Once the initial euphoria of my move to the big smoke had worn off, I have to admit to finding myself feeling a little down in the dumps. I’ve been used to working pretty much every hour possible, which really made me appreciate my free time, as well as wishing that I had a lot more of it. Now all of a sudden, with no job to go to, I have all the free time that I could hope for, but I’m not exactly enjoying it in the way that I thought I would. The main problem is that I’m not ‘free’, I’m unemployed, with all of the financial implications that this brings. I don’t really feel able to justify filling my days with expensive city jaunts; shopping trips, lunches and the like. Secondly, even if I did, I’m a bit strapped for company, being the new kid in town and all. And thirdly, it’s London. It’s massive. I just don’t have the first idea where to begin.
In an attempt to use up some of my time doing something constructive, and score some free internet access, I’ve recently joined my local library. Whilst circling the study area in search of a place to plug in my laptop that wasn’t occupied on either side (I don’t like all of the serious studenty types seeing me check my Facebook), I passed by a small section dedicated to books on London. Lots of books about the history of the Docklands. Lots of books with the word ‘haunted’ in the title. One book that jumped out and screamed “I have the potential to solve all of your problems. Let me be your bible”. Time Out’s 1000 things to do in London for under £10. I thought that it was worth a look, so I added it to my slightly eclectic collection of finds (Bukowski, a novel about human trafficking and the Dragon’s Den handbook) and headed on my way.
Once home, I started to browse through, and began to consider the true potential of this find. Okay, the book is a couple of years out of date, so some of the costs will have increased. It’s still a book full of cheap things to do. And although some places are mentioned more than once, it still manages to cover a vast geographic area. I’ve been doing a lot of aimless walking around recently. Wouldn’t it be nicer if I had somewhere to go? Wouldn’t this be a great way of getting to know my new hometown? Basically, I’m really bored. I’m living a life without purpose. I decided to give it a go.
The book is laid out thematically, which is useful when you’re looking for something specific, but means that I can’t quite cope with working my way through it numerically. That would mean visiting twenty cocktail bars, one after the other, or having fifteen picnics in a row. I toyed with the idea of organizing it geographically, but I didn’t have the patience to sift through and check all of the locations. In the end I decided to dip in and out of it as I saw fit. I started the very next day.
I wanted something that wasn’t too challenging for my first mini adventure. I was going to be alone for the day, so I also wanted something that I wouldn’t feel silly doing by myself. As fate would have it, number one seemed to fit the bill perfectly. ‘Refresh yourself in Battersea Park’, it said, before going on to point out that the fountains there were the largest in any London park, and came on at least once every hour. I thought that sounded nice, so I gathered up my iPod, sunglasses and Oyster card and headed out to find them.
Number 101 suggested Battersea Park as a brilliant place for a picnic. If I’d thought things through the night before, I would have set out with a sumptuous homemade feast, as there’s nothing I love more than preparing a meal, even a meal on the go. However, the proverbial (and the real) cupboard was bare, so my first stop was my local Tesco Express. I hated myself a little bit for this, as despite doing nearly all of my food shopping at Tesco, I disapprove of the vast amounts of money spent there and always feel guilty about not taking the time to track down some friendly independent retailers. On the flip side of this, the staff in this particular Tesco are so friendly and helpful that I really do enjoy the shopping experience. Also, Tesco has the lunchtime meal deal, which gets me a sandwich, a snack and a drink for £3.
Going to the park didn’t seem that adventurous, so I thought I’d spice things up by getting the bus there. I tend to travel by Tube, despite the fact that I despise every second of it, purely because it’s easy to figure out where to get on and off and stations are usually signposted clearly. It’s easy to follow a Tube map, whereas deciphering London bus routes is a task I find nigh on impossible. I’ve recently solved this problem by downloading an app that supposedly does it for you, and I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to try it out. The app is actually pretty good for a freebie, and even lists all of the stops along the route. One thing I love about London buses is that little screen at the front which tells you the name of the stops as they come along. I’m from the country, where we don’t have such things, and if you’re travelling a bus route for the first time and don’t know the landscape, deciding when to get off is a pretty stressful business. Especially as in the country, bus stops tend to be several miles apart. Happily, on this occasion, neither my trusty app nor the magic screen let me down, and I successfully traversed London. I even managed to change buses midway. Smug doesn’t even come close.
Disembarking from my second bus, I did experience a moment’s panic at not having a clue where I was, or in which direction I should be walking. The panic comes not so much from being lost, but from the fear of seeming to be lost to those around me. I have a tendency to set off purposefully in whatever direction I happen to be facing, just to make sure that it looks like I know what I’m doing. I am also one of those people who, upon realizing that we are headed the wrong way, cannot simply turn around but must first consult some imaginary text message or scrutinize the contents of a nearby shop window. If we just turned round and headed back the way we’d come without any reason, we’d look stupid! Fortunately for me, a handy signpost at the bus stop read ‘Battersea Park’ and pointed clearly to the right, so right I went. Two crossroads later, I slipped under a pair of stone arches, and was in.
It was like another world. I swear, you couldn’t even hear the city. Seconds before, I’d been standing on a relatively busy, grimy, noisy roundabout. Now I could be on the Yorkshire Moors. To my left, guarding the gates, was a fairytale cottage named Rosary Lodge that I immediately pegged as my future home. Gravel paths led away into the distance on either side, whilst directly ahead was a seemingly endless expanse of water. This ‘lake’, for want of a better word, was home to some pretty spectacular birds, none of which I know the names for (I think there were herons), as well as the ubiquitous ducks of every London park.
