Last week, I had to spend a couple of days in London, so I stayed overnight in a hotel in Islington. I slept badly – I loathe corporate hotels – and woke early; rather than suffer the hotel breakfast, I left early and headed down Upper St, where I had a croissant and a cappuccino, watching people through the window.
It was a very bright morning – cold, icy-cold, but with a clear, deep blue sky. I wanted to walk to the office – not too far; I had walked there several times. People don’t often walk far in London, seduced by the false promise of a speedy tube ride. The tube map fools people: places that are nearby seem far apart, so people who know London from the tube often don’t realise how near different parts of the city are. Bus-travellers do not suffer the same fate, being able to watch neighbourhoods change from one to another.
Rather than simply head down City Road, I wanted to walk through some of the quieter streets. I don’t Islington at all well – I don’t know the street names, or how the different roads fit together on the map – but it was easy not to get lost: just follow the roads south, and I would hit Old Street or City Road.
The streets were pretty quiet; a few cyclists, some people walking, occasional cars. The houses, small three storey Georgian or Victorian dwellings, hardly set back from the pavement, with small basement areas. Most of them looked complete. There were window arches catching the sun.
I zigged-zagged south, and came to the canal; years ago, I had walked along the Grand Union Canal from Camden to Islington. The road went over the canal, and there was a slip down to the water; I went down, thinking I might be able to follow the canal south. The footpath was busier than the road had been, with cyclists and joggers hurrying along, jostling for space. There was ice as the water piled up by the lock. I went a hundred yards or so, but the canal headed east, away from where I was going, so I went back to the bridge, up to street level.
I hit City Road just north of Morefields. The architecture changed from gentrified to warehouse-functional; bricks to steel. It was a curious mixture, old, renovated buildings nestling beneath industrial cladding.
Old Street is a huge roundabout, the junction of City Road and Old Street itself. The area to the east – Hoxton – is newly trendy, full of art galleries and studios and new media companies, although someone told me that only meant you get a better class of heroin addict mugging you. When I was a kid, it was a rough area, not somewhere to hang around at night; a band I was in practiced in the crypt of a church nearby – then, the drug-dealers were the sons of vicars.
South of Old Street, the buildings change, taken over by the capital City institutions; some older ones remain – there is a Georgian Wesleyan chapel and Elysian meeting place of honeyed brick. Elsewhere, glass and steel and stone take over, the windows mirror close the building opposite, lighting up the walls with sunlight many times reflected.
I cut across Finsbury Circus and into London Wall, where the NatWest Tower – though it tries hard to call itself something else – loomed over Bishopsgate; hiding behind it, the Gherkin was silhouetted, a cloud escaping from its air-conditioning system.
And that was my walk to work.