Walking from the City

Footwork, June 5th, 2013. University of East London to Dartford.

This is a subjective account of a walk undertaken by the network as part of Footwork – The Walking Artists Network as Mobile Community, led by Mark Hunter (PI) and Clare Qualmann (CI), at the University of East London. The project is supported by a grant from the AHRC.  

This is a landscape I recognize only from the Sinclair/Kötting film Swandown, but unlike those two, who invade East London by way of Swan pedalo, we are heading out. By the end of the journey, I realise that I have been in flight from the beginning. Somewhat plane phobic, our starting point on a university campus seemingly situated on the runway of City Airport is a place of anxiety for me, despite its smiling staff and students. As we walk, we are led West, towards the city, till we are opposite Woolwich, finding ourselves on a path where bluntly racist graffiti is fresh testimony to the horror of recent weeks. We cross the river by ferry, buy elaborately packaged strawberries and sandwiches in the Woolwich Sainsbury’s, before turning back on ourselves to take the path East – and out.

 London gently unravels as we walk the linear path, bordered by the river, the far bank a distant panorama of industry and wind turbines. The path follows the flood defences, and some thought has gone into preparing it for leisure walks, though it lacks the pubs, the parks, the river frontage that would support this ambition. Instead, the way is lined with the city infrastructure: sewage works, Victorian and 21st century buildings, each with their own architectural aspiration; cement works with long conveyor belts sloping towards the river like some rusting fairground ride; a scrap-heap where an iron claw stretches towards us, plucks a skip lightly from the ground and carelessly empties it onto a pile. Who walks here? No one much, it appears, at least on a mid-week morning. A few joggers and cyclists. Occasionally a dog-walker. Frequently we have the path to ourselves.

 Between us and the river, wildlife sometimes asserts itself, and wild flowers blow in the heat. There is progressively more green as we walk, although a look at a map later shows that the urban environment extends on either side of this strip of water and river bank. The Dartford bridge is ahead of us – this is where we will stop for the night.

 At first, I enjoy talking to people, but as the walk continues, I become more silent. It’s a long walk for me, and I need my breath for completing it. In any case,  ceasing conversation is a necessary part of the silence that I seem to be seeking with my feet, conscious of walking seaward, away from what seems to me a clamourous landscape. Mark says the places of this walk are ‘not London’, by which he means that people who live here don’t necessarily identify with central London, or the ‘global metropolis’, but with their own particular centres and spaces.  For people who live in these, ‘The Olympics didn’t come to London,’ he says, ‘It came to Newham’. This makes sense to me, even if, to my unaccustomed eyes, it’s all London. The ‘not London’ effect extends well beyond the city’s periphery. Places, overshadowed by the idea of London, are quite particular, still.

 In the last part of the walk, I deliberately choose to walk alone, following the path inland again, in pursuit of a way across a broad creek. Here, I become immersed in the meditative silence of rhythmic walking, breath, sun and stony ground, sunburn beginning to sting on my forehead, a group ahead, others behind, one step at a time, clinging disoriented to the line of the path.

 And now this reminds me of another context, another conversation, where I was discussing community and interactivity in performance work, and broke through the conversation to say, ‘Something quieter, I’m wanting something quieter’.

 Something quieter should not mean something easier, though it probably means ‘not London’. That is, it probably means abandoning, for a while at least, the idea of the capital city, the self-importance of participation as a global player on some abstractly international ‘stage’, and burrowing into the particular place and moment , performing the simple act of crossing a landscape. Even when as far as everyone else is concerned, London is where you are.