In The City It’s Alright | Lockdown Life In London
How London's outdoor enthusiasts got their 'outside fix' over the course of the last year
“London? Well, it’s alright for some I suppose but I could certainly never do it.”
A line uttered to me at a farmer’s wedding in what I’ll simply label here as ‘the before times’, and a line that seemed to sum up all of the misconceptions around what life in England’s capital, and largest, city is really like. When I pressed the stranger further about what they meant by that, they explained to me that it was just too crowded for them; that there simply wasn’t any space to just be with yourself and think. As a criticism of London, it’s clearly one based in some reality. London has a population of around nine million, and usually averages nearly 15,000 people per square mile. Its pulse was undoubtedly stilled by the pandemic but it’s still not a place you’d ever associate with being a spot of quiet contemplation.
The last year of lockdown though has brought, for its residents at least, London’s green spaces to the fore in a stark way. Unable to even consider venturing beyond the city limits (unless, of course, your name is Dominic Cummings ), the people who call this metropolis home have had to find new levels of comfort and happiness in London’s parks and outdoorsy areas.
“The runs and walks through the city’s parks have been a lifeline”
Those who just associate London with the wax of Madame Tussauds, the overpriced pints, the long-running musicals and the endless array of Pret a Mangers might just be surprised to know that the city is home to over eight million trees. What’s more, roughly 47% of Greater London is actually classified as ‘green’ space. It’s not the Amazon Rainforest by any stretch of the imagination, the Amazon is home to an estimated 390 billion individual trees, but it’s also not bad for a place often dismissed as a place of eccentric skyscrapers, tourist traps, and… err… Madame Tussauds.
In the same way that you’d find a new, and heightened, sense of appreciation for a renaissance painting if you were stuck in a room with it for an entire year, I’ve personally come to love London’s parks more than ever before over the last 365-and-a-bit days. The runs and walks through the city’s parks have been a lifeline for myself, and many other outdoor enthusiasts who live here, during the pandemic.
In a drastically shrunkdown world, due to global travel bans and the like, London’s green spaces have taken on a whole new significance; one I, and many others, didn’t think they were capable of.
I spoke to outdoor enthusiasts who live in London about what they got up to during lockdown, and how they went about getting their ‘outside fix’ in the nation’s capital.
“This past year I’ve gotten obsessed with finding old ruins nature has reclaimed around London. One wrong turn on a random cycle in the Hackney Marshes took me to the Middlesex Filter Beds Nature Reserve. Anyone with a love of steampunk should give it a look.
“This past year I’ve gotten obsessed with finding old ruins nature has reclaimed”
“Wandering around Wanstead Park & Flats I came across an old grotto that an eccentric old aristocrat purposely built to give the place more ‘atmosphere’. A cycle to the East Ham Nature Reserve uncovered an evocative old cemetery completely reclaimed by nature; one that you won’t find on endless listicles on ‘London’s Magnificent Cemeteries’ but deserving all the same.
“Basically, I moved to a new part of London just before lockdown and was craving green space away from crowds. Finding these small pockets of wilderness in East London gave me a much-needed respite, but also helped me learn more about the history of my neighbourhood.”
“Lockdown definitely had me leaning into the latter half of the fight or flight response – there was something pleasingly primeval in literally legging it away from my problems, and those of the world at large. To get the required fix, the miles kept creeping upwards, and I began to stitch together routes through London’s Green Belt, linking up New River Walk to Clissold Park to Finsbury Park to Parkland Walk to Hampstead Heath in an ever-evolving circuit that eventually took in the Thames Path, Hackney Marshes and the Lea Valley.
“There was something pleasingly primeval in literally legging it away from my problems”
“Not only was it successful in replicating the sensations of trail running or fastpacking, but it also sparked an interest in the history of London’s green spaces, inspiring me to read Rowan Moore’s Slow Burn City and Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography.
“It’s funny how escapism often tracks toward the educational.”
“I live in Hackney, inner London and I don’t know how I would’ve got through this past year without our incredible local nature in the Lea Valley. It’s got it all – rivers, marshes, wildflower meadows, ancient trees, all kinds of wildlife… minutes from my door I regularly see amazing birds including kingfishers, herons, and cormorants, even the occasional peregrine falcon or woodpecker.
“It’s got it all – rivers, marshes, wildflower meadows, ancient trees, all kinds of wildlife”
“The only thing missing is the mountains, so at the start of the first lockdown I made an important announcement, “We have removed two zeros, and the Scotland-specific location requirements. All local mounds, hills, hillocks, and dumplings 30ft and above are now temporarily classed as Munros for the duration.”
“Under these new regulations I started “Mountaineering in East London” and bagged all my local “munros”. Some were pretty tough – especially in winter conditions when we had snow in London, but somehow I made it to the summits. The exertion was well worth it when I was rewarded with sweeping views across the city skyline.”
“I’d say I got into running less as a choice and more as a necessity over the last year. I spent the first half of lockdown in the French Alps, where the rules only permitted an hour of outdoor exercise each day, no further than 1km or 100 vertical metres from your front door. Running was about the only thing that (just) kept me sane during that time.
“Weirdly, when I returned to London it felt like I’d been given a new lease of freedom”
“Weirdly, when I returned to London it felt like I’d been given a new lease of freedom. I found myself with endless streets, parks, tow paths and trails to explore. Granted, Tower Hamlets doesn’t quite create the same magic as the towering peaks of the Alps, but having constant variety and a feeling of exploring somewhere new is a pretty universal feeling, wherever you are in the world.”
“During 2020 I spent as much time as possible on my feet, aiming toward 20K steps per day, exploring every park and side street around my area. It’s amazing what you discover. I found Van Gogh’s old house and just around the corner is where Charlie Chaplin lived!”
“Lockdown has been hard not being able to escape to open water and the hills. And with the lidos closed too, that meant no swimming at all. In January it rained a lot and Bel Air park in Dulwich got flooded. In a fit of desperation, we hiked down there and broke the ice to swim in it, a glorified puddle. So yeah, it was puddle swimming. It wasn’t great but it filled a void. Looking forward to travelling further afield for a proper cross country swim and an overnighter near the water.”
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