Hello, friends. A couple of days ago, I saw a car driving very slowly around the car park of Portsmouth Olympic Harbour in Kingston. This isn’t unusual. The harbour is always busy with runners, walkers, picnickers, coffee-drinkers, dog-walkers, cyclists, and all manner of casual idlers. The thing that caught my eye was the small dog trotting along beside the car. Yes, the dog’s owner was “walking” his dog by driving alongside it. I don’t think I’ve led an excessively sheltered life, but this startled me. We North Americans love our cars and we’ve built our sprawling cities around them. I guess the next logical step is to give up our legs entirely?
If you thought I was going to segue once again to Judith Flanders, you’re absolutely right. In The Victorian City, Flanders asserts: “walking was the most common form of locomotion throughout the nineteenth century. By mid-century it was estimated that 200,000 people walked daily to the City; by 1866 that figure had increased to nearly three-quarters of a million.” What I love is that it’s not just the poor who walked: it was most people, including the rich. “In 1833, the children of a middle-class musician living in Kensington walked home from a concert in the City.” That’s roughly 4 miles and it would take about 90 minutes, according to Google Maps. “Two decades later, Leonard Wyon, a prosperous civil servant, and his wife shopped in Regent Street, then walked home to Little Venice.” That’s about two and half miles, or 50 minutes. And “In 1856, the wealthy Maria Cust returned from her honeymoon, walking with her husband from Paddington to Eaton Square.” Assuming the Custs strolled through Hyde Park, that’s a 2 mile walk which might take 40 minutes.
Not everyone walked for leisure, of course. Working people endured extremely long days, by our standards: shifts of 12, 14 and 16 hours were not uncommon. And they commuted by walking. (No wonder they bought breakfast along the way, eating as they went.) My favourite image of the Victorian walking commute features office clerks: “a thick black line, stretching from the suburbs to the heart of the city… [they] plod steadily along… knowing by sight almost everybody they meet or overtake, for they have seen them every morning (Sunday excepted) for the last twenty years.”
All this puts Charles Dickens’s famously feverish walking in a clearer context. Dickens once walked 30 miles from his home in London to his country house in Kent. (He set off at 2 a.m. after a quarrel with his wife, which helps to explain his average walking pace of over 4 miles an hour!) And in his lifetime, he was famous for passionately, diligently, ceaselessly walking the streets of London, which appear in his fiction in such remarkable and evocative detail. But even if I didn’t have Charles Dickens to cite as a model, I would claim that walking is the only way truly to see a city. That’s how I fell in love with London, too. When I lived in Bloomsbury, as a graduate student, I would get up early on weekend mornings and explore the streets. There were other Londonphiles doing the same thing, and I got to know a few of their faces.
These are golden memories, and writing this post has created in me a new resolve: the next time I have 2 or 3 hours, I’m going to walk part of Kingston I’ve never walked before. It’s hardly Dickens in London, but I’ll take it.