The skills of exploration

Bicycling and walking offer unique entry into exploration itself. Landscape, the built environment, ordinary space that surrounds the adult explorer, is something not meant to be interpreted, to be read, to be understood. Unlike almost everything else to which adults turn there attention, the concatenation of natural and built form surrounding the explorer is fundamentally mysterious and often maddeningly complex. Exploring it first awakens the dormant resiliency of youth, the easy willingness to admit to making a wrong turn and going back a block, the comfortable understanding that some explorations take more than an afternoon, the certain knowledge that lots of things in the wide world just down the street make no immediate sense. But exploring not only awakens attitudes and skills made dormant by programmed education, jobs and the hectic daily dash from dry cleaner to grocery store to dentist. It sharpens the skills and makes explorers realize that all the skills acquired in the probing and poking at ordinary space, everything from noticing nuances in house paint to seeing. Great geographical patterns from a hilltop almost no one bothers to climb, are cross training for dealing with the vicissitudes of life. Exploring ordinary landscape sharpens all the skills of exploration.

Outside Lies Magic by John R. Stilgoe (pp. 10-11)

I read Outside Lies Magic a few months ago, but my mind kept returning to this quote. Stigloe nicely captures what I enjoy about cycling or walking. Spending time to take the what I’m passing, stopping occasionally to get a better look.

I used to spend weekends walking with some friends. I was always the laggard: looking at the way sewage pipes were integrated into a bridge, identifying a new plant of fungus I’d never seen. I must have driven them crazy.

This is what walking was about for me: not the rush to the end (though the inevitable beer at the pub was nice), but the discovery along the way. It was about learning something new, finding something I’d never seen before, solving a mystery.

I recently went on a hike with my young son. We were with a large group, and he was lagging behind. He’d learned to take time looking at what he was walking past. And yet on this hike I became frustrated with him, tried to rush him, tried to get him to keep up. This was a mistake. It’s one of those regrettable mistakes that you almost know you’re making as you’re in the act of doing it. Fortunately, my wife has more sense than I have. After a while, we simply stopped and had lunch on our own. We then resumed our usual pace of wandering and wondering, rather than pushing mindlessly and blindly on to the next point on the map.

I feel the same about cycling. I cycle home from the train station in the evenings. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the day. The thirty minutes or so that I cycle home are the only point in most of my days when I can take note of the changing position of the stars, the progression of plants that a growing in the verge or the birdsong that accompanies me on these ride. I’ve occasionally stopped (though not often enough) to examine a flower that I noticed as I passed or to get a better look at hard-to-see constellations on a moonless night.

I don’t think I’d make a very good road cyclist. The point seems to be to go as fast as possible. While I can understand the thrill of speed and the wind rushing past, I’m more drawn to exploring roadside mysteries than rushing past them.

I like to think that in doing this I’m honing what Stigloe calls the skills of exploration. I need more practice. I don’t stop often enough. I don’t take enough opportunities to explore. Having a six-year-old son helps, though I have to remember to follow his lead rather than expecting him to follow mine.

London Corpse Walks

I’m pleased to announce first London Corpse Walk, beginning in Canary Wharf. It will finish six to eight miles from there, but at the moment the end-point is a closely guarded secret. The walk will start at 10.30pm on 8 March. We’ll be meeting just outside of Canary Wharf Tube station. You’re free to come along, just give me a heads up if you’ll be joining us.

But “corpse walk?” you ask. “What kind of a creepy enterprise is this?”

Allow me to explain.

As most readers of this blog probably know, I like a good walk. Over the last few years some friends and I have walked the London Loop and the Capital Ring. I may have missed a few stages, but we’ve basically walked around London twice over a period of several years.

Last month, we walked the last stage of the Capital Ring. At that point, we had a few options. We could stop going on semi-regular Sunday walks. We could make our way through one of the many books of London walks. Or we could create our own walks. We decided that creating our own would be the best option.

Prior to finishing the Capital Ring, I was talking to Dave Letorey, who mentioned that when he was living in Sheffied, he and his friends created their own walks. The only rule was that each walk had to begin where the previous walk ended.

This sounded like a great idea. Starting where the last walk finished would mean that we’d be more likely to explore new areas of London. I proposed to the idea to the Capital Ring walkers, who also liked the idea. We came up with a few additional rules and dubbed the walks “corpse walks,” after the surrealist game exquisite corpse.

After several months of discussion and planning, I’ve finally bought a domain and put up a website, where we’ll be announcing and recording all of the London Corpse Walks. Drop by have and have a look around. The site is still a work in progress, so if there’s anything you think we should add to it, just let me know.

Capital Ring, Stage 5

Last Sunday, we completed stage 5 of the Capital Ring, from Streatham to Wimbledon Park.

It was overcast the whole day, but we still got pretty lucky with the weather. It didn’t rain until the end of the walk, just as there was a pub in sight.