Having worked up a bit of an appetite in my trek across the capital, I decided that the first order of business should be to find a suitable bench and enjoy my ‘picnic’. If I’d realized just how much park there was to explore, I’d have held out a bit and found a better spot. Instead, I plonked myself down lakeside on one of the many available seats, unpacked my BLT, uncorked my Lucozade and flipped open my Metro. I can play ‘Londoner’ just as well as the rest of them. Well, actually, I’d picked up the Metro on the bus. On a recent job application I’d waxed lyrical about my interest in current affairs, and whilst I am interested, with as yet no television connection and no internet in the flat, it’s hard to stay up to date.
What I couldn’t get over was how few people were about. Lunch hour in every London park I’ve been to so far means hustle and bustle, coffee in cardboard cups, laptops, handsfree phone calls, nowhere to sit. Here it meant me, myself and I, my only potential lunch date being a large labrador dawdling behind its owner who showed some serious interest in my Twix bar (the labrador, not the owner). London is famous for having so many parks and green spaces, the idea being that you can always escape from the madness and enjoy some peace and quiet. This was the first London park I’d been to where I didn’t feel as much on show as I do the rest of the time. This was genuine me time. Once I’d polished off my lunch, I set off to explore this haven.
There was a lot of it. A subtropical garden, complete with palm trees, which made me feel right at home after the culture shock of returning to England. Endless lawns, bordered by towering rows of trees and populated by families acting out such idyllic scenes that you’d be forgiven for imagining yourself to have wandered onto a film set. A bowling green, in use. A charming bandstand, shady, tree covered walkways, a boating lake for Christ’s sake. Did I mention the cafe, the gym and the zoo? At one point a sign promised that a deer enclosure lay ahead, but although I smelled it, I couldn’t actually find it. I didn’t care. Everything was too perfect. There was even an icecream van. And still that relentless quiet. There were people around now, and all of the facilities were being used, but nothing was crowded, and there wasn’t that relentless humming noise that you get everywhere in London; the sound of hundreds of people talking at the same time. I had only two regrets about coming here. One, that I’d left the boyfriend at home, and two, that I hadn’t packed a better lunch. This place deserved a checked cloth and a hamper.
As beautiful and breathtaking as it all was, my adventure was beginning to tire me out and I was starting to feel ready to head homeward. I’m like that, however wonderful the place. I love to explore and discover new things, but there comes a point in the day when I’ve had enough, when I want to be at home. As luck would have it, around about this point, I turned a corner and stumbled upon the Thames, and was struck by an idea. Number 60 in my new bible suggests ‘get around town on a clipper’. Why not take the advice and get the river bus home? It would take me pretty much door to door, in half the time that either the bus or the underground would take me, and although my bus ride had been fairly enjoyable, cruising down the Thames on a catamaran would be infinitely more so. At £6.50 for a single it was a bit more pricey, but the budget was £10 and I’d only spent £3 on lunch so far (Time Out assumes you have purchased a travelcard, so bus and Tube costs don’t count). I had convinced myself. Trouble was, where to get on? A hasty glance up and down river revealed narry a pier in sight.
First off, I figured that if I walked in the right direction, I’d soon come to a landing pier and be able to catch the boat from there. I fairly speedily came to a dead end outside a rather swanky looking block of flats and was obliged to head inland in order to escape the site. Foiled at the first step. I was committed now though, and wasn’t giving up easily. I decided that since I was now a London bus pro, I’d hop a ride to nearby Wandsworth which I was pretty sure I’d seen advertised as a calling point for the Thames Clippers. I hopped on, headed to the top deck and sat down. It was a little while before I realized the problem. The magic screen wasn’t switched on. I had no idea where I was. I didn’t even have the river as a guide. I’ve never been to Wandsworth in my life, so the view from the window wasn’t really helping much either.
I sat, quietly panicking, without even considering asking a fellow passenger for help. I could travel around the world ten times and I’d still be British on the inside. Suddenly a sign for Wandsworth Town station flashed past. I genteelly leaned over and pushed the stop button, descended from the bus and sauntered over. It’s okay, my panicked inner self said. You can get the train home. You’re not lost, you’re at the station!
Turns out trains don’t go to anywhere useful from Wandsworth Town. A sign for the Thames Path gestured vaguely ahead. I went back to my river boat plan. I should not have done this.
I eventually found the river again, but a painted map in an underpass informed me that the nearest pier was at Chelsea Harbour. I had to cross the river and walk for another half an hour, skirting roadworks and improvement plans every step of the way. When I finally reached the harbour, I could have fallen to the ground and kissed it, I was so relieved. I had not enjoyed Chelsea. I am not the snappiest of dressers, my hair has a spirit quite independent from the rest of me and I do not put make up on when going for a day out in the park. As such, I was not doing a great job of blending in. No matter. Soon I would be on a boat. Everyone looks a state on a boat.
Not that I’d get the chance to experience it. Turns out that the river bus from Chelsea Harbour only goes as far as Embankment. I’d have to then get off, buy a new ticket and get on another boat if I wanted to get home. I toyed with the idea of boating to Embankment and then getting the Tube, but since the whole point of the river bus had been to avoid the walk from the station at the end of the journey, it seemed like unjustifiable expense. I was back to square one. And where was I, in Tube world? There was no way I was walking back to Wandsworth Town.
Lucky me, I’ve got an app for that as well. Even luckier, I was right by Imperial Wharf station.
I arrived home an hour later, completely drained. Battersea Park had been wonderful, but the journey home had reminded me that spontaneity isn’t really my forte.
It was a little while later that I realized that I hadn’t seen any fountains.