We stocked up on water, coffees, and croissants as we set off: last-minute needs. We arrived at Charing Cross at exactly 9am. It was cold and wintry, with clear blue November skies. This time the group comprised myself, Sarah, Matt, and Marita. As we gathered, we talked about Donald Trump. I finished my croissant and coffee, and we set off, passing beneath Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, a large ‘thumbs up’ fist, with enlarged thumb. Then, along the side of the building on the side of the square, and we were rapidly piped onto Pall Mall, just north of The Mall. The chill blue sky was a constant. Dark metal statues of empire overlooked the street as we chatted.
As we reached the end we were channeled into a narrower street. A woman with a scruffy dog informed us cheerfully that there was no direct route through to Green Park, but if we turned left and right again, we should be able to get through using alleys. We walked on, following her directions, while a dog peed on a bollard. An open space gave us some sunshine before we entered a narrow alleyway. Ahead, we saw the park. A slalom through some fences, and we emerged into Green park, full of grass, fallen leaves, and happy dogs.
We struck off directly across the park. Looking back, a wall of old buildings lined the eastern edge of the park. Looking ahead, orange leaves, green grass, and blue sky. We cut across a series of paved paths and walked around a cordoned-off area, then under some of the larger trees in the park. Some of the happy dogs paralleled us. The compass pushed us to the park periphery, and we exited through the northern fence before we reached the western edge.
Then, along the pavement of a busy arterial road running alongside the park. The outer lanes of the busy road descended into a cutting followed by a tunnel, while the inner lanes continued to a roundabout, preventing us from crossing the road. A few minutes later, though, the underpass dropped entirely below ground and we were able to cross to an island in the middle of the dual carriageway. The island, paved with cobblestones. We crossed the second carriageway, then took a pedestrian tunnel under the next road that emanated from the roundabout. Within a few minutes we had crossed an expanse of pavement into Hyde Park, through baroque metal gates. Runners ran past.
A paved main road initially provided our route through Hyde Park. On our left was the Serpentine lake, with swans and geese; on our right was the Winter Wonderland theme park, which was popular among the many tourists. Packs of people ran to-and-fro before sporadically dropping to the ground to do push-ups in response to the barked instructions of military-style trainers. Many more happy dogs ran around the park. It was autumnal: the crisp air, the dilute sunshine, the blue sky. After a few minutes we left the road and crossed grass under trees, and navigated around a fenced-off copse. I joked that it would make a good campsite for the night. Sporadic runners continued to jog by. Pigeons and squirrels went about their business, rustling through the leaves.
We approached the Serpentine Gallery after a cross-country walk through the trees and leaves, and entered to use the toilet. “It’s at the back”, an attendant obliged, unsurprised to have visitors arriving for the toilet alone. The exhibition, a melange of found objects, strands of metal girder, clean and brightly-coloured. The toilets, luxurious.
Then, along the nearside bank of the lake, which pushed us farther north than the compass would have wanted us to go. We dropped down to the path along the lakeside. I whispered hello to an anxious-looking sausage dog. The owner was actively disinterested. The path steered us to Lancaster Gate, pleasant in the autumnal sunshine, strewn with casual strollers. We crossed the flagstoned area with the ponds and fountains and continued slowly at an oblique angle toward the northern edge of the park. A few minutes later the compass directed us to step over a low fence, into some bushes, and through a minor gate to exit the park. Then, along the pavement on the road that defined the northern edge of the park.
The road took us past Queensway Tube station, and an adjacent Chinese takeaway called New Fortune Cookie. Yum. The streets were busy, although whether the crowds were tourists or locals I could not tell. I didn’t know the area.
We broke free of the attraction of the main road and into a side street, which turned out to be a lollipop-loop, swinging us back onto the main road, along which we continued to traipse into Notting Hill. There we stopped at a chain coffeeshop for me to dash in to use the toilet. Sarah tucked into gluten-free mince pies that she had brought. The pies crumbled into powder the moment we touched them, but they were so sweet that they were easy to forgive. Notting Hill was busy, and we happily stood on the busy pavement eating snacks.
After we’d finished eating we headed onward past Notting Hill Gate underground station. A punk with impressively committed foot-tall blue spiked hair walked past with his unremarkable alt-normal girlfriend. The patches on his leather jacket were all in German. He reminded me of my visits to Berlin many years ago.
Soon we were able to break free of the busy main road, darting right into a side-street past a gastropub. A man walked in the opposite direction clutching a bag of spinach. In his hand We were now into the Portobello market area, inevitably evoking mushrooms. At the end of the long street we came across a house with sleeping lion statues on either side of the door. I fantasised about breakfast.
