It is later than I would have liked as I reach the entrance of the Lea Valley Walk. My watch indicates 6.40am. I should have been here half an hour earlier. I shrug the thought away. I cannot go back in time.
I look at the path ahead of me but I cannot see very far. The street lights only illuminate a few yards. I strap my headlamp to my head and start walking. It’s eerily quiet for a moment. All I can hear is the crunching of my footsteps on the ground, but soon the birds start to sing. I smile. Birds are becoming a constant presence near me whenever I go walking, whenever I go riding. I never used to hear them so much before.
I walk happily along the path. The borough of Richmond is miles away. The plan is to reach it around 4pm but in that instant it doesn’t matter. The river Lea is all I care about. It’s a breath of air in the gigantic city of London. It’s full of enchantment, the barges taking you far away into dream adventures in mainland Europe. You are taken out of London, allowed to believe you’re in the countryside for an instant, but only just an instant as soon you step into a grey industrial estate and you are reminded of the cars, the speed and the madness of the city. You are not in the wild.
The day rises but still I am walking alone. I was expecting to meet dog walkers and early joggers but no one seems to want to tread along the river even though it’s a bright Saturday morning.
I pass Tottenham and it feels like a step is reached. I am out of Enfield, the adventure can start now. I am not home any longer. A few minutes later I reached a boating club. I smile as finally I find people awake. Houses and parks are much closer to the river than before. It’s easier to access it and the path is suddenly alive with people. Dog walkers are all out, joined by joggers and a few cyclist happily riding along.
I look at my watch curious to see how long I have walked for. Walking is supposed to be slow – three miles an hour they say. And yet I don’t feel the slowness of my steps. It is barely eight o’clock but I feel like I have walked a long distance since I started. It is a comforting thought. I am used to speeding by on my bike to cross London in a couple of hours. I expected to be frustrated by the slow progress I would make on foot, but I am happy. Maybe I am just tricked by the constantly changing scenery, my mind believing I have walked far as my eyes can never see far behind.
The hours tick by and three and half hours after my first step on the Lea Valley path, I finally meet up with the Thames. It is huge and it feels wrong to classify the Thames and river Lea under the same noun. They are not in the same playing field at all. I pause to take it in for a second as I realise I have reached the second part of my journey. I have travelled as far south as I needed. I now have to head west. The task feels daunting as I know it will take me much longer but I have made it this far. I know I can make it to Richmond. I take a deep breath and start looking for the Thames path, hoping it will be as enchanting as the Lea Valley Path.
It takes me longer than I expect to find the actual path. I try to follow the river but the path doesn’t actually start near the water. I have to make my way through back streets in between rows of offices. The scenery couldn’t be different. I have left the barges far behind me and I am now met with cars and an endless flow of busy pedestrians. I hope it won’t look like this all the way. Soon enough though, I find myself walking along the Thames, only I am high up on a wall that separate me from the shores of the river. I feel sad at the loss of the water so close to me, but I guess there is no other choice. The Thames is much more alive than the river Lea. It needs its own space.
Before long my worries fall away as I reach a peaceful and quiet housing estate. Small apartment buildings pops up all around me, houses stuck in between them and the river flowing in the middle of the street. It is a shadow of itself, a small trail of water that must run deeper underground. It feels like I am breaching in a private estate, a small oasis of peace so close to busy area of the city.
I soon reach Tower Hill and the peace stops abruptly. London as the world knows it kicks in. I am happy to have reached this point. I have walked from the edge of North London to the Tower of London. I have walked from a tourist free area to here. It feels like a huge accomplishment, something to be celebrated, and yet I cannot find it in me to rejoice for long. There are too many people around me, the languages mixing in an incomprehensible babble of words. The birds have gone. I have reached an area controlled by men. I knew I would have to walk this way when I departed but I never considered it. I feel my thoughts stifling, my mind retracting on itself and focused on one goal only: I need to reach the other side as soon as possible. I put my head down and walk as fast as I can. In a moment my legs begin to hurt.
I don’t want to stop to eat until I’m much further west but my stomach keeps grumbling. I feel grumpy and the crowd is becoming less and less bearable. I have to stop and eat. I zigzag impatiently between couples and families to buy a sandwich. As I bite into it, I immediately start to feel refreshed. I walk on, raising my head once more to look at the scenery a. The food feels good on my body and mind but I can’t bring myself to enjoy this part of the walk. I wonder if it’s going to be like this until I am well clear of Central London. I hope not but I have a dreadful feeling that it will be. I know West London and it is not until you reach far into it that it stops being a highly urbanised area.
