I haven’t made any new year resolutions, but if I had, one of them would be to make more time for walking. It almost doesn’t matter where. Rebecca Solnit, in her fascinating book ‘Wanderlust’, talks about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot:
‘…people nowadays live in a series of interiors – home, car, gym, office, shops – disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one…lives in the whole world rather than in the interiors built up against it.’
Whenever I can, I love to be out of London with mud on my boots. But that obviously requires time and organisation. And you can enjoy the freedom and ease of a good walk without even leaving London.
So, with a free morning early in the new year, I took the train up to Hampstead and walked back into central London.
I didn’t walk entirely aimlessly. I followed the route of the ancient River Fleet, one of London’s many hidden rivers. It was apparently in Roman times quite substantial, with a tide mill at the estuary and a valley deep enough further up to require spanning in the 1840s with the iron bridge that became Holborn Viaduct.
You wouldn’t know it now: the river is mostly invisible. It was heavily polluted after Anglo-Saxon times (including with carcasses from Smithfield Market), and became progressively an open sewer and – from the mid-nineteenth century – a sewer buried beneath the streets.
Nevertheless, the route of the river makes an easy and enjoyable morning’s walk. I left Hampstead tube station and walked briskly up to Hampstead Heath. A slightly muddy track descended a hill and crossed a modest bridge over a weak stream. This was the source of the Fleet.
A little further on, the stream flowed into a series of three ponds. The first of these was Hampstead’s famous bathing pool (containing no swimmers on this sunny but cold January morning), with the others given over to birds.
There remained plenty of interest above ground. Down the hill from the Heath, I turned into a road called South Hill Park, close to Hampstead Heath overground station. The pub here, the Magdala, is notable for a dramatic piece of 1950s history. On Easter Sunday 1955, Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, shot her lover, David Blakely. She was hanged at Holloway Prison the following July.
Oddly, this same road – only yards from the Magdala – was also the scene of the murder that led to the execution of the second to last woman to be hanged in Britain, Styllou Christofi. She was convicted in 1954 for the grisly murder at number 11 South Hill Park of her daughter-in-law, Hella, and hanged at Holloway in December 1954. (Mrs Christofi appeared to have had a tricky relationship with her in-laws, having been tried in 1925 in Cyprus for killing her mother-in-law by ramming a lighted torch down her throat. She was not convicted that time.)
Walking on, and resisting the temptation of the numerous bakeries and coffee shops in Hampstead and Haverstock Hill, I passed a number of houses once occupied by notable figures of the Left.
The bakery at 1 South End was once a bookshop occupied for a short time by George Orwell. Past Hampstead Green, in a side road off Haverstock Hill, was the former home of Labour’s first prime minister, Ramsey MacDonald.
Finally, after a very satisfying climb over Primrose Hill, there was the house in Regents Park Road where Friedrich Engels once lived.
I fear that passing the house of the great political thinker and sidekick of Karl Marx did not prompt deep thoughts in me. Instead, I could not get out of my head for the next mile the lyrics from The Magnificent Seven, by the Clash:
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, came to the checkout at the 7-11,
Marx was skint, but he had sense – Engels lent him the necessary pence
By now, as the route descended from the posh heights of Hampstead, I was moving into less wealthy, more mixed neighbourhoods. But no less interesting for that. Turning away from Primrose Hill, my route took me along Fitzroy Road. A plaque at number 23 records that it was once the home of the poet WB Yeats.
It is probably more famous for its top-floor flat, where the more modern poet Sylvia Plath lived from 1962 until she killed herself on 11 February 1963.
After that sobering sight, it was a welcome change of pace to descend a set of steps to the towpath of the Regents Canal, and to follow it into Camden. All at once I found myself among the crowds who flock to Camden Lock and the neighbourhood around in order to stock up on over-priced tat and street food.
By now – hungry and a tiny bit tired – I decided that Camden was the place to break my walk. Five miles in, the remaining four to the Thames could wait for another day.
A short walk further along the canal brought me to Camden Road station, and a half hour trip back to Brockley via the magic that is the Overground Line. My morning amble along the northern stretch of the Fleet left me refreshed and resolved to make sure I made the time to do this more often. It’s easy to neglect the fascinating streetscapes and intriguing corners of our own city.
New year’s resolution: make the most of what’s on our doorstep.