Walking From Home

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By the Malden Manor Mosaic on the Loop Section 8
By the Malden Manor Mosaic on the Loop Section 8

I’m aware that in a couple of years this blog has gone from Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat to “country walks through fields skirting the Greater London boundary”. But it’s almost October, and we’re trying to avoid substituting our summertime picnics with warmer but coronavirus-friendly indoor gatherings, so long outdoor walks are the obvious fallback. Since my last post we’ve managed two more London LOOPs which really brought home the incredible diversity of styles and landscapes on the outskirts of the city.

This wasn’t so true walking from Ewell to Kingston, where the highest high was the genuinely amazing Malden Manor Mosaic under a railway bridge and the lowest low was an absurd street of semis where every single home had plumped for a custom name rather than, y’know, numbers. (I’m sorry, there’s nothing wrong with calling yourself “Rose Cottage” if you live between the Post Office and 12th century church in a quaint country village. But on a normal street it’s just silly.)

Direct from your fairytale book of choice
Direct from your fairytale book of choice

The next section, though – which runs from Kingston to Heathrow Airport Hatton Cross) – is quite the journey. The first half goes through the ginormous Bushy Park, which others have raved to me about and I had high expectations for. Expectations met. It’s a park where the path takes you past rutting stags facing off against each other in prime mating season before diverting into a second beautiful ‘Woodland Gardens’ park-within-a-park in case you’re sick of the first beautiful park by now – the spiritual opposite of running a motorway over another motorway. We’re already planning a trip back.

By the other end of the walk, however, you’re getting closer and closer to the huge ecosystem of Heathrow Airport so things get a little… weird. Hounslow Heath was the site of the first regular London airport a century ago, so now it just has an eerie “what if all the humans died off?” quality. No-one else was around. We were unnerved. One of the London LOOP markers had been replaced by a scrawled handwritten sign. We grew paranoid. After we passed into the adjacent wood we walked past a group of men laughing and drinking together by a campfire just off the path, like a cheerful troupe from the post-apocalyptic Station Eleven. We hurried on. And then we reached Hatton Cross on the outskirts of Heathrow, flanked by grounded aeroplanes (which now feels like a glimpse of another reality) and a sad, solitary horse looking on from a tiny field by the A30. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t find out about the venomous adders until we got home.

Reaching the Thames, last seen on the LOOP at Purfleet nine months earlier
Reaching the Thames, last seen on the LOOP at Purfleet nine months earlier
A resident of Bushy Park
A resident of Bushy Park
At Longford River, a 17th century canal through the park
At Longford River, a 17th century canal through the park
Archaeological site of London Heathrow, circa 2120
Archaeological site of London Heathrow, circa 2120
"It's a trap!"
“It’s a trap!”
This path was fine, but it's no Awkward Little Path
This path was fine, but it’s no Awkward Little Path

I know you’re sick of reading about walks at this point but I have just one more – and that’s last Sunday’s jaunt with Erin to Oxted, just outside of London, for the Oxted Circular Walk which Randi found. No post-apocalyptic vibe on this one, though, just a decent trek through fields of sheep, Peter Rabbit’s Post Office and the “awkward little path” we were warned about in the very detailed walking instructions, which we thought sounded like the name of an alternative rock band from the 90s.

My eternal thanks to the staff of the Lincoln Park branch of REI in Chicago back in 2017 for finding me decent walking shoes 😀

Brief summary of September when we haven’t been walking or working: finishing the BBC’s thought-provoking Manctopia series on housing development, land use and homelessness in Greater Manchester, starting the new series of Bake-Off and enjoying a virtual board game night powered by Board Game Arena (why did nobody tell me about this before?) with Katie and Kim. And yes, we’re still trying to buy a flat. Rest assured it’ll offer great access to walking routes.

Yes, Randi and I really did go into separate rooms so we didn't have to share the sofa
Yes, Randi and I really did go into separate rooms so we didn’t have to share the sofa
LOOPer
LOOPer

Yesterday we made a very exciting return to our London LOOP walks after a hiatus of over five months. We celebrated with a double bill by combining the short sections 6 and 7 into one, and although they are not the most majestic or visually spectacular pair – section 7 is basically just a walk through the ultra-suburban streets of Epsom and Ewell – the weather was perfect for an afternoon picnic and ice creams in Oaks Park. We’ve now completed 17/24 sections of the LOOP and I am hopeful that we can build up some momentum again without a pesky pandemic getting in the way.