Suddenly we were in grimy suburbs, with shuttered shopfronts and old high-rise blocks of flats. The area was very different to the tall rows of terraced houses we had walked through not long before. We walked on, into a basketball court and out the other side, and up onto the side of a busy multi-lane road that separated us from the Westfield shopping centre and a forest of cranes. “Kidzania” suggested an excellent approach to neutering a child’s creative and critical faculties. Planes traced trajectories overhead to Heathrow, trajectories that we paralleled.
We crossed the road on a bridge, then took an elevator to the ground-level road, but it was more of a service area than a consumer area, and the only entrances into the gargantuan mall were through ‘Goods In’ entrances for lorries, which we doubted we’d be able to negotiate. The compass suggested the road right as better than left, so we headed right under a bridge. Although at first there wasn’t an evident pavement, one soon materialized, and we happily marched on in a loop around Westfield. Blue skies and buildings surrounded us that weren’t on a human scale; long roads and a railway line. Nice to be in a new space, a blank canvas, that didn’t carry the suffocating echoes of the desires of massed humanity over the centuries.
The road arced round in long deserted stretches, and we were delivered to the other side of Westfield at Wood Lane tube station; then, a hundred metres farther on, White City. White City had a lot of construction work ongoing. We walked past, into and through a housing estate, eyeing the new buildings and talking of elevensies. The road slid into an area of suburban blocks of flats. Surprisingly, in the midst of this suburbia, we found ourselves outside a football stadium. Queen’s Park Rangers, apparently. A handful of fans milled around, while a food stand sold sausage and egg sandwiches, surrounded by the smell of hot animal fat. Suddenly a slick car drove up, and everyone gathered around, taking photos. One fan collected an autograph. Getting out of the car was a man, certainly not a footballer, too old, and he and his wife walked into the stadium. Maybe the owner? I knew nothing about football and was mystified.
We found a park after crossing a main road. We consensed that it was definitely elevensies time, and settled onto a picnic table to tuck in. I attempted to find a toilet in one of the buildings next to the park, to no avail. Returning, I took great pleasure in inhaling a doughnut with pink icing that I had bought, reduced, from the supermarket that morning. We ate more disintegrating, delightful gluten-free mince pies. Sarah had also brought tapenade and baba ganoush. Yum. Yet more dogs trotted around happily, as did toddlers in the adventure playground next to our bench. The cold persisted, and the sky was getting hazy. Planes continued to trace the way onward to our campsite.
Reluctantly, we packed up and headed on; it was already almost midday. We quickly exited the park and followed a side street into redbrick suburbia. Cats lurked in windows. A few minutes later we found a park and Shepherds Bush Cricket Club. We could find no way through the park though, so we exited again, and soon entered a brown brick estate of low-rise blocks of flats, dirty and disheveled. We walked to the end, but there was no way through, so we jumped the fence to the parallel main road, landing beside a strip of torn-up pavement in the process of being repaired. We crossed the road in search of a toilet in a petrol station, but again, no luck. Onward, past a set of signs advertising a gospel singing group.
The road took us up a low hill into Acton. We were in a regional centre of sorts. I was finally pleased to have the opportunity to dash into a fast food chain for a toilet break. Relief. Others followed, then we headed down the main road. Further on, we passed Ealing Common tube station. Jehovah’s Witnesses handed out their magazine in Cyrillic. We talked about the New Zealand earthquake.
Finally, we reached the North Circular road. On previous walks the circular roads had been a signal to stop for lunch, but today we wanted to keep moving a little longer. We crossed the road into Ealing Common, and with relief the compass pulled us across the common to a side-street instead of directing us along the main road. The street was composed of nice old houses on either side, and led to boutique-y shops and restaurants laid out around Ealing Broadway together with a little park. We crossed and entered Walpole Park. The consensus was that this was the place for lunch, but we also agreed to keep it short, conscious of how early it would get dark. It seemed that the day would be a long day. We sat on a park bench and munched on our various snacks, then took it in turns to go to the public toilet on the other side of the park. Overly-aggressive squirrels menaced us for food. To our gratitude, a passing dog chased them for a few minutes. Despite it being well into the day, the cold persisted. Sarah fashioned a rudimentary scarf from arm-warmers.
We packed up and walked on. A tall, old church approached and receded. A supermarket made for another toilet break for those who didn’t go in the park, while the remainder of us milled around outside, restless to keep going so soon after lunch, and conscious of the short November day. We passed into 1930’s spacious suburbia, but it wasn’t picturesque. We were soon back on the main road after overtaking a pair of gossiping teenage girls. A bridge led over an anonymous watercourse; green spaces opened up on the right, together with a railway line. The road became larger, car-based, not intended for pedestrians. A hospital sat on a low rise on our left, big, unhygienic-looking.
