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Possibilities for Urban Walking

Bill Orme - from Striders 115

In August Strider, I outlined some ideas for day walking to explore an area from a base, using Brittany and the Dordogne as examples, and I promised in this Practical to suggest further exploring your own area, and finding unexpected things (serendipity!).

I thought of three diverse examples, which can easily be translated into any area.

They emphasise walking in cities with all their diversity but you could walk villages alphabetically, maybe churches and graveyards, shopping centres . . . What else?

Part of the enjoyment is looking into interesting shop windows, talking to people you meet, visiting galleries or museums you chance on, watching birds or squirrels, studying trees and flowers, having a tea and cake, or just sitting a while and watching the passing parade.

Remember this is not an endurance test, but an exploration. It would be interesting if members could write to the Editor with their suggestions on how to explore the unknown on foot.

Being walkers, our focus has been on following out-of-the-way tracks and routes. Who knows what? Choose your own focus, write your own rules and set off.

London A-Z by Tube Station : following your nose

The idea is to start with a tube station starting with the letter ‘A’, and go there. Preferably select one you’ve never been to. Once there, come out of the first exit you find, and start walking.

Take the first turn to the right, and the next to the left. Then take the next to the right and the next to the left. Be the turn on a road, a lane, through a park or whatever, the fun is to find not what you planned, but what this random walk reveals to you.

There is no time limit, just stop when you run out of time, get tired or just had enough! Then find the nearest tube or other transport and take it.

Next time select a tube starting with a ‘B’, and so on. When you have finished at Z, why not start again?

Sydney A-Z by suburb : creating a circle

Our exploration started with a Rivercat ferry trip from the Opera House up the Parramatta River. As we identified the passing suburbs on our cruise we were amazed to see names like Tennyson Point and Bayview Park that we’d never even heard of. It hit us that as people who have lived most of our 74 years in Sydney, we were ignorant of much of our own home town.

We thought of Alan Waddell, a remarkable old man who set out to walk every street in the 284 suburbs of Sydney. Sadly, at 94 and well into the task he has recently died. But what an inspiration.

Dickens was considered by some to be London’s greatest walker as he tramped its streets, day and night. Paris also has its ‘flaneurs’, nightwalkers taking to the streets to wander for hours on end.

We decided to invent a homegrown A-Z version with three rules of our own:

  1. Choose a suburb we know nothing about.
  2. Get there by the easiest way possible – bus, train or ferry when possible, but car if it’s the best option.
  3. Get out the street directory and create a circle based on suburb commercial centres, parks, streams, gardens, monuments and residential areas to see the local houses.

Starting at ‘A’ for Abbotsford, we have just finished ‘Z’ for Zetland. Every one has been a gem, so we are restarting at ‘A’ for a second round. Our only problem was Sydney has no ‘X’, and Kings Cross seemed cheating as we’d been there already. We solved that problem with a pin ‘X’ to mark the spot, and circled Manly Dam with its birdlife, aboriginal remnants, trees and water views.

We could fill the whole of Strider with highlights of what we found, so only a few examples.

  • We knew of the Irish political prisoners Britain sent to us in the early days, but as we sat eating sandwiches watching migratory stilts, godwits and curlews as they picked through the mudflats of the mangroves of Exile Bay we read a plaque buried in the grass. It told the melancholy story of Canadian political prisoners transported to Sydney during the 1840s. Suddenly the name Canada Bay made sense.
  • The range of housing was impressive from the occasional old mansion such as that of the Nestlés family at Abbotsford Bay, through modest post-war brick bungalows to the massive new developments back behind Cabarita. This gave us the chance to fulfil the ‘peeping Tom’ instinct common to most of us – the urge to look into people’s lives. The range of gardens and houses reflects the diversity of the family life that makes up our city.
  • We’ve walked along creeks following a valley floor during which we rested just below a limb where a flock of Bell Birds came down to serenade us, followed ‘The Ponds’ where the first settlements were made in1791 and over the mossy rocks to Brown’s Waterhole in the National Park.
  • We’ve visited the museum in Carss’ 1863 cottage, the Historical Museum of Parramatta and the Naval Museum on Garden Island amongst others.
  • A bonus was to stop to chat to people along the way and to see the ethnic diversity of each of the areas. We listened to the stories of the wheelchair-bound Maltese who came with $10 in his pocket in 1945, to the dignified elderly Vietnamese who fled from prison during the war there via The Philippines who took us in to treat us with Dragon Fruit and show us his exotic garden, to the young couples working on their houses with their children playing in the yard.

Paris West to East and North to South : A cross section of a city

After exploring Sydney last year, in March between seeing Venice and St Petersburg we decided to criss-cross Paris to see parts we had never visited.

We followed two routes set out in a guidebook, Paris à Pied, (Paris on Foot), published by the FFRP (Topo 075), the main walking body of France, with all the notes of what to see along the way.

The west to east crossing took us from the Bois de Boulogne pretty well straight across the city to the Bois de Vincennes, a distance of 19km. The north to south route was from Parc de la Villette to Parc Mountsouris, a distance of 20km.

During the crossing we passed small streets, through parks, historic hospitals, markets, artists colonies, new and old housing estates, old wine cellars, new and old museums and libraries, over bridges, under the Eiffel Tower, beside canals, up to viewpoints and so it went on. The big difference between going to see them individually was that we saw them adjoin each other, making a whole. In some ways it was like a cross section of a thousand year old tree, relating each ring to an event in history through which the tree had lived.

As we passed under the iconic tower, we feel slightly superior to the ‘tourists’ queuing to climb it and being ‘walkers’, knew we were seeing a more authentic Paris.

We ended each day in the comfort of our apartment at the intersection of the two routes. We were in the same block where James Joyce wrote part of ‘Ulysses’, where Hemingway lived opposite in the 1920s with his first wife Hartley and where Orwell stayed round the corner in a run-down hotel, the setting for ‘Down and Out in Paris’. We ate at a tiny bistro in Contrescarpe, the square up the hill that is crowded with students from the Sorbonne, and we raised our glasses to toast a day that had offered us so much.

Paris is a city of neighbourhoods and our walk led us through a great cross-section of these. Our path took us through areas where Algerians, other Africans, and Asians have settled, offering a great diversity of faces and of dress. One sign advertised halal hamburgers, and the range of shops and goods was wide.

One bleak wet day, we did a tour through the early 19th century covered shopping arcades on the Right Bank, past the shop where Toulouse Lautrec bought his canes, old theatres and more. These were all glimpses of the city’s life that we would never have seen except on foot.

This article was written by Bill Orme, Walking Volunteers, and first appeared in Strider.
Anyone is free to copy it with this acknowledgement.

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