I reach Battersea Park but miss it. This little island of green is on the south bank of the Thames, teasing me with its lush greenness. My legs are tired and I find it difficult to bear the roaring of the cars but I don’t want to cross the bridge. The green of nature is tempting but it would mean putting in more steps than needed to reach Richmond, and Battersea Park is not endless. I would eventually reach the road again. So I remain on the north bank and walk on.
I get lost in Chelsea as the Thames path suddenly disappears from sight. I don’t have the strength to look for it and if I’m honest I’m almost glad I have lost it. I am tired of following a main road. Instead I spot a cycle route that makes my heart leap. It tells me Putney is in three miles and Richmond Park in seven. Until this point I didn’t feel the end was near but now I know I can make it. I walk with a new spring in my steps, happily following the cycle signs that leads me far away from major roads into back streets and small alleys.
A while later, I find the Thames path again. I cannot help but smile a the sign as if I have found a long-lost friend. I want to reprimand it for letting me down and making me follow a cycle route, but I only take a picture of it. I want to hug the next sign as it joins the riverside and the roads finally feel far in the distance. I enjoy the respite but it doesn’t last. The path keeps fluctuating between the cars and the water, unable to decide which one to follow. I start feeling exasperated but I keep on walking. The quicker my feet are the sooner I’ll reach the end.
At the entrance of a park, I pick up a strong-looking fallen branch. I break it in half to fit my height and walk on. I cannot help but laugh in sheer pleasure as a minute later I am once more on the edge of the river. I am still high up on a wall but at least there is nature everywhere I look. I pause for an instant and look around me. I can see Putney bridge to the east and the brown and green of nature to the west. I have left the city and there is finally a new trail to be explored.
There are a lot of people walking with me but I don’t mind them. They are residents, enjoying a Saturday afternoon stroll by the Thames. We are the same. We are going slowly, taking a deep breath to rejuvenate after a week in the office.
I want to pause and take photographs but I don’t. I am mentally refreshed but my body is tiring. I need all of my energy to push me forward, so I simply walk. I settle into an easy rhythm on that straight stretch of the Thames path and let the music in my ears carry me along.
The music soon becomes my only means to keep going. I am exhausted and my legs hurt. At every step they beg me to stop, to give up, but I can’t. I don’t want to. Instead I pause now and again, standing in the middle of the pavement I give my legs a short rest from movement and hope I’ll soon be closer to Richmond.
I pass Hammersmith Bridge and I know I am really close now but I can’t make it. All I want is to cross the Thames, make it to the south bank and ride a bus to the end of my journey. Only there are no bridges in sight and I don’t know when the next one will come. I look back longingly to Hammersmith bridge. There is nothing stopping me from turning back. I haven’t dictated any rules for my microadventure. But I can’t walk back. It would feel like giving up. So I keep on walking west, focusing on the drums of the music to push me forward.
I don’t expect it when I see it. There is a sign in front of me letting me know that if I turn left I will reach Barnes bridge in half a mile. My heart leaps and I find a new spring in my step, but it only last for a couple of minutes until I realise that Barnes bridge is a railway bridge. My heart drops. Are pedestrians allowed to cross it? I shake my head and quickly put the thought aside. I am heading for a bridge in half a mile. It is all I need to know.
My steps feel very slow. My muscles ache as never before. I want to stop. I want to collapse on the ground and cry. Barnes bridge is nowhere to be seen. I am certain the sign has been lying to me. I will never reach the crossing. But I can’t stop. I promised myself that I could make it to Barnes bridge so I have to. I raise my head and force myself to look ahead. Maybe if I project myself a little way further my feet will bring me there? Somehow they do.
Time painfully slows down but I will not let it me stop. I battle on and before long I am rewarded with Barnes bridge erupting into view, pedestrians walking along the rail lines. I almost run at the sight but my legs won’t let me. I pause for a long minute, staring incredulously at the sight. I’ve made it. I’ve reached the bridge. I cross it with a smile on my face.
I find a bus stop on the other side of the Thames and wait for salvation. I stretch my legs while waiting and feel the pain melt away. I keep on stretching, a wide grin growing on my face as I realise what I’ve just done. I have walked from Ponders End to Barnes. All the pains and aches vanish at this thought. I have done it. I’ve walked nine hours and a half to cross London. It is ridiculous. No one does that. But I did, and I’ve made it.