Walking to London
When my friend Wally dropped out of his northern Polytechnic in the ’80s he was chuffed to land in a squat off Blackfriars Bridge Road, Central London, minutes from the river and perfect for strolling home after a night at Mud or the WAG Club. Some years later a housing association took pity on his household and Wally & co were relocated to the Walworth Road. It was little further out, and there was some rent involved, but it was still central enough to feel like he was in the thick of the metropolis.
When he and his partner came to buy a house for their young family (this was in the days when buying a house in London wasn’t solely the preserve of oligarchs and 50-somethings), the estate agent showed him round a sturdy semi in East Dulwich, SE22. Wally quite liked it and the house ticked a lot of boxes. Then the agent made his mistake.
‘And the great thing about East Dulwich,’ he told Wally, ‘Is that London is just 20 minutes away on the train.’
‘London?’ said Wally, the blood draining from his face, ‘I thought this was London.’
The agent gave him a quizzical look. Wally moved to Majorca.
Nowadays East Dulwich is unmistakably in London’s sooty embrace, but back then everyone thought of it, if they thought of it at all, as the suburbs. Even estate agents trying to lure ‘Londoners’ by any means necessary. This was too much for Wally. It was London or nada.
I get similarly vexed by a signpost near where I live. It stands at the point where three hill roads meet, each offering a name for the same hill as far as I can tell, depending on which way you approach it: Herne Hill, Denmark Hill and Red Post Hill. The post has signs stating ‘Camberwell 1’ (mile), ‘Brixton 1’, ‘Dulwich Village 1’ and so on. And then there is one that reads ‘London 4’.
What? I thought this was London.
Last week I decided to walk for four miles in the direction of the signpost to see where and what they were talking about. Or at least that was the plan before Half-life ruined the surprise.
When I arrived at the signpost (main pic) someone was taking a photo of it. He smiled and moved out of the way so I could take a photo, too.
‘London four?’ he said, with a shrug, ‘What are they on about?’ I liked him.
Setting off northward at a brisk pace, I was pleased to be picking up Half-life at the Fox on the Hill on Denmark Hill. It’s amazing how thirsty you can get after almost nearly a whole kilometre.
‘I wonder where we’ll end up,’ I said to the big man, over a fine pint of ELB’s Pale Ale in the autumn afternoon gloom.
‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Charing Cross.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘How do you know that?’
‘Education?’ he offered, a little unkindly.
A quick look at Google while Half-life was in the khazi showed him to be correct. Distances to and from London are measured from Charing Cross, a junction just south of Trafalgar Square, where Whitehall meets Strand and The Mall. The point is marked, now, by a statue of King Charles I on horseback.
Oh. Well. The mystery of our destination may have been solved, but at least we now had a target. Anyway, it was too late to pull out. If we pulled out now, we’d have to find something else to do, which could take hours.
‘It still doesn’t explain why they felt it necessary to call it “London”,’ I said, as we marched down into Camberwell. ‘If they mean Charing Cross. why not just put “Charing Cross”. It’s not clear, is it?’
‘No,’ said Half-life. ‘It could confuse a stupid person.’
‘Yes,’ I said, and shot him a look.
‘What?’ he said, with a fat grin on his fizz.
According to Google Maps, it is in fact 4.1 miles from the Red Post signpost (as it is known) to Charing Cross, via The Oval, Lambeth Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. But Half-life was having none of it.
‘I’m not going near Westmonster,’ he said, as we came out of Greggs with some traveller’s fare – a steak bake each.
‘Why not? Well, outside is fucking teeming with rozzers and K-9s. And inside it’s the land of the fucking perverts. I’m going this way,’ he said gesturing towards Camberwell Road and Walworth Road. ‘And it’s faster.’
‘That way is 4.3 miles,’ I heard myself say.
‘Balls. I’ll race you. Last one there gets them all in.’
So I set off up Camberwell New Road alone. When I looked back after a few seconds I half-expected Half-life to be hailing a cab or flagging down a bus. But no, I saw him duck into the Old Dispensary pub, the daft sot.