Epsom and Ewell is a place with quiet significance. By rights (just look at a map) it should be part of Greater London, and indeed this was the plan when London was expanded in the 1960s. But the locals kicked up a stink on the basis of “civic pride” and “the standard of planting of roundabouts and flowerbeds” and – just perhaps – a reluctance to pay any council tax to London even if, as commuters, they relied on London services. The government relented and the borough was allowed to remain with Surrey.

In a spirit of ingratitude, the borough continues to agitate for its rail stations to be included in London’s Zone 6 (thus benefiting from cheaper fares) and elects Chris Grayling as the local MP. This is the very same Chris Grayling who – as Transport Secretary – blocked TfL’s takeover of London’s suburban railways on the basis that areas just across the border – like Epsom and Ewell! – wouldn’t have any democratic input into TfL because they can’t vote for London’s Mayor. Because they’re not in London. Because… they didn’t want to be. Sigh.

So I’m not well-disposed towards Epsom and Ewell. But – wait – there’s a “who are the real monsters?” twist coming! Because at least Epsom and Ewell is honest: they want all of the benefits of London services but don’t want to be part of London, thank you very much. Absurd, but straightforward. And it is on the border, it does feel more like Surrey than London, and drawing the line around the edge of the city is always going to be a little arbitrary and messy. In contrast, nobody could be confused about where I live, right? It’s Tulse Hill, in the London Borough of Lambeth. It’s Zone 3. Over 70% of households live in flats.

And yet, just a few streets away from me, local residents are busy opposing planning permission for a 7-storey apartment block on derelict land. Some choice quotes:

  • “This application is not exactly sympathetic to its Georgian and early Victorian neighbours […] This area has a certain charm about it that is historically linked. Our children and young people need to see the restoration is sympathetic to the original architecture.”
  • “Balconies that receive little light and are part of small plan area flats are likely to be used as storage areas which rapidly degrades the appearance of a building.”
  • “My greatest objections to this development is the lack of parking in an area with hardly any provision for parking. would underground parking provision be feesible [sic]?”

Guys: I love Victorian and Georgian homes too. But when the Victorians and Georgians built their homes they were also “not exactly sympathetic” with the surrounding area, i.e. the fields. And newly-built blocks are much greener and more energy-efficient than poorly-insulated terraces from a century ago, as well as providing more homes for more people on a much smaller land footprint. But beyond all that: your Victorian house is not going to disappear just because someone else is living in something new.

I am tired of anyone posturing that they “care deeply” about the environment / the cost of living / welcoming immigrants / protecting the countryside if – in practice – they always find some reason to object to building homes for people in dense, well-connected urban areas. The more sophisticated objectors will usually cloak these complaints under a superficial language of “affordability”, as if the affordability of a flat is built into the brickwork. Pick any progressive housing policy you want: none of them will work if there aren’t enough homes.

So maybe I’m too harsh on the good people of Epsom and Ewell. NIMBY nonsense knows no borders.

At certain times of the year this lavender field would be totally killing it on Instagram
At certain times of the year this lavender field would be totally killing it on Instagram
Ewell never forget your visit here
Ewell never forget your visit here

Anyway! Last weekend was the very welcome three-day Bank Holiday and we kicked it off on Friday night by watching the incredible My Cousin Vinny. Randi’s boss had been recommending it for ages and we immediately realised why: Mona Lisa Vito (the standout character in a crowded field of great characters) is basically Randi in a thick New York accent. Highly recommended.

Hermann the activity fox
Hermann the activity fox

The next day we set off on an epic journey to the North (…of London) starting with a delicious fancy breakfast with Cat and Matt at The Wolseley near Green Park to celebrate Cat’s birthday. (Non-food highlight: Randi getting her temperature checked on entry but having no frame of reference for normal body temperatures in celsius.)

We then wandered as a group to Regent’s Park before Randi and I took the canal route to Queen’s Park for novel in-person catch-ups with our respective colleagues Jess and Jill and their families. By the time we made it to my mum’s for dinner with Alix (and a really delicious fish pie) I was happy but regretting my lightweight choice of walking shoes.

