Oh, the eerie joy of walking empty streets like a survivor from 28 Days Later
Sathnam Sanghera delights in walking through London and finding secrets that are usually obscured by crowds, queues and traffic
Let’s face it, the silver linings of this lockdown are getting harder to identify. It’s great to get so much quality time with family, but spending 20 minutes of each day talking about the recycling probably isn’t the bonding most of us hoped for. It turns out that dedicating three hours to making your own crisps when you can get a Walkers multipack for a couple of quid is not as rewarding as it may initially seem. There is, however, one thing that I still can’t get enough of: walking through the deserted streets of London.
Over the past month I’ve used several of my state-sanctioned allocations of exercise to jaywalk down the Euston Road, which is normally busier than junction 10 of the M6. I have stopped outside Madame Tussauds and gloried in the blessed absence of long queues and the fact that it is, finally, illegal to visit. I have window-shopped on Bond Street, enjoying being able to afford everything for once (only because the windows are mostly empty), and wandered up and down the Bishop’s Avenue, one of the most expensive streets in Britain, marvelling at the total absence of human life.
New Bond Street is devoid of shoppers
TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER JACK HILL
I’m joking about Bishop’s Avenue, of course: there’s hardly ever anyone around there except for Filipina maids, visiting masseuses and security guards. The homeowners are probably isolating on yachts in the Caribbean, a bank of ventilators buzzing in a spare room just in case they develop a persistent cough. But hopefully I have conveyed the eerie appeal of having the streets of one of the greatest cities on Earth to yourself.
Why does it feel so cool? Well, it’s partly just that you get to indulge in the enduring fantasy of being a lone survivor, which films such as 28 Days Later, Wall-E and The Quiet Earth plug into. Indeed, the cinema website IMDB has a section dedicated to “the best deserted world movies”, with The Omega Man (1971) at number one and Dawn of the Dead (1978) at number 2, and the rest of the list, featuring everything from The Road (2009) to I am Legend (2007) giving me a pastime for when I’m not standing outside Camden Market, breathing in air that for the first time in living memory does not smell strongly of skunk.
Parks and green spaces such as Hampstead Heath are a little busier
There’s also the fact that, with the absence of crowds and traffic, the natural history of the capital feels more tangible. InThe Fields Beneath, the single best book to be found anywhere on local history, and one of my favourite non-fiction titles of all time,Gillian Tindalltalks about how the town is simply “disguised countryside”, how “main roads, some older than history itself, still bend to avoid long dried marshes, or veer off at an angle where the wall of a manor house once stood”, how “hills and valleys still remain”, “rivers, even though entombed in sewer pipes, still cause trouble in foundations of neighbouring buildings”, “garden walls follow the line of hedgerows”, and how “London gardens owe their rich topsoil to manure from long-forgotten horses and cattle or vegetable refuse from meals unimaginably remote in time”.
And wandering around empty lockdown London, you can really appreciate how the city is a palimpsest, its history, natural and otherwise, tangible in the peace and quiet.
Making your way down the length of Marylebone Lane, which runs from Oxford Street to Marylebone High Street, walking down the middle of a road normally thronging with black cabs and Bentleys, you can feel how it owes its winding shape to the River Tyburn, which once ran alongside it.
Struggling up the deserted Swain’s Lane in north London, so steep that cyclists can break the speed limit on it, it is easier than ever to envision how it got its name: as Tindall, explains “Swain’s” is actually “a piece of late 18th-century pastoral conceit”, the street being originally known as “Swine’s Lane” due to the fact that pig herders used to drive animals down it from the hills around Highgate to Smithfield Market.
Then there is Soho, which is hard to imagine as the hunting ground that it once was, even with the absence of Ubers and crowds, but where there is, for the first time in my life, enough quiet to stand outside the John Snow pub in Broadwick Street to contemplate how it commemorates the surgeon who in 1854 uncovered the link between the victims of a cholera epidemic and those who had drunk from a local well. Nothing is new in London. The great city has seen it all before.
A jogger passes the John Snow pub in Broadwick Street, Soho
TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER JACK HILL
I suspect, from the people I occasionally see taking photographs on these desolate walks, waiting for me to get out of shot, that I’m not alone in this pastime. And I know from reading that there exists a peculiar sect of individuals who describe themselves as “psychogeographers” — walkers who idolise the flâneur, a figure created in 19th-century France by Charles Baudelaire, and who make a virtue out of deliberately wandering aimlessly.
They have formed groups (such as the London Psychogeographical Association, the Loiterers Resistance Movement, and the Nottingham Psychogeographical Unit), produced films and documentaries (one of the earliest scenes of psychogeography cited by the BFI involves Ringo going for a random wander around the Putney towpath in Richard Lester’s 1964 collaboration with The Beatles,A Hard Day’s Night) and written books (eg Iain Sinclair’sLondon OrbitalandWill Self’sPsychogeography).
Old Compton Street in Soho is normally bustling with shoppers and workers TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER JACK HILL
Unfortunately, the thing that seems to unite the writers of these tomes, as typified by Self, who has described walking as “a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix which compresses the space-time continuum” and the solitary walker as “an insurgent against the contemporary world, an ambulatory time traveller”, is incomprehensibility.
Not only do these male writers — and it’s almost always men — like wandering without direction, their thoughts are pretty hard to follow too. It’s not, in my opinion, as complicated as they make out: wandering the city, deserted or otherwise, is simply the perambulatory equivalent of looking up at the stars at night. It gives you perspective, makes you appreciate your insignificance, helps you to realise that everything is a phase and that this too shall pass.
John Lewis’s flagship Oxford Street store has been closed for a month TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER JACK HILL
I’d like to take these walks much farther into London, to jaywalk around an empty Hyde Park Corner, often called the busiest and scariest roundabout in Britain, to see what my old home of Brixton is like without psychotic traffic and suffocating pollution. But I am limited by two things: the capacity of my bladder (with pubs and cafés closed, I have to head back home as soon as it seems I might need to pee) and the fear I will be arrested (the government hasn’t given official guidance on how long people are allowed to spend exercising outside and enforcement is erratic).
I can’t see the harm: you see fewer people in 75 minutes of walking through the empty streets of central London than you do in five minutes in its crowded parks. But I’m sure people will let me know if it’s permitted, given lockdown has led to a boom in another great British pastime: telling strangers they are doing something wrong.