The walk starts at Streatham Common Station. After a moment of uncertainty, we managed to cross under the railway. Jon and I found the first major difference between our guidebooks. (Jon’s was published a few years before mine). After crossing the tracks, we were greeted by one of the highlights of the walk — Streatham Pumping Station (pictured left). It is very grand building for what is effectively a waterworks. It was built in 1888, but I wasn’t able to find any information on the architect. If anyone knows anything about the designer of this building, let me know in the comments below.

After this, it was on to Tooting Bec Common, where the rest of the walkers got ahead of me because I was too busy taking pictures of trees. We didn’t visit the lake, which may or may not contain terrapins. Jon’s guidebook claimed the terrapins were an urban legend, while mine seems in no doubt about there existence — it warns that they will bite if handled!

After a brief detour through the wilds of Balham (look out for that pram!), we were walking across Wandsworth Common. Joanne and I had been here before. We took Barley, her parents’ dog, for walk here a few months ago. It would seem that we chose the wrong side of the railway that runs through the common, because we completely missed the ponds. We got to see them this time, and once again, I took photos of trees — willows this time.

We decided to take a detour through Wandsworth Cemetery. We spent time reading the headstones. One headstone with an angel pointing to the rapidly darkening heavens stood out.

As we left the cemetery, the skies became darker and darker. We put on our rain gear, quickly crossed the River Wandle and made our way through an industrial estate.

Just as it began to rain, there was a pub in sight. After another moment of indecision (was there another pub closer to the station?), we went in, narrowly avoiding a downpour. It didn’t last long, however. Within 30 minutes, there was a rainbow outside the pub.

Capital Ring, Stage 4


We returned the the Capital Ring today, after a few months off. It was the perfect day for it. It was pretty amazing to be wearing a T-shirt in early February (and a bit disturbing as well).

The highlight of the stage was definitely the dinosaur sculptures at Crystal Palace. Technically, these were a part of Stage 3, but I missed them because I bailed out early on that stage.

The most enjoyable part of the stage were the hints that spring is fast approaching. Aside from the splendid weather, there were a number of plants in bloom, including the cherry tree you see here, with Jon and Wendy squinting into the sun beneath it

There is a photoset on flickr for those of you who are interested. It’s not a huge set, since this was a pretty short stage.

Capital Ring, Stage 2

Eltham Palace Willow

Eltham Palace Willow
Originally uploaded by Jeff VC

After a few months off, we completed the second stage of the Capital Ring last Sunday. This stage took us form Falconwood to Grove Park and is one of the shortest stages of the Capital Ring (only 4.2 miles from station to station).

The day started off well. The weather was great, and everyone met on the train. Matt was kind enough to bring squeeze cheese, and there was much debate about the merits of this quintessential American foodstuff (or is it a petroleum product?).

The highlight of this walk is definitely Eltham Palace. We didn’t actually go in. In fact, we only hung out on the moat bridge for a short time, but the grounds looked beautiful. Joanne and I will definitely be going back to get a peek inside some time soon.

Shelf Fungus

Shelf Fungus
Originally uploaded by Jeff VC

The other highlight of this walk (for me, at least) was a mushroom we saw growing on a nearly dead horse-chestnut. I tried to identify it using a £3 guidebook that I bought in the Lake District, but had no luck. Once I posted the photos on flickr, the mystery was solved. My friend saw the photo and pointed me to her friend’s recent blog post on artist’s fungus. Based on this, I was able to narrow it down and am pretty sure it is a Ganoderma applanatum. It was this photo from Queens, NY that convinced me that this is most likely the correct ID. Artist’s mushroom is found all over the world and grows on dead or very old trees, such as our horse-chestnut. More importantly, you can draw on the underside of the mushroom. We didn’t do that this time, but I’m definitely going to try it out next time I see one. It looks like fun.

We ended the day with a picnic in Chinbrook Meadows. It was a nice little picnic until I was threatened with squeeze cheese!

Capital Ring, Stage 1

Woolwich Common

Woolwich Common
Originally uploaded by Jeff VC

We’ve finally started the Capital Ring. The first stage took us from Woolwich to Falconwood. I’ve uploaded photos to flickr for anyone who wants to see more than just Woolwich Common.

Along the way, we got to see the Thames Flood Barrier up close, a run-down folly on top of Shooter’s Hill and a lot of ancient woodlands.

Given the amount of rain we’ve had for the past week, we were quite lucky. We have a few quick showers, but much more sunshine than I expected.

The walk itself was excellent. There was some street walking, but for the most part we were walking through parks, commons and woodlands. It was actually surprising that there is that much green so close to the centre of London. There was very little of the junkyards and industrial areas that we walked through on the London Loop. If this is any indication of what the rest of the Capital Ring is going to be like, I’m really looking forward to it.

Update: I’ve mapped most of the photos in the flickr photoset, so you can view a map of stage 1 with photos. A few of the photos are best guesses.