Notes from the City

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I’ve always loved living in London for its vibrancy; its streets throb with life, in all its strange and wonderful variety, and every outing, no matter how prosaic, offers the promise of some sort of adventure or new discovery. There is always so much to see and do, and so much to be distracted or entertained by. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, but most of the time, I find it a delight; the various views across the city from the many bridges never cease to take my breath away, and I can still never walk past St Paul’s without stopping to admire its beauty. Despite having lived here for most of my life, I have never taken it for granted that I am lucky to live in the greatest city in the world.

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Now the shutters have come down on the theatres and museums, shops and cafes, offices and universities and schools, bars and restaurants, a quietness has settled. There is an almost pastoral air of a summer Sunday over the city; the blank-eyed shops sleeping, the offices shut up, everything holding its breath for a moment until the machinery of commerce begins to slowly creak back into life again. The majestic bridges spanning the river are empty of traffic, and the Embankments, normally thronged, have just a few people strolling along, leaving plenty of room for wandering and thinking. I have enjoyed walking up and down the abandoned thoroughfares of Regent Street and Oxford Street, Piccadillly and Shaftesbury Avenue, actually being able to stop and marvel at the beautiful architecture I normally can’t see through the crowds. There are so many ghost signs and old shop fronts that reveal the history of how these streets evolved over the past couple of hundred years, and it makes for a fascinating study as you walk along – far more interesting than actually shopping, if you ask me! I’ve also loved looking closely at the amazing jumble of buildings, from medieval to modern, in the City, sitting cheek by jowl in a wonderful historical melting pot. Like the rest of central London, normally it’s so crowded in the streets around Bank that you’d have to walk into the middle of the road to get a good look at any of the architecture, so I’ve taken the opportunity to stand and wander where I please to get a good view of the spires and sculptures that ordinarily go unappreciated by the hurried passer-by.

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I’ve enjoyed walking through parks I normally avoid due to the tourist crowds; St James’ Park is looking particularly bucolic at the moment, with its swathes of sweet-smelling  meadow flowers and flocks of geese wandering around at will, and Clissold Park and Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington are positively alive with blossom and flowers and birds. Around my own flat in Clerkenwell, the birdsong is so loud that I could be living in the middle of a field in the countryside, and at night, I can see the stars clearly for the first time in what seems like forever. This is one glorious consequence of an otherwise terrible situation for so many – the world is healing itself, and many people who had never given it much thought, seem to have developed a new-found love and appreciation for nature. I have never seen so many people enjoying the parks and gardens in London, and so many people out in their own gardens and allotments, actively growing things and taking joy in it. If there were one change I would like to see made permanent in London after all this, it would be a genuine recognition by the government of the importance of nature within cities. I’d love to see more trees planted, more parks created, all new build homes having to have gardens and balconies and communal growing spaces, and more clearly signposted and maintained walking routes across the city, with flowers planted along these routes to make them beautiful, wildlife- rich spaces for everyone to enjoy. What this pandemic has shown more than anything is that people need access to nature for their wellbeing; they don’t need access to fancy coffee and expensive sandwiches. There are so many people trapped in poorly built high-rise flats with no access to outdoor space, and the impact on their mental health of being stuck indoors for weeks with not even sight of a tree or flower from their window has been disastrous. How can we have allowed this to happen?

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On my birthday this week, I went for a mammoth walk through London as the sun set, stopping to do a little mudlarking at the foot of the Millennium Bridge as I did so. My flatmate and I had a lovely time poking about on the shore, picking up some old pipes and bits of blue and white crockery, before walking along the river, past the Southbank cluster of theatres and concert halls – I had a pang of great sadness as I saw my beloved National Theatre steeped in darkness – and back across the river at the other end, all the time barely seeing another soul. We wandered through Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, and then Bloomsbury, and marvelled at the beauty of the moonlit streets. We wondered when was the last time London had been this empty, and whether it ever would be again. The weight of history seemed to settle upon us. And then, as we turned onto our street, I smiled at the thought that my block of flats was built in 1949, on top of the rubble of a Georgian terrace flattened by a flying bomb. London has stood for centuries, and endured all sorts of disaster. Each time it has emerged from the ashes and been rebuilt, even better than before.  I hope that once this is all over, it will enable us to see what we do and don’t need, what we want to keep and what we want to change. I hope it will serve as an opportunity to make this city an even greater place to live, if we take the chance to rebuild our lives around the pursuit of people’s happiness, rather than profit.

