I’d begun to feel like a cross between Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and Michael Douglas in Falling Down. The reason: Thameslink. Delayed trains, cancelled trains, trains that stopped at red signals and didn’t move again for twenty minutes, trains that were too short, trains that were dangerously overcrowded; during my time in London, I’d seen it all.
Between Crofton Park and Farringdon, a journey of just 26 minutes, I had regularly witnessed people be horrible to one another; people who, presumably, are capable of being quite pleasant when they’re not sardines packed into a tin. The fact that I was spending £38 a week, and was projected to spend an annual figure just south of £2,000, pushed me to take drastic action. I’d walk to prove a point, teach Thameslink a lesson, and save some money.
Once the walking idea had come to me, I couldn’t shake it loose. I felt like a rebel who’d finally found his cause. By walking to work perhaps I could change the world or, at the very least, force train company fat cats to get their act together. Whatever happened, I was stoked by the thought of making almost a £40 profit just by using my legs for a week.
I started researching routes, and distances, and things I might see. Google maps told me the most direct walking route was approximately 6.2 miles, and that it would take me just over two hours to walk it. I’d decided to walk to and from work, everyday for a week, and it felt brilliant. My girlfriend thought I was being silly, but I knew this was something I had to do.
I wake up at 6am on the Monday with a spring in my step. Wary of burning off so many calories over the week that I waste away, I go big on the breakfast. Rather than having my usual two slices of toast, I double up and have four; all lathered in excessive helpings of peanut butter. Two cups of coffee, a pint of water, one banana, and a face-splash later and I’m ready to go.
I walk out the front door, and look at my feet. This week, I realise, is going to be hard on them. In honour of my feet, and their silent courage, I aim my camera down and take a photo.
"I was now slightly concerned that my first day of the hiking challenge would be overshadowed by the embarrassment of pissing myself."
I make my way through the parts of south-east London I’m familiar with, and some parts I’m less familiar with. I photograph street art. It’s nice. I’m only a mile or two from where I normally get the train, but already I feel a greater sense of freedom than I’ve felt in ages. I consider my fellow commuters, and don’t envy them in the slightest. This is the life. This. Is. Living. And then, I hit the A2.
The A2, if you’re not familiar with it, joins London to Dover. It is the capital’s most direct non-aerial route to continental Europe. Anyone who likes looking at lorries and coaches, listening to lorries and coaches, or just generally being in the vicinity of lorries and coaches should get themselves down to the A2. I was now walking alongside it and, within minutes, had come to the unsurprising conclusion that it was not a nice road to travel down on foot.
The air feels dirty and the noise is almost unbearable. Annoyingly, I’d made the decision to leave my iPod at home so that I could have the full sensory experience of walking to work. It was not a mistake I’d be making again. To make matters worse, I was now in desperate need of a toilet. The two sizeable coffees and pint of water I’d necked before leaving the house had gone right through me, and I was now slightly concerned that my first day of the hiking challenge would be overshadowed by the embarrassment of pissing myself.
Fortunately, for my trousers and my dignity, I could see a McDonald’s up ahead. Channeling my inner Metal Gear Solid, I sneaked in a side-door, rushed to the toilet, and emptied my bladder. With the first crisis of the walking challenge well and truly averted, I ploughed on towards the office.
Another issue of walking to work, that popped up today and throughout the week, was hunger levels. After walking 7.81 miles to the Mpora office, and realising that I’d made a wrong turn somewhere along the line, I was now insanely hungry. I splashed out on a cheese and onion sandwich, a chocolate-coated flapjack, a Yorkie bar, and a bottle of water (£2.95, all together). I dubbed it my second breakfast, and ate it as soon as I got to my desk.
The working day came and went, and it was time to get those legs moving again. Determined to avoid the hellish A2 for the time being at least, I decided to take an entirely new route on the way back home, and headed towards Camberwell via the Elephant and Castle roundabout.
The Elephant and Castle roundabout is by no means a pleasant walking experience but it felt good to be avoiding the A2, even though I was adding some considerable distance to my journey. After attempting to help an old lady navigate her way around Camberwell, and in hindsight almost definitely sending her the wrong way by mistake, I crossed over from Camberwell in to Peckham. Things escalated soon after.
I sensed someone behind me, walking quickly in my direction. Aware that I still had my DSLR camera hanging around my neck, I instantly felt like an obvious target for criminal misdemeanours. I turned around just in time to see my pursuer veer violently to the right, and punch a hedge about three-foot from where I was standing. I’m not sure if my pursuer did this out of frustration because I’d turned around, because he really hated hedges, or because he’d misjudged where my face was. Whatever the reason, I stood frozen to the spot.
