After five years of living in London, I am escaping to Edinburgh in July. Escape is the apt verb. I imagine I’ve run around 10,000 miles in just about every London borough. This is what I have learned.
The perception of danger is greater than the reality
And this makes me sad. Rarely have I felt in danger in London: an I-am-going-to-be-stabbed/attacked/mugged-danger. The perception of danger is ever-present, however. Across Tooting Bec Common in the dark? Never. Down the wooded track that is a summer shortcut? No way. You know what might happen. And that’s enough.
Passing runners do not make eye contact
The scenario: A park, a common, a road. You are running. Another runner is approaching. You look up, contemplating a smile, a ‘good morning’. Don’t bother. They won’t respond. They won’t even make eye contact. Londoners can be as insular on the run as they are on a commuter train. Women are the wariest. Frankly, who can blame them?
Nowhere is parkrun more extraordinary than in London
London is embarrassingly well served by parkrun: there are 47 in existence and more are certain to follow. The appetite of volunteers to freely give up their time every week on a Saturday morning is staggering. And that makes point two (above) all the more surprising. People at parkrun could not be friendlier; they make eye contact. And that is the true power of parkrun – the ability to make insular, worried Londoners feel safe.
The standards of amateurism are very high
Some years ago I won an off-road marathon in the Cotswolds. I was first by around 20 minutes, leading from start to finish. I thought I was something. A week later, I raced in the Surrey cross country league. I was 86th. I was nothing.
You would be mad not to run commute
There is a wonderful poem, Daily London Recipe, by Steve Turner, which sums up commuting in the capital. For bus, also read train, tube or tram.
Take any number of them
you can think of
pour into empty red bus
And then push in
London is surprisingly hilly
When asked about the availability of hills in London while running with a Scotsman in the Highlands, I mentioned ‘the Crystal Palace ridge’. He sarcastically repeated my utterance. But there are hills. At Botley Hill in south London, the city inside the M25 reaches as high as 267 metres. With the Pentlands a short run away from Edinburgh, I may soon be the one scoffing at Londoners – but it could be worse. I used to live in Peterborough, a place so flat that hill reps were run from the bowels of a quarry.
Summer (and sometimes winter) brings smog
One of the main ingredients of London’s inglorious bowl is smog, often blamed on pollution from ‘the continent’. As if London itself can’t concoct hideous pollution. There are days, typically in summer after periods of still weather, when the air seems to have texture. You can taste it. Taste London. Imagine that? Tastes of London: a dram of the Thames, a lick of a bus’ greasy pole, a bite of a cigarette butt-reared Trafalgar Square pigeon. Lovely.
London remains desperately socially divided
Call it diversity. Call it a gulf in wealth. Call it what you will – London is starkly contrasted. One moment you are passing through streets littered with chicken bones, discarded mattresses and piles of vomit; the next you are surrounded by the homes of multimillionaires. Running is slow enough to allow you to see the sheer horror of it all.
London retains the ability to mesmerise
I have admittedly been terribly negative. Let’s end on a high note. Everything and anywhere becomes routine after a while, even the arguable jewels in London’s crown: Hyde Park, Epping Forest and Richmond Park. But London’s great power is to surprise, provoke and inspire – often in the unlikeliest places. I had been running along the London LOOP for five hours when I met the River Thames at Rainham. At this point, a river-side track circumnavigates a gigantic landfill site. Yet the Thames was magnificent: a vast, choppy, brown sea, with Dickensian mudflats and a swirling wind, all under a sky of skudding clouds. I ran to Purfleet exulted. London had got me again.