Photo by Gary Yeowell
Artillery Row

How to walk around London

It is never just walking

Avoid all the main streets, especially the ones you have heard of. If you are on one of them, go down a side street. Follow all curved passages and alleyways; go into any mews; make a route of zigzags rather than boxes. If you do not have a Pevsner, google freely. Always look up: the best architecture is out of sight; shop fronts are boring distractions. As with streets, you often find the most interesting material in the small awkward shapes between the grander frontages and facades. 

Doing this, you learn to distinguish. Everyone is familiar with basic architectural taxonomies of old and new, grand and cute, modern and nostalgic; these are of little use. Similarly, even the most inexperienced look for sweeping arcades and Regency grandeur or the bougie pedestrianised streets of places like Soho. Look up and look everything up and you can go beyond these categories so that your mind becomes charmingly cluttered with types and sorts, like a series of sample drawers full of curiosities. 

Bomb sites have become council flats in otherwise undisturbed rows

On even a short walk, around the block as it were, you will see vastly more with this approach. It’s as good as going to the movies. Paying attention in a city is like crawling around a field with a microscope rather than sauntering along the path swiping your hand through the tall grass. You will see every variety of personal appearance, too: people in tracksuits vaping on the tiled steps of rich houses; service workers smoking behind the fire door of a restaurant; people slouching on the kerb, sucking smoothies whilst staring at their phone; women with lips that are plump and curved like their fake eyelashes; a homeless man picking through dumpsters, like the people further down the street browsing the book barrows, with the stub of a roll-up just visible in the scrub of his beard. 

How much more real these clichés can become just by walking with them rather than seeing them in a photo essay. You will hear them, smell them, see the fraying of their shoe laces, and the humour in their eyes. How difficult it is to feel different from someone standing in the same patch of sunlight as you, watching the same digger swinging in front of the back of a row of Georgian houses, bay windows sweeping in the sun, temporarily exposed by a building site, as they have not been for many years. 

The contrast of rich and poor can be found on almost every street. Bomb sites have become council flats in so many otherwise undisturbed rows of white fronted terraces and town houses. Boroughs of South East London offer some of the best variety in this respect. Walk from Lewisham to Deptford to Greenwich to Blackheath and you will constantly alternate income brackets, cultural norms and living standards. Fish you have never heard of and meat you might never eat will lie open to the sky on Deptford High Street. The only street food in Greenwich is expensive tourist curry, churros and tofu. To get to Blackheath you can walk through the financiers’ silent groves, or you can go through the council estates, snuggled slightly further down the hill, behind the parades and crescents, where quoined, elegant homes give way to boxed concrete ones. 

In Lewisham, a fifteen minute walk can take you from an abandoned art nouveau department store, along a row of beauty parlours and barbers, the currency exchange with grills permanently over the window, Ace Lounge (a first-floor african restaurant on the corner of a Pizza Express), the animal shelter and a Turkish supermarket, to a strip with a pop-up tapas restaurant, a deli where the sourdough bread costs £6 a loaf, and a local arts centre. After that, all the way down the hill to the high street, it’s all battered store fronts, tatty awnings, the sort of red crates you get outside suburban London grocers, phone repair businesses run out of garages, and chicken shops, chicken shops, chicken shops. 

You will accumulate an imaginative visual dictionary

Survivals of another world include The Rising Sun pub, unloved for many years, and the picture framing store. If you are busy looking at the rococo 1890s terraces and the bizarre turreted houses, you might miss the dilapidated gateway to the housing estate next to the doctor’s surgery where drug sellers and users hide from the police, on private property where they are unable to intrude. Walk through here and you can see the condensation running on the inside of windows, frames half-fallen to bits. Everywhere, rich or poor, palm trees grow incongruously tall. Despite the proliferation of big chain supermarkets built into the ground floor of ugly new buildings, the best ingredients are often to be found in the small family run stores. Lewisham has shops that specialise in the food of a dozen countries. Greenwich has Marks & Spencer. Blackheath has a Gail’s bakery.

In the City, rather than simply look at a building, try asking for directions through the labyrinth of its unregulated network of streets. It was in this way that I learned from a smoking financier that working in the Lloyds building was less comfortable than hoped due to the floor level being raised some inches after extensive re-wiring. Everyone has some sort of architectural opinions.

In this way, you will accumulate an imaginative visual dictionary. The more familiar you are with the various types of gable and hood mould, whether or not you can name them, the more able you are to spot the small distinguishing features. So it is with people. Watch the world like a novelist. We all conform to an aesthetic, consciously or not, but there are choices and contours that distinguish everyone. Tracking the variety of ways people combine handbags and tracksuit bottoms, or trainers and ties, offers as much variety as comparing the patterns and colours of beetles and moths. No trend is ever perfectly static, and no person is ever entirely uniform. 

Everything, no matter how much you dislike it, is a contribution to a style. Even Canary Wharf, that plain set of blocks with the character of a downtown financial district in a mid-tier American city, is a monument to the nineties, full of polished marble and the sort of cornicing and decorative wall features that wouldn’t be out of place in a small town bank. The more I visit it with no purpose other than to walk around, the fonder of it I feel. The lobbies are immediately recognisable from Hollywood movies of that period. No nineties romcom or family feelgood was complete without the harassed father, domineering executive, or crushed creative spirit of a young person, passing through a steel and marble corridor of elevators (preferably in a raincoat).

As it ages, we can start to fit Canary Wharf into our carousel of London’s past, now that its financial grandeur is acquiring the patina of charm, the same nostalgic value that makes popular the angular cars of the eighties, or the stripes and swirls of the sixties. Perhaps the most charming part of it all, aside from the yellow roof of Billingsgate market (visible from the little red trains of the DLR that trundle along above the water), is the long strip of screen that runs the news headlines, like a ticker tape. Built just before the internet arrived in everyone’s pocket, it is one of London’s most recent nostalgia attractions, and surely destined to be not long for this world. 

Go there and look up at it whilst you still can.


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