28 comments

  1. A momentous time. While horrid, it is amazing that this has provided opportunity for some to see the city in s new light and to admire individual buildings. The crowds and the pollution will return. Until they do, please keep sharing he unique views of your city.

  2. I’m fortunate enough to live in a tiny village so I have access to lots of beautiful countryside and rarely have to venture further afield, but I am slightly envious that you get to explore a nearly deserted London. I watched someone’s video of it the other day and I think it’s one of the few times I have wanted to live in a city. Like you, I have been thinking about those without access to gardens or balconies, those in high rise flats with children who don’t want to leave due to their fears of catching the virus or those who can’t leave for various other reasons. It truly makes me grateful for what I have.

    1. Oh yes, it’s far nicer here with fewer people around! I am so grateful that I have a balcony and a communal garden – I would be going stir crazy if I didn’t have some outdoor space on my doorstep. I really do feel for people who don’t – city planners who don’t factor in access to outdoor space have a lot to answer for in my opinion.

  3. You are so right – in spite of the terrible epidemic, we have had beautiful weather and the chance to see places and nature without crowds, traffic and pollution. I live in London, close to a golf course which is now open for walking, and it is a revelation – so much wonderful greenery to enjoy, which I’d never have known of if it were not for this crisis.

    1. It really has been such a blessing to have this amazing weather and the chance to see what the world could be like without constant traffic and air pollution. I’m just hoping we appreciate this enough to make it a truly permanent change. I’m glad you’re enjoying the open space near you to walk – it makes such a difference, doesn’t it?

  4. Wish we were there. Read all the comments. At the end there is a Sanditon (?) portion.

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  5. I agree with the other comments that this is beautifully and movingly written. Thank you Rachel. I’m glad you were able to make the most of your quarantine birthday. I hope it was a happy day!

  6. Beautiful post, Rachel, beautiful tribute to mother London which even people from so far away love with all their hearts. Excellent pictures too, especially the St Paul’s one. Please, can you tell me where the churchyard picture was taken? Thanks – and happy belated birthday!

    1. Thank you so much Diana! The picture was taken at Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington – it’s about an hour’s walk from my flat, and very lovely – though not a patch on Highgate!

  7. Very evocative piece. Almost makes an ex:Londoner sentimental! With regard to your last sentence, you may be forgetting that the magnificence you describe is there because of the pursuit of profit.

    1. Thank you! Yes, true – though there does need to be a certain amount of profit making to benefit the whole of society, so I’m not entirely against it – the kind of profiteering I am against is the enormous amounts made from building poorly constructed, rabbit-hutch housing, and knocking down council estates to build swanky new builds and socially cleanse whole neighbourhoods. The amount of awful housing and office blocks built in London that have had no thought put in to the quality of life they provide or the contribution they make to the infrastructure or air pollution of the local area is truly awful.

  8. I’ve wondered what London looked like with no people in it. I now live too far away – without breaching the rules on using public transport – to see how central London looks without people. I know from experience that even in the early hours of the morning, the streets are never empty and now they are in the middle of the day. Thanks for sharing the photos. I fully agree that more flower beds and trees, especially if self-seeding native plants, would help more wildlife to thrive.

    1. Yes, it’s very strange. It does feel rather like a Sunday morning all the time, which is both pleasant but also disconcerting. Here’s hoping the rewilding of London becomes a reality after all this!

  9. Rachel thank you so much for your beautiful post. Let us hope for a brighter future. I’m noticing such a difference in the bird population even here in a small town.Your posts and your podcast with Simon brighten up my day.

  10. It’s been a few years since I last visited London but my favourite activity while there has always been just walking the streets – around every corner there is a part of history and a fascinating vista. As you say normally you can’t see the facades above the shops because the minute you stop to look, someone is rushing past you.

  11. Beautiful post! After reading I spoke with my daughter in New York City and told her about it – suggested she get out and do the same and take advantage of this opportunity to really see and appreciate the city in this, rare, more relaxed, environment. As you said, you have to find the silver lining!

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