Hendon, Wed 7 October 2020
I wanted to go for long walks without taking public transport. I didn’t want to walk myself into the ground or bore myself rigid linking up the same green corridors in my dog-eared, much-loved in its day, OS Explorer Map 173, which lost its cover many years ago. In fact, before the visitation, I had managed to convince myself – not without some justification – that I had walked every single footpath near the Northern Line. Now, all my old haunts seemed to have lost their allure. I spent so much time faffing over a destination that more often than not I’d either throw in the towel altogether and go back to whatever I was doing or go for a walk around the block.
I had experimented a bit with random walks some time ago but never got in the habit of them. I overcomplicated my system and also – frankly – cheated: threw the dice again if I didn’t like the answer. Now though, in more constrained times, the randomness has more appeal. Not only am I spared the horrible emptiness of decision making, I know that every walk will be unique. Equally importantly for someone whose frame is beginning to creak, I know that I should be able to get home again under my own steam.
What the walks aren’t are an excuse to list every neat historical factoid from every single step of the route. Part of the appeal of sharing the walks on Instagram is that they can be wordless. I hope that I will be able to share them without cudgelling my brains to produce words which become grey clouds to readers who would rather be out walking or looking at videos of cats.
Spoke is a word of layered and sometimes opposite meanings. I may speak. I may not. I might spoke silently like a ship passing in the Channel: ‘Yesterday I spoke a Ship from Gibraltar’.
This week I spoke Mr Jo’s Bench on Sandy Heath. Being an Instagram newbie, I had no idea that my clip would be further clipped by the app, obscuring an already thin narrative. The inscription reads: ‘For Mr Jo and his dogs “Dead gloriously dead”,’ which is the definition of a good story: at least that part which leaves you wanting more.
I can’t help you with Mr Jo, I’m afraid, but I can tell you who fixed the tag to the back of the bench with a DeWalt 18v drill and a screwdriver. It was me in 2016. I didn’t even know I was autistic then. It never occurred to me that people might not like bench-tagging as much as me. Inputting the data into a beautiful spreadsheet only increased my enjoyment. I loved watching the map fill up with location dots like measles.
I did have sufficient self-knowledge to know that researching the inscriptions would kill me. For every story, there were a thousand rabbit traps for a researcher. The best, like Mr Jo’s, had no backstory anyway: written in water long since piped Thameswards under the courts of Kentish Town. There was probably a bit of bloody-mindedness as well. Most people in this great city can’t afford to sit down, let alone memorialise their loved ones in wood and word.
William Pitt’s Gateway, also on Sandy Heath, is just a random doorway in the middle of the woods and it feels creepy walking through it. You can’t quite believe that nothing happens: a bit like my writing. But perhaps something did happen. I downloaded This Sceptered Isle 1702-1760 when I got home and started filling in some more blanks in my historical mindmap. Looking stuff up is a sign that the walk has had a positive effect.
Hidden in the southernmost corner of Brent Park are the hobbity, Germanic remains of a garden feature from the time of the Brent Bridge Hotel. If you like stuff like this: history falling apart in real-time, hidden but not erased by Ocado vans and socially distanced Mercedes garages, then you should look up the work of Nick Papadimitriou and John Rogers. Psychogeography, Deep Topography – whatever you want to call it, involves the practice of mindful walking: seeing the world from the perspective of the overlooked and marginal: the buried river, the nineteenth-century field boundary, the stink pipes, isolation hospitals and perry orchards of deep London. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the whirlpool either: the Brent Skerries. Watercress once grew in the Mutton Brook. Today the early autumn leaves looked like an expensive salad.
Ladbrokes marked my five-mile point: an appropriate destination for a walk dictated by the throw of a dice. Heading homeward I baulked at retracing my steps but not wanting to add too much to the distance followed the river to Henlys Corner and walked home via Temple Fortune and Golders Green. Spoke 1, I decided, was a guarded success. The wheel was not exactly on fire, but neither was it altogether a dud.