A DAY IN LONDON
Trip to London - 6 February 2014
ABOUT FRIENDSHIP AND URBAN WALKING IN THE RAIN
Was this a good idea? Planning a trip to London on the day of the tube strike and with atrocious weather forecast?
At first glance: no. The train arrived at Paddington, all underground stations were closed with shutters down, tourists and locals looked helplessly at big maps, trying to figure out how to get to their destinations. Gone the security of blindly following the crowd down narrow passageways underground, oblivious to anything other than the tube map, focused on the destination stop, unaware of what lies between or the sights above ground. Those who travel from Paddington to the City every morning, or to Oxford Street, or to Covent Garden, suddenly seemed to have no idea where they were, exited the station unsure whether to turn right or left, autopilot disabled, tried to figure out where the nearest bus stop was before abandoning any hope that they could squeeze into the overcrowded buses without being suffocated. What to do, where to turn?
Well, I turned into WH Smith and bought a small map. My destination was King's Cross Station where I had arranged to meet an old colleague for lunch. I had left myself an hour to get there, and if the underground would not take me, my feet most certainly would. Being hopeless at orienteering, I was glad to see how straightforward the route was. Just turn left into Praed Street, then pass Edgware Road and turn right into Marylebone Road, which eventually turns into Euston Road, leading directly to King's Cross Station.
To say that I had a lovely walk would be a lie. Other people had the same idea, people bumped into each other, heavy rain was relentlessly pouring down on us and one had to duck and dive to prevent umbrellas from poking you in the eyes. Educational however it was. Why had I, on my frequent trips into London in the past, spent so much time letting overcrowded tube trains pass to wait for the second, the third or even the fourth one to finally take me, sweaty and exhausted, to Edgware Road, when this station is only a 5 minute walk away? And how nice to see London overground, even on a horrendously wet day like this?
For the first time I consciously noticed how close the tube stations are together. On my walk I passed Baker Street and the ghost of Sherlock Holmes, Madame Tussaud's overpriced wax cabinet, Harley Street and its eminent physicians and also the Royal Academy of Music. I found the house, indicated by a blue plaque, where Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. I passed the British Library and Euston Station before arriving at the imposing St Pancras Hotel and finally, after 50 minutes and battered by the rain, reached my destination, The Parcel Yard in King's Cross, where my friend was already waiting - with 10 minutes to spare.
The black cabs probably did very good business on that day, but how great was it to see so many people show initiative, consult the bus timetable for alternative transport, look at their smart phones and tablets for road maps and walking routes, leave the daily rut behind and stride out per pedes to work or in pursuit of other purposes. And how smug we pedestrians felt to walk past all these endless queues of cars on the ring road, stuck in a traffic jam of gigantic proportions. We beat them all for time and benefited from the exercise.
In the end I abandoned all other plans I had had for my day out in London, simply stayed in the pub and rejoiced in seeing an old friend and colleague again, swapping tales with him, having a few drinks and a sumptious 4-hour lunch in convivial company. And then I walked back to Paddington, rain still pouring, my umbrella being broken by a strong gust of gale-force wind, drenched and dishevelled, but happy and relaxed after a day away from my desk and routines.
Two hours in the train from Cheltenham to London, two hours back, delayed by flooding en route - a day well spent?
Yes, absolutely, and much enhanced by a pleasurable read: A.C. Grayling's thoughtful book on "Friendship". One sentence, freely quoted ad sensum from Roger Bacon's essay "On Friendship", shall conclude this reflection. I dedicate this to my friends.
"Real loneliness is experienced by those who have no friends; for them the world is a wilderness."