I don’t know if you’ve ever found yourself walking along a sleepy river through the outskirts of London on a Saturday afternoon, but I can highly recommend it.
I was in Victoria Park. I needed to be up in the wilds of Clapton. I consulted the map. A blue ribbon of water stretched from where I was to where I wanted to go.
I knew that along the River Lee was a very charming walking and cycle path, bordering some fields on the far side. Between the edge of the park and the river was a tangle of large motorway ramps and unprepossessing houses huddled all close together, giving a very convincing impression of urbanness. Think graffiti (not the edgy collectable kind, but the illegible scrawl kind), weeds poking through pavement slabs, an assortment of broken-down furniture jumbled in front gardens, and stray takeaway containers lurking sullenly at street corners.
I ventured forth.
How lost I must have appeared to the residents, striding gamely along in my flouncy blue dress with my stupidly large handbag, backpacked, intermittently consulting my A-Z. As ever, the A-Z pointed my steps in the right direction and at the end of one such road there suddenly loomed a pedestrian bridge leading across the river.
On steps on the far side of the bridge sat two teenage girls practicing a rap, working through the transition from a slow rhythm into a faster flow of words, giggling self-consciously when I interrupted them. They starting again, their words bouncing against the walls on the built-up side of the water and echoing back at the trees.
Leaving them behind I was plunged into a world of Saturday nature-seekers. Cyclists wheeled past at a relaxed pace. A pregnant woman and her partner ambled along, pointing out nesting birds to each other. Over the fence I could see a ball game in a field. People smiled, nodding a greeting as I passed them. Was that a horse on the path on the other side of that field?
A barge working upriver made a low soporific drone, moving at a pace I could easily outwalk. Families wandered along the path’s edge, exploring flowers and trees and vines. Narrowboat owners sat at cafe tables beside their vessels, drinking coffee and idly speculating whether the clouds might turn to rain.
And then I was at the bridge I needed, coming up to road level from the quiet environs of the river. Cars and buses sped along at a different angle, at a different pace. As I picked my way across the road I marveled that such a sharp contrast could be so close at hand yet feel so far away at the same time.