Our main road went on interminably, boring. Yet, it was straight and lacked deviation, and we covered ground fast. Soon we crossed under the railway, which swept from our right to our left over our road. On our right, now more green space. Matt and Marita vowed to continue to Uxbridge before they took the train back into London. We weren’t sure how far that was, but the mileages on signs failed to decrease.
The compass didn’t point us into Southall Park, on our left, but we took an unprompted detour to be in the park, paralleling the road. The light was slowly fading, and the sun could be seen dimly nearing the horizon. We stopped momentarily to play in the children’s playground, but motivation was low, and the dull light further sapped our enthusiasm, contributed to further by our uncertainty as to how much further we had to go. An elderly, well-dressed Sikh man walked his dog across the park.
Then, we returned to the main road, and emerged into the centre of Southall, a gloriously busy Punjabi area, with sari shops and plenty of delicious smells.
Leaving Southall, we again walked for an age along the interminably long main road. Over miles the road became a dual carriageway with outer-suburban shops and pubs dotted along it. Broken ‘for sale’ signs and mysterious warehouses. It felt that it would never end, despite our fast pace, and it was getting dark. Morale was low in the group. We finished the mince pies sitting in a bus stop. There were still no hints of favourable places to sleep.
As it continued to darken we saw a path leading away from the road to our right, leading into some parkland woods, so we took it. We walked through the woods, emerging back into a leafy new housing estate. The woods were far too small to sleep in, and adjacent to houses and roads. We were clearly not out of London yet. Before we knew it, we’d doubled back to the main road.
Soon, though, a small road led off to the right. It was dark and promising, though the dual carriageway was still distinctly suburban. Sarah and I decided to take it, encouraged by a sign for a golf course. Matt and Marita opted to continue along the main road, intending to reach Uxbridge tube station and return to London to sleep in their bed.
We paced down the road, but tall spiked metal fences embedded in equally foreboding hedges squashed any thought of climbing into the golf course beyond. It had turned completely dark, and the road wasn’t helping with its sporadic pavement. Traffic was infrequent. Our morale remained low, though we retrained a glimmer of hope that we’d find somewhere soon. Instead of becoming more countryside-like, however, the road became progressively more suburban. We took a left, intuiting that any motion away from London was good. Down a hill. Another couple walked past in the opposite direction; before they came near we joked that it was Matt and Marita. It wasn’t. Their company would have been nice despite having just bid them farewell.
At the bottom of the hill we found a map describing scenic walks. We were evidently close to a possible campsite, and Sarah and I were both exhausted and eager to camp. We spied Uxbridge station on the map — about a mile away. But it wasn’t clear where we could camp. A green space was depicted to our right. We crossed the road and peered into a hole in the hedge to see a crashed car halfway down the bank toward the stream. We went to explore the green space, to evaluate its use as a campsite. It wasn’t far from the road, but had long and tussocky grass, and was directly beneath the tube line on an embankment. It would have been a poor place to sleep, and locals might easily have stumbled upon us. Tube trains came and went; we joked that we should be waving to Matt and Marita.
Shouldering our packs, we walked back to the map and the crashed car, up the hill through suburban housing, and took a turning to a road under a bridge over which the tube line ran. Immediately we found a path into playing fields. A man walked fifty metres ahead. With him, a dog with an attached blinking multicoloured LED attached, blinking into the night. We followed them, and gained a vista of a large road. The M40, or A40? We didn’t know. We walked on, away from the suburbs, through two playing fields, and toward a wood. As we came closer, however, we realized that the wood bordered the busy road and was far too noisy. The wood was also impenetrable, as I discovered when I took out my head-torch to probe for a route in. It was 6pm and we were in dire need of a place to sleep after the uneventful and draining death-march of the day.
To add to our need, it began to spit with rain, and it was clear that we needed to setup camp. We returned to the second playing field, crossed to the bottom, the farthest side of the field from the path which people would be walking along. A large stream flowed along the bottom of the field, preventing us crossing, but we were a field-and-a-half from the main road, and it didn’t seem as if anyone would be wandering around the playing fields in the dark and rain. We dropped our bags. Soon we had the tent setup, and lentils cooking on my Pepsi-can stove in the tent’s awning. We were glad to have brought a duvet to line the ground, and I made a hot water bottle from my water bottle. Our morale quickly rose after the slog of the day. We quickly consumed the lentils, set the alarm for 6am, and by 8pm we had lights out and were bundled up to sleep in the cold.
In the middle of the night the rain started in earnest. We knew it would, and it absolutely poured. Later we discovered that a large storm had passed across the country. Nevertheless, we slept well, exhausted by one of the longer and more arduous walks of the year. We woke and packed quickly without breakfast, and headed on our way. Thankfully, the rain had stopped, although the walk to Uxbridge was predictably wet and grimy. Soon, we were on the tube home, exhausted from the long walk and poor sleep. It took the day to recover.