out he was likely a drug overdose victim, still alive when I left. But what baffled me was that many people walked by without noticing or caring before I came along and helped, a few others joined me. That happens on the tube too though, one of my first experiences on the London Underground I saw a man fall out of a carriage onto the platform, literally hundreds of people walked by without doing anything, I approached and saw the massive wound on his head. I t was several minutes before anyone told me he had fallen on the steps at Piccadilly circus and rode the tube to Kings Cross before I did anything. Maybe it’s just Londoners.

 

Walking isn’t just about going to and from work, I like to walk anytime, anyplace. I always wear army boots, so I can manage just about any terrain I encounter. Yes, they get hot in summer, but at least I don’t get stabbed with bits of glass.

When I go somewhere new I try and walk around the place, often I travel to different towns and cities for work, I always spend part of my evening walking around to see the place. I was in Scarborough for such a work trip and took a stroll by the seaside and arcades, within 10 minutes it was pouring with rain and I was soaked, found a shelter under a shops eaves and then saw a cyclist get run over by a car, so out onto the road I go to help… what is it with me and seeing accidents? Do other people see that many accidents?

Naturally, as a walker, I like to walk in the country side, I’m not much for sitting down doing nothing for long periods, so my idea of relaxing is to stroll and wander, amble even. There’s nothing like being in a natural setting and watching the wind blow through the long grass. I made an error once on a country walk with my friend Jamie, I was waiting for my Criminal Record Check to come through before I could start work, so we would often go on country walks with his dog (a very, very stupid boxer) On one walk we came to a narrow path with a substantial mud puddle, I decide to leap over it rather than get covered in mud, his dog zips through, under my legs and knocks me over. I land on my back on some hard ground, broken rib.

I’m the same on the beach, I will walk and walk along a beach. Near where I grew up in New Zealand was a small town called Raglan with seemingly unending black sand beaches, that’s something I would happily do anytime.

Many years ago when I had moved to Wellington, first time out of home myself and Dean would wander around the bays of Wellington until 4 am, just walk until we got tired or found our way home, we got lost a few times.

 

I would walk to school every day, it was only 20 minutes or so, and I often encountered bullies, who may chase me or fight with me. Sometimes I’d change my route so they wouldn’t bother me, sometimes that walk was anxiety inducing.

My first real job in Wellington was over an hours walk from my house, and I started at 7 am, so I’d have to get up at 5:30 in the morning to get going, people were baffled by that but I was never fitter than then. Wellington had different hazards to London, for one it’s the wind, incredibly windy, at times I literally had to hold onto lamp posts and I saw children get blown over, it was exhausting and a few times I was forced to get a bus. Secondarily, but something you adapt to was the hills, London is mostly flat, and what people consider a hill here is a mild incline compared to Wellington, wherever you went there you would need to ascend and descend hills. People in Wellington have powerful legs.

 

Like any way of getting around, walking has its good and bad aspects, but the good outweigh the bad, you won’t get an idea of the richness and feeling of a place by driving a car or riding a train, you won’t have the same kind of random and beautiful interactions that can happen.