The next day we visited my dad and then pushed on to the veritable extremes of northernness (i.e. Kingsbury) for a Bang Bang lunch delivery at Josh and Anna’s. They provided our next film selection (Waking Ned, which we also both loved) and in return we gifted them with their own incarnation of my favourite activity fox which joins their impressive collection of baby paraphernalia. I’m very excited about this baby and regard it as a deep and personal triumph that it will grow up on the Jubilee line rather than the Bakerloo.

Delicious fancy breakfasts at a safe body temperature
Delicious fancy breakfasts at a safe body temperature
In Regent's Park
In Regent’s Park
Raclette
Raclette

All in all, the Bank Holiday was a really lovely last hurrah of summer. This weekend, other than walking the LOOP and becoming furious at the comments on the council’s planning website, the social highlight was a more autumn-appropriate evening of melty Raclette from Katie and Kim’s authentically Swiss raclette grill. They also both demonstrated their much-trailed Rubix cube solving powers, fed us giant slices from Katie’s “I only have one baking dish!” chocolate cake, printed me receipts (because I was excited by Kim’s real-life payment terminal) and gifted us Pierre, a penguin teapot. We promise to take good care of Pierre.

At least this test is just pass/fail...
At least this test is just pass/fail…

This morning I ticked off another box in the i-SPY: Coronavirus book as I awkwardly swabbed my throat and nose (it’s the same swab, but someone has already done the thinking for you about the right order), struggled to assemble the cardboard container and then placed my test sample in the fridge ready for collection by courier. This test was delivered after I was “chosen at random from the NHS list of patients registered with a GP” rather than for any specific reason, so hopefully it doesn’t show up any asymptotic surprises. But I can sympathise with parents who find it impossible to swab their children correctly – it’s not as easy as it sounds!

In a more pleasant Covid rite of passage, Randi and I finally took advantage of the ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme with a half-price dinner at the slightly-too-pricey-for-us Tulse Hill Hotel. I am keeping my photo of a receipt bearing the words “Government Discount” as a memento of this strange summer. And yes, I know that we are way behind those who have been patriotically filling every August Monday to Wednesday with subsidised meals, but to be honest we’re still a little full from our burst of eating out in Church Stretton.

That said, we have been able to ramp up the socialising last week which has been really, really lovely. Last Sunday we were joined by Caroline in Matt and Laura’s beautiful (and very apocalypse-ready) garden for a very British afternoon of pretending not to notice the on-again-off-again rain showers. I had to check my blog to confirm that it’s been a year since we were all together, but it appears that we are all naturally congregating in a relatively small patch of South East London so I hope it won’t be another year. We also had fish and chips with Amy and Adam in Brockwell Park and invited Erin round on Friday night for a Mamma Mia + Prosecco + cheese slumber party. It freaked us all out to realise that this film dates back to 2008.

And finally: after putting our flat-buying ambitions on hold at the start of the pandemic, we have picked things up again and (at time of writing, fingers crossed etc. etc. etc.) things are looking promising! So at some point this blog might shift into full-on homebuying mode…

Homage to the end of blackberry-picking season
Homage to the end of blackberry-picking season
Very happy to finally see these guys again!
Very happy to finally see these guys again!

A quick mini-post tonight, since I don’t want to fall behind on blogging even though things are still rather quiet. (It’s funny – it had started to feel that pre-lockdown life was a distant memory from many years ago, but now even things which have happened since the pandemic feel like an age away.) The most exciting development was that today we ventured the furthest away from home we’ve been since the pandemic began, catching a quiet weekend Thameslink train all the way up to Hendon and then walking to Kingsbury for a wonderful afternoon in Josh and Anna’s garden.

We’ve been dipping our toes into other little pools of normality too. I was one of those clichéd people who were desperate for a haircut last weekend when barbers reopened, and I promise this was less about looks and more about the annoyance of brushing it away all the time. But in the before-times I would never have believed that I could ever have found a haircut so… exhilarating. Even more excitingly, Randi and I finally found the perfect place for a holiday at the end of this month after many desperate days of trying to fulfil a long list of criteria. So now we are both extremely keen to stay healthy, because we could both do with a break.

Many congratulations to Katie and Kim for completing their epic 17-week run of weekly Thursday-night quizzes! On the final installment, our team bagged a podium finish which we’re very proud of. Off the back of one of Katie and Kim’s ‘Film Plots Acted Badly’ segments I was also introduced to The Devil Wears Prada last weekend, which was very enjoyable but has slightly deterred me from pursuing my dream career in the fashion industry.

