It was 8:30am. I sat outside my local cafe, with a coffee and a pastry, with Jeff, who was visiting from the West Coast of the US, and had been happy to join the adventure. It was overcast. We were running late and I wasn’t doing well. It had been a rushed and stressful preparation for the walk, and I’d been grumpy from being rushed and not feeling up to the demands of an adventure. I’d also had not quite enough sleep for over a week, and felt as if I was coming down with a cold. But we were on our way and I had become more excited about the walk, time away from everyday life, and sleeping out.
We arrived late at Charing Cross. The weather was oppressive, matching my mood and health. Tom was already there, and I introduced him to Jeff. Hugo and Saij were running twenty minutes late, so while we waited for them I went to the toilet in the local chain pub, where I ran into a lot of smartly dressed people. Were they going to the races? I had no idea. They seemed to be having a good time and making an early start to festivities for the day.
Soon, Hugo and Saij arrived, and we set off, passing guards gamely having their photos taken with tourists. We headed down the road, and over the river on a footbridge, with everyone chatting and catching-up. The Thames’s width struck me. Once we reached the far side we walked along the bank, toward the Southbank Centre, up through a stairway, and through a nice concrete access-way. The concrete was spacious, a relief from the confined structures that typify other parts of the city.
We slowly walked through the tangled traffic-heavy streets of central South London. The compass took us through strangely semi-suburban city streets, despite how central we were. We negotiated the roads and passed on into disheveled residential streets. We shared jokes about how good nearby grassy spots would be to camp on that night. Roundabouts. A small park. Elephant and Castle. Seizing the day. Muffling grey. A sign for the ‘Bike Curious’ shop, and an old pub, both boarded up.
Then, onto long a main road, morphing progressively into housing estates. Southwark Council, apparently, really messed these up, and mismanagement led to serious neglect. The compass drew us in to explore. We walked up some stairs to a concrete thoroughfare, and along it in front of flats. A plain concrete area lay ahead of us; we joked that we’d find a swimming pool when we reached it. But it was just a curious open concrete area. We dropped back down to the road along a set of exciting downward spirals. Guys in hoodies and bull terriers lurked on the side of the street.
We continued along the busy road, past more housing estates. Then, across a park, with a lake and a cheery fairground. More streets led us to a larger road that was surprisingly hard to cross, despite being deceptively quiet. A young couple crossed in the other direction, dressed up, to an unknown destination.
Side-streets, suburban-industrial, warehouses converted into lofts, and a view toward the river and the large office blocks of central London; then, another housing estate, locals walking dogs, and into modern industrial warehouses. One had a dent in its metal cladding side, about 12 feet up, which we reasoned must have been caused by a lorry. We walked on into, and through, residential streets, rows of terraced houses with sporadic small urban parks with pine woodchip-floored playgrounds and hooped painted metal railings.
Around 11am we transitioned onto main roads, and arrived into the heart of New Cross. We stopped outside Goldsmiths for a snack. We were approached by a pro-“Remain in Europe” woman who was giving out beermats that could be left in chain pubs that supported the “Leave” campaign. We talked. Her boyfriend had just gone to walk a marathon in the Chilterns. I gave her details of future walks. She liked the idea. Maybe they’d join next time? Our group took it in turns to go into Goldsmiths for the toilet, a journey down long corridors. Outside, I sat eating chilli sweet sticks and raisin malt loaf. We dallied. I wasn’t feeling great.
Then onward, along a long straight main road directly away from the centre of London, under a railway bridge. Railway stations and discarded furniture. The road was made more interesting by being hilly, and had more trees than many roads. Soon we were in Lewisham. Saij and Hugo departed, heading home; Jeff, Tom, and I continued.
We crossed a busy road into Lewisham shopping mall, thankfully emerging soon on the other side. Tom stated that we had passed the line; into Southeast Lewisham. The tail end of my cold continued to nag, and a clammy greyness hovered in the air, dragging. Road. Suburbia. Eastern Lewisham, however, became nicer as we continued. We talked about stopping for lunch as we walked, but the roads were becoming less and less human, discouraging us from stopping for the time being.
Finally, long after midday, we reached the South Circular ring-road. The nearby “Pets At Home” didn’t have a toilet, but while exploring its four corners an employee told us that the football place next door did, so we walked over, through the bar, and into the toilet. It was a football social club attached to a couple of football pitches. The bar had advertisements for budget lagers, and big windows over the pitches. We sat immediately outside, on picnic benches, to eat our lunches.
