Say what you like about London, but it has some of the best walking of any city in the country and, for a city this size, probably the world. One of the ‘hidden’ joys of living here is that you can find walking routes all over the city, often avoiding the horrendous traffic…and, to give Londoners due credit, the people of this city walk further on average each year than residents of any other part of the United Kingdom. Hard to believe, but true.
When I moved to London twelve years ago, I lived at a friend’s flat in Finsbury Park for six months. Having just returned to London after fourteen months in Latin America, I find myself a guest of her hospitality again. Named after a Victorian-era park, Finsbury Park is an area of great ethnic and cultural diversity. There is a particularly large Turkish community – making it the area to head to for good Turkish food.
Finsbury Park opened in 1869, in response to the needs of an ever expanding and urbanised population, but inside the park is a clue to a more extensive history…also responding to the increasing urbanisation of London: The New River. Although separated by 250 years, both the river and the park give an indication of the needs of Londoners as the city developed towards its current monstrous size.
Thankfully, modern-day city planners and politicians (with encouragement from environmental campaigners), have conspired to link many of London’s green spaces together. From Finsbury Park you can walk an urban trail, formerly a nineteenth century commuter railway line, unmolested by cars all the way to Highgate. Here, the ancient Highgate Wood awaits exploration.
Like most bits of London, the spray-paint mafia has been at work along the trail. If all street art is subversive, some is more political, with more social commentary, than others…
Once part of the huge Forest of Middlesex, and mentioned in the Doomsday Book, its a miracle that the small but lovely chunk of ancient forest that is Highgate Wood has survived into the twenty-first century. Wandering along its leaf-dappled trails, its easy to ignore the giant A1 road (or the Great North Way to give it its historic name) which passes nearby. From Highgate Wood its a short walk to Highgate Village, and one of the world’s most celebrated burial sites, Highgate Cemetery.
Even if we ignore all the literary giants buried in the cemetery, Highgate’s place in the literary world is assured: it was home of the Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell, friend and colleague of John Milton, as well as the Romantic poet, and legendary opium addict, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Like many others, I studied Marvell’s poem To His Coy Mistress at school. As a heartfelt plea to the carnal, it remains an all time favourites (see below).Highgate Village is distinctive, not to say aloof, from the rest of London. It was a separate village until engulfed by urban sprawl, yet, thanks conservation efforts, it still maintains its historic feel. This fact, and its location on the edge of Hampstead Heath, makes it one of the most expensive places to live in London. Luckily it has a couple of nice pubs in which to rest and take the view of houses you’ll never be able to afford.
Refreshed, walk (un)steadily down hill for a short distance and, as if by magic, you’ll suddenly find yourself in the wondrous open spaces of Hampstead Heath, and its famous swimming ‘ponds’. Before injury scuppered my passion for running, I regularly ran on Hampstead Heath’s trails, up and down hills and through its woodland. Its a magical place to be, with views all the way to the giant skyscrapers in central London.
Returning to Highgate en route back to Finsbury Park, I noticed a skeleton in a window…
London is an ancient city, you don’t need to look far to find death. In Highgate that means Highgate Cemetery, but that is for another day…
…and here’s that Andrew Marvell poem:Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate. But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace. Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.