Camberwell New Road is not a pleasant road for the walker and it was a relief to veer off onto Kennington Oval and round the back of the cricket ground, past the lost and lamented Cricketers pub. Round the corner, on Vauxhall Street I came across Gasworks, a community art space which advertised an exhibition therein called Contra-Internet.
Contra-Internet. What a shame Half-life had chosen the way of Guinness. Not only is he fond of his art, he too is against the Internet, believing, like a Newsweek article from the mid-’90s, that it’s just a flash in the pan born of collective hysteria. Ordinarily I would have looked in, but I just cursed the big idiot for turning my walk into a competition and pressed on.
As I crossed Lambeth Bridge and approached the Palace of Westminster I saw what Half-life meant about the security. Police were everywhere, many of them with automatic weapons. Surely they wouldn’t shoot a man for carrying a pinch of weed and half an E left over from Lovebox, I wondered to myself. I crossed to the other side of the road, just to be sure.
On Whitehall I passed Banqueting House where, in 1649, the man whose statue I was approaching, was put to death for treason. A clock opposite, above Horse Guards Parade, carries a black mark at the hour of two, the time when the executioner struck off Charles I’s head with a single strike of an axe, and the people pushed forward to dip their handkerchiefs in royal blood.
Charlie’s equestrian statue stands on a traffic island, reached by means of a crossing policed by ‘gay traffic lights’ (an uplifting legacy from London Pride, 2016, in which the green men have been replaced by symbols of gay pride – they feature on many of the traffic lights around Trafalgar Square). Having studied his reign at school, he cut a familiar figure atop his nag: Charles I – king, martyr, truculent tyrant.
Talking of which, Half-life was nowhere to be seen. I texted him and stood for a while, admiring the statue.
Commissioned by Charles’s Lord High Treasurer, Richard Weston, it is cast in bronze and is the work of French sculptor, Hubert Le Sueur. Soon after the Parliamentary victory in the Civil War the statue was sold to a Holborn-based metalsmith, the splendidly named John Rivet. He was under orders from Parliament to break it up and melt down the bronze but, perhaps sensing a chance to turn a slow buck, instead buried the statue on his premises.
He produced some scraps of brass as evidence that he had followed his instructions, and made a killing selling brass-handled cutlery (to both Royalists and Parliamentarians) which he claimed was made from the remains of the statue, like a 17th Century Del Boy.
But Rivet’s big pay-day came after the Restoration in 1660. The recovered statue was purchased from him by the new king, Charles II, and in 1675 it was placed in its current location, replacing the famous Eleanor cross that had stood on the site for three and a half centuries (and which led to ‘Cross’ being added to the name of the hamlet, Charing).
‘What did I tell you, Rodders? After the Restoration we’ll be millionaires!’
I decided to drink a toast to him in the nearest pub I could find, the Silver Cross on Whitehall. It’s been a pub since around the same time as Charles. Indeed, he also granted it a royal licence to operate as a brothel (which, incidentally, has never been revoked). It was the sort of place, I imagined, that Mr Rivet might have gone to spend some of his windfall.
‘Where the fuck have you been?’ said Half-life from an armchair, as I walked in.
‘At the statue,’ I said, ‘Waiting for you.’
‘Bollocks. I’ve been here ages. No shame in a silver medal, pal, but it’s your round. It’s like the tortoise and the hare, this.’
‘Yeah, the hare’s all in a hurry, smart-arse fucker, bit of a cunt. The tortoise takes it easy, stops for a pint, smokes a J, still comes in first.’
‘I’m not sure that’s how the story goes.’
I bought us a couple of pints of Portobello’s Westway Pale and a plate of sausages. My phone rang. It was Roxy, wondering what we were up to.
‘We’re in London!’ I said, with my mouth full.
‘London,’ I said. ‘Don’t tell me you don’t know where that is.’
More on Walking to London in this podcast:
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