Tom had some serious wrap action. I had crystallized ginger, some leftovers that David gave me (care, originally, of Louise and Mark), and some peanuts and raisins. We ate our individual lunches, content to be sitting. While eating, we discovered that the table was magnetic, deflecting our compass readings, and happily distracting us. We concluded that the table was stabilized with a metal cross-joint. Kids ran after a football on one of the nearby football pitches while I complained of being low-energy, of feeling sapped. It was the stage of the day at which we were halfway out of London, and knew we had the same distance again to cover.
We took a leisurely hour before we finished our lunch and discussed the next step. The compass directed us over the football pitches to a tall hedge. Tom, however, noted a gap in the hedge. Curious, we packed up and walked over the pitches to the gap. Three youths kicked a ball around, while moving their own goalposts. When we reached the gap we found a wide, deep, sheer-sided concrete culvert, with a blue rope swing over it. The rope was hung from a tree closer to our side, so a run-up would be needed to reach the other side, which was also higher. Tom and I played with swinging over without bags. It was exciting, but could we do it with our bags? We doubted it. After playing some more, we turned around, reluctantly retracing our steps.
But the way back looked terribly, terribly dull, and we quickly reconsidered. Returning to the culvert, Tom daringly swung over without his bag, and at the far side let go of the rope, landing confidently on the far bank. Jeff and I applauded. Next, we tied Tom’s bag to the rope, and swung it over to him, where he caught it. We followed the bag with mine. Jeff threw his daypack over. Then Jeff and I prepared to swing over. Jeff tried a few times, then took a break and handed over to me. To my surprise I managed it on my first attempt. Finally Jeff swung over; Tom and I grabbed and held him; he let go of the rope and we fell in a heap on the bank. What success, and what adventure! It perked us up, and as we crossed another football pitch back to a road we were full of stories and retellings. It would have been three minutes to walk around our culvert, but we were ecstatic to have made the adventure, and walked onward, upward, buzzing, chatty, on a road at exactly 120 degrees, the dream in action.
Then, immediately, a dark, brooding, minimal, brick church. Tom told us tales of a Swiss influence, and a key architect. Jeff and I nodded. We walked on up the hill, sensing our arrival into the bronchioles of suburban London beyond the South Circular.
Next, we reached a grassy opening in the suburbs that I recognized from an earlier walk a few years earlier. It was an octagonal space, the focus of a meeting of four suburban streets, with spacious grassy areas. Polish shops faced out onto the grass. Tom ran off to inspect a building on one side of the clearing, converging back with us as we passed onward, along a straight road. Allotments, greenery, unwalked pavement, disheveled council flats. Suburbia. Red London buses coming and going. Tom returned, talking of fields in views ahead that he spied from the other side of the octagon.
The compass told us to carry on into a small park, full of trees, an apparent dead-end. Green duckweed lay over a pond. The park was short and suggested that we turned back, but instead we speculated on an easy clamber over a fence, around a culvert, and into a golf course that was clearly visible, just metres away. We threw our bags over the fence, looking furtively behind us as we clambered over, and crossed the culvert on the outside edge of a railway bridge. We emerged self-consciously into the expanse of the golf course, joking that you’re not in trouble until you’ve posted it on social media.
We strode purposefully across the golf course, following our bearing, reasoning that emanating confidence would get us a long way. After all, it had in the past. Indeed, albeit to our surprise, no-one seemed bothered, though it was teeming with middle-aged affluent men. At the first green we waited for three men to tee off before proceeding. They responded gratefully. They were good shots, as far as I could tell. Competent, at least.
As we reached the end of the green and transitioned onto another, however, a new group of men were less impressed by our presence. One directly accused us: “You guys are not supposed to be here”. We walked on, apologising, unclear as to what else we could do. Soon another group challenged us similarly. We muttered about walking around the course until we found our way out, but our accuser was not happy. Another member of the group, however, seemed to side with us. He suggested that if we continued into the trees directly ahead, we’d find a gap in a hedge, and a rusty gate, that we could clamber through. There, we’d find a short disused road back out into the suburbs. How he knew this wasn’t clear, but we felt his implicit support, and walked to the trees to discover that the disused road was an access road to an electrical substation. The track passed between houses in the form of sleepers on gravel overgrown with weeds. The gate at the end was trivial to climb, and no-one on the streets seemed bothered by us breaking out of an electricity company’s private property.