The man stamped angrily on my shadow, before storming past me without making eye contact. I was shaken up. I’d come out of it unscathed, but it was the unpredictability of the man’s behaviour that had struck me so deeply. And then within a minute, while I was still reeling from what had happened, a man got run over.
I heard a woman’s scream, and looked to the road. A man was down on one knee, face-to-bonnet with a car that had just knocked him over. The man hobbled to his feet, gestured at the driver, and made his way to the pavement. I asked him if he was alright, he said he was. I asked him again, just to be sure, and his answer was the same. The man then walked off, shaking his head in that way people do when they’re silently seething.
As I made my way home, I turned the two incidents over in my head. It struck me that these type of things happen fairly frequently in London but because so many of us avoid walking large distances, or simply avoid walking altogether, we’re often oblivious to it. We learn about car accidents and street crime statistics in the news, of course, but numbers rarely tell the human side of a story. Before shutting my eyes that night, while laying in bed, I realised the incidents had, if anything, made me feel more connected to the people I shared a city with.
I wake up the next day with aching feet, and a distinct lack of enthusiasm for walking. Reluctant to listen to road traffic again, I remember to bring my portable music player. As I hobble out of the house, and start walking, I’m hit by the fact that the first song that comes on via shuffle is The Cure’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ It’s the kick I need. Time to stop moaning, and just get on with it.
I go for a pretty direct route, turning the volume up to drown out the sounds of the A2, and avoid taking a wrong turn like I did the previous day. I pick up two portions of ready made pesto pasta (£4 total) from Tesco, and get to the office without incident or having to use the toilet in McDonald’s again - a triumph.
I spend my day in the office thinking about how much easier life would be if I had wings. At one point, a pigeon flies past the fourth floor window. I glare at it. 5pm comes, and I walk home again. I see another pigeon. Already, it feels like things have become a bit too “routine." My to-and-from work journeys on the second day have been almost identical.
I examine the map that evening for ways to make my walk more interesting. Burgess Park I decide, spotting a big green blob not far from where I’ve been walking, is just the thing. There are nice trees, idyllic green spaces, and ducks here. The ducks become a strange point of obsession for me on the third morning, and I spend so long following them about and taking photographs of them that I end up running late for work.
With my mind still on the ducks, I miss a turning and add a huge chunk of distance (and time) to my journey. By the time I finally get to work with a bag containing feta pasta, a flapjack and a chocolate bar (£3.76 spent on today’s second breakfast), my feet feel horrendous and I can’t stop telling people at work about the ducks I’ve seen.
That evening, I decide to go super direct to see how quickly I can get home. I don’t want to get distracted by ducks again, or any other birds for that matter, and so I put my camera away and just walk as quickly as I can. The challenge, I give myself, is to walk the 6.2 mile distance between desk and front door in under two hours.
My finishing time is one hour, fifty-four minutes and twenty-three seconds. It’s a good time, only slightly spoilt by the fact that my phone runs out of battery minutes from my front door. The combined effect of exploring Burgess Park and the two hour challenge has reinvigorated me to such an extent that I almost don’t notice the uncomfortable sensations in my feet.
On the fourth morning of the challenge, the last day as Friday is a Bank Holiday, I leave the house determined to record a completely legitimate door-to-door time. The camera remains packed away, and I storm onwards with real intent.
Refusing to stop for a toilet break, lest it cost me valuable time, I dodge traffic and weave my way between fellow pedestrians. As the time ticks down, I feel like I’m living in my own low-jeopardy action thriller.
"As the time ticks down, I feel like I’m living in my own low-jeopardy action thriller."
One minute to go. One street to complete. I walk as quickly as I can, without running, and make it to the office with twenty seconds to spare (finishing time - 01:59:40). I’ve done it. There’s no cheering crowds, but I celebrate anyway.
That evening, after drinking beers with colleagues, I make my way back home feeling triumphant. The alcohol numbs the pain in my feet, and I stroll along satisfied and happy. By the time I get home, I calculate that I’ve travelled 56.51 miles (90.94km) over a four day period. That calculation is the last thing I do before falling into a deep sleep.
Despite the second breakfast expenditure across the week, £10.69 in total, I saved almost £30 on travel and reconnected with London. Walking to work is something I’ll be looking to do now and then in the future. It’s definitely healthier, although try telling that to my feet, cheaper and far less stressful than getting a Thameslink train. Although, of course, walking four hours everyday doesn't exactly scream "convenience."
Better for the mind, better for the body, and a great way to explore big cities. Factor in the financial benefits, and there’s no reason not to give it a go when the mood strikes. Ditching a £38 ‘London Zones 1-3 Travel Card’ for just six weeks every year for example (i.e. one week - every two months) could, depending on “second breakfast" expenditure, save you up to £228. So get your shoes on, go for a walk, and save some money. I’d recommend it.
If we do it en-masse, maybe the train fat cats might finally learn their lesson.