The only time I can claim my public transport use is essential
The only time I can claim my public transport use is essential

I know we’re all struggling with dates and times right now, so let me try a new one out on you: we’ve now been in lockdown long enough for me to go through a whole cycle of blood donation. This means that today I enjoyed another brief foray onto the Victoria line and reassured myself that it’s still there and Tube trains are still running. Hurray!

In truth, it’s been a little easier to remember where we are on the calendar this weekend because it was my birthday on Friday so I’ve been enjoying a three-day weekend of many amazing birthday surprises and activities which Randi put together. Honestly, it feels like I’ve had several birthdays in one so I might have reached my mid-thirties by now.

As you can see, we kicked off with a very disco-inspired redecoration of the living room…

New balloons! Although I'm pretty proud that many of the balloons from Randi's birthday are still alive too.
New balloons! Although I’m pretty proud that many of the balloons from Randi’s birthday are still alive too.
My defence for the pig's intactness is that I didn't want to smash up their shed
My defence for the pig’s intactness is that I didn’t want to smash up their shed

After opening presents – and sampling Randi’s incredible homemade lemon drizzle cake – we walked to Crystal Palace Park for a delicious lunch from the café and shared outdoor beers with Randi’s colleague Sam. After a quick pit stop we then took a much shorter mystery surprise walk halfway up the road to Amy and Adam for another wonderful evening around their firepit, complete with gin, party poppers and – naturally – a pigata filled with chocolate.

For dinner we ordered from Amy’s childhood Indian takeaway with whom she has obtained a special exemption for a slightly expanded delivery zone which is exactly the kind of dedication I most admire. I’m very grateful to both Sam and Amy and Adam for adopting my birthday into their plans!

The biggest surprise came the next day, when our picnic with Katie & Kim in equidistant Burgess Park turned into a giant spread of food with mum, Tash and Cormac driving over to join. This is the first time the family has been all together since lockdown started and it was just really lovely to see each other again, especially while playing Throw Throw Burrito (board game present courtesy of Tash) which – as the name suggests – involves throwing, dodging and catching two very cute burritos.

Birthday picnic!
Birthday picnic!
Randi looking pleased that all of her masterminding paid off
Randi looking pleased that all of her masterminding paid off
The anxious build-up to a burrito duel
The anxious build-up to a burrito duel
Pursued by Tash
Pursued by Tash
Later we settled into a gentler game
Later we settled into a gentler game
Enough food for three different picnics
Enough food for three different picnics
Birthday Zoom
Birthday Zoom

For a final surprise, that evening we chatted with the dream team of Dietzs, Toggolyn & Nolan (who inhabited the most comfortable and relaxed lockdown video conference chair I have seen yet). It was very special to catch up together and makes up a little for the disappointment of not getting to Chicago in April.

A quick non-birthday lockdown update:

Playing: Dominion! We played a virtual game with Katie and Kim last weekend using physical cards and it worked surprisingly well. Since then, Randi’s birthday gift of an engraved Mark II of my giant, adored wooden Dominion box (the original now having found new adoptive parents in Chicago) has rekindled my desire to keep playing again.

Snacking: Cheezels! Our top snack discovery from travelling, now available in our cupboard thanks to specialist importers and a very exciting delivery:

Cheezels: like circular Wotsits, but better
Cheezels: like circular Wotsits, but better

Listening: Katie has opened my eyes to the incredible underground world of YouTube 80s remixes, complete with garish colours, terrible fonts and tracking control problems. The best is Dua Lipa’s New Rules. In the 2020s it’s a passable, immediately forgettable pop song. In the 1980s it’s incredible.

Watching: Pixar’s Onward, which achieved the very rare feat of being an animated film which Randi was actively excited to watch. Not a classic but decently tear-jerking nonetheless.

Time Travelling: I distinctly remember exactly the same concept as Back In Time For the Weekend airing on BBC Four a few years ago, but the conceit bears repeating: stick a family in the 1950s and advance them to the 21st century one year each day. Along the way you’ll laugh (why did wallpaper get so ugly?), you’ll cry (why have today’s teenagers no respect for the dial-up internet tone?) and you’ll want your own Sinclair C5. Technically aired in 2016, but as discussed all time is meaningless now.