It was mid-afternoon. We walked past New Eltham Station, the site of the beginning of another walk, years previously, another life. Finally, I was feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, spritely and excited, energised by our adventures.
Nevertheless, we were soon enveloped by suburbia again. Bigger houses, uninspiring, detached. The roads funnelled us parallel to a busy arterial road through a wooded cutting, then presented us with an opportunity to walk on the pavement of the road. It was the A20, a busy dual carriageway, and another transition away from human-scale; an environment not designed for pedestrians. Lush woods bordered the road, and many paths lead into the woods on our left. On the right, we saw signs to a gym through the woods. We wondered if we could cut into the woods to camp. We knew we could, but it wasn’t right; we hadn’d completed our task. So we walked onward, and then out, and stopped on a grassy bank, back in suburbia, for a snack. I took off my shoes and almost finished my bag of crystallized ginger. We dallied for longer than any of us had planned, tired, dragging. Jeff seemed to be holding up well given that this was all new to him, and the day was wearing on.
I put my shoes back on, and we plodded on, up the hill, through suburbia, away from the A20. People looked at us without interest. At the top of the hill we ended at a T-junction. Tom charmingly asked for water from an elderly man in a garden. He obligingly pottered inside to fill Tom’s bottles. Upon his return he asked what we were doing, and he didn’t seem too surprised when Tom explained. He recounted an anecdote from when he “used to live in London”. Oh, to live in his world: in ours, we still had much walking to do before we escaped the city.
Soon, a path led onto a green space. It was a side entrance, and we were unsure of where we were. Maybe we were entering the grounds of a suburban hospital campus? We crossed a path, descended a slope, and the compass led us through a copse of trees to what looked like a small power station. Stepping our way through it, we emerged onto a concrete service road that looped us back. We weren’t covering much ground, passing through a cul-de-sac of NHS dorms for nurses, then a dialysis building. We walked beneath a row of windows as a gathering of patients looked out on us. We hoped that the unusual sight of three men with backpacks on was a pleasant surprise for them. And again onward; green trails through suburbia; slipping between rows of houses; and back onto a housing estate, more spacious than the estates of the morning.
The compass then led us to a major road and a cluster of shops under lush horse chestnut trees. The road crossed a wide stream and we stopped for toilet breaks in a nearby pub in a small paved plaza opposite the shops and immediately before the bridge,. We were in a thriving suburban satellite village that had budded from the London suburbs. As Jeff went into the pub, I stretched. Some inspiring abandoned brick buildings overlooked the stream.
We crossed the bridge and Tom stopped at Maidstone Food and Wine to buy a beer for camp. ‘No purchases’ was just a guideline, and Tom gleefully enjoyed the beer purchase.
Next, up the hill, and we stopped at a bus stop before a roundabout to look at bus times the following morning. Buses ran back into London on Sunday mornings, and we sensed that we’d be leaving the city soon. At the roundabout the compass took us left; ahead lay a wood, into which a path soon led, which we followed, tracking a hill behind a fence, into the wood. On our right, a reindeer stood glumly in a paddock. On our left, a dank wood, overgrown and verdant, fetid and a little obscene. We had no desire to thrash out a campsite there, though it was a conceivable last resort. Ahead, the sound of traffic. I wondered if it was the M25 motorway.
In a few minutes our path brought us to a pedestrian bridge over the road. We fantasised that it was the M25, without evidence, suspecting our fantasy was wrong. Crossing the bridge nevertheless felt like a significant event, a marker of progress, of approaching completion, of crossing a line.
Over the bridge, the path opened out onto an expansive golf course. We soon lost the path and followed our instincts toward possible campsites amongst the greens. But it was still late afternoon; and there were still golfers, our nemeses. One promising site after another slumped into unsuitability. A particularly promising line of fir trees offered nothing, though we poked around in the detritus of dead branches behind it. The walk became an interminable, morale-breaking slog across the greens.
Finally we wrenched ourselves from the greens to the golf course’s car park. Another path, however, insistently led us back onto another part of the golf course. A group of young men flocked around each other. With relief, finally, the path eventually dropped us off onto a country lane, which in turn funnelled us into a small, quaint village. We were out of London, but the prospects for a campsite still felt remote. We walked through the village, quaint and green, turned up another narrow lane, back up the hill. It was leafy, with an overhanging canopy, but the banks were steep, high, impenetrable, and impossible to climb.
At the crest the trees opened up and the cutting our lane was in shallowed. To our left, an abandoned house? No, cars were parked in the driveway; we couldn’t sleep in garden. To our right, three charred cars and a path into the woods. Promising. We took it, eager to stop for the day.
A few minutes later we found a sandy clearing between brambles and trees. It was 6pm, but this was it. We were finished, exhausted physically and psychologically from the slog through the golf course and lanes. We stopped, stretched, and I started cooking. Jeff put up the tent; Tom put up his.
Soon, though, people started to walk past. It seemed that we were in a more major thoroughfare than we had realized. The roof of a house was visible behind a tree at the edge of the clearing. A couple walking commented ‘Nice flat spot’ nonchalantly. Another passer-by looked less pleased. Soon, a woman with a Hay Festival T-shirt stopped to give us camping advice. ‘Are you English?’, she asked, pleasantly, as a greeting. She warned of travellers who were camped nearby who rode the area on mopeds. ‘At best they’ll steal stuff’ she warned. Then added, ‘I like camping too’, offering us her stamp of approval
We finished eating. I lay down; Jeff too; Tom explored a path to see if he could find an alternative campsite. He returned—the prospects weren’t good. There were sites with firepits and graffiti; meanwhile, we could hear motorbikes suggestively in the distance. We joked the bikes were the woman with the Hay T-shirt, cackling to herself, as she tried to drive us away. But we agreed that we needed to move on, we didn’t want to lie in our sleeping bags listening for the slightest hint of a motorbike riding toward us in the distance. We slowly, wearily, packed up, though it wasn’t as painful as it could have been, having eaten.
We retraced our steps through the woods and past the burnt-out cars to rejoin the lane in the direction we had been going. A man jogged past from a cottage at the bottom. I stopped to tie my shoelaces, then we walked on past the house. A swimming pool called out to us, but the house was clearly inhabited. No go. We walked on and the road became a green path. To our right was a wide field with woods on the horizon on the far side; to our right, the return of the golf course that we had spent so much time crossing earlier. We could hear a moped in the distance, but where, we had no idea. It was overcast, yet the grey sky and dull green land were expansive and open to the future.
After a few minutes, a path led to the left though the undergrowth and hedge. The way was blocked with metal barriers, and, curiously, a burned-out small moped lay between them. The path opened back out into our golf course of the afternoon, which we walked back onto. A family were playing, taking some shots, they were having fun, there was no-one else around, and it was nearly 8pm. We walked over a few greens, down a slope, and through a leafy tunnel to a peripheral green in a wide, flat valley. It was perfect, secluded on two sides, and at one end opened into open fields and a farm, though it wasn’t exposed. We agreed that this was where we’d camp, threw our bags under some trees on the side of the green, and pitched our tents on the perfectly flat curated ground of the golf course.
We lay on the green and did some yoga, relieved to be finished, safe, cradled by the groomed greens. I practiced handstands with Tom’s help. It was a happy reverie, lying on the grass, looking up at the sky for 20 minutes. Birds flying overhead, insects, leaves stirring in the wind. I hoped the birds would stay with us. It was good to be able to sit and have time to think, to settle. Having already cooked food, there was little else to do.
Eventually, we went to bed, and slept.
I awoke at 5am and walked out onto the green to find glorious blue skies, the kind of blue skies only possible in the English summer. I walked to either end of the golf course; there was no-one around. The sun had already risen and it was glorious, soft, and quiet. I walked down to the bottom of the green, feeling great. Tamed trees, trees that have been broken in, standing in lines, to attention, subdued.
I returned to the camp and at 6am shook Tom’s tent. “It’s 6am”, I said. Tom stirred, and we were soon making coffee with Tom’s fancy crank-arm pressurized coffeemaker. With Jeff up we packed and were walking by 7am, sighting a couple of golf-carts scooting around the course in the distance. But these were groundsmen at the bottom of the pecking order, groundsmen with no investment to wish to tackle such a victimless crime. We crossed back over the dual carriageway, past the dark and damp wood, and onto the road where we caught a bus, then a train, back into London. I was home by 9am.