Tucked in a corner between two major roads in North London, a path framed by trees drops steeply out of view and joins the London Loop, 150 miles of walks through parks, woods and fields in a ring around the city. Only a short distance from where I have lived for eighteen years, today is the first time I find myself walking the route, and soon I’m in a damp, green, frosty world only feet from the concrete paving and thundering traffic above.
It’s quieter here, a little misty, and what startles me most is how the physical geography of the city is brought into view. Alongside the path runs the Dollis Brook, these days hemmed in by concrete and brick banks. It’s clear to me from here that it is the brook that has opened this valley in the soft London clay.
Seeing that it is a valley at all is a surprise. Under the covering of tarmac and housing the swells and hollows of the landscape are disguised, appearing as part of the purposeful human development of the area. But here in the quiet by the brook I can see how the forces of the natural world, over timescales much longer than each of our lives, have shaped the place in which I live. I live on the slopes of a small river valley. This is a new place from which to look at where I dwell, a different take altogether from seeing myself as living on this-or-that street in a suburb in the north of a busy metropolis.
After about a mile, the brook passes under the brick arches of a bridge, six lanes of cars rumbling above. I take a winding path up the valley side, emerging on the pavement of the North Circular Road, built in the 1920s to connect industrial communities while bypassing central London. I have driven this road thousands of times and have never noticed what I can see now in a narrow band on both sides of the road – that the wooded valley continues, flanked by suburban houses, their chimneys poking out from between the trees. It would be possible to walk, drive, and live in this area for years and not see that this is where we are – on the banks of a river that soon joins the River Brent and, a few miles on, becomes part of the broad valley of the Thames which has so profoundly shaped the development of London in the centuries since it first became a city.
I’m struck by how pervasively our capacity to construct has hidden the contours and foundations of the landscape upon which we live and walk. And grateful that there are those with enough foresight and courage to preserve the narrow bands of green that thread their way through the city, so that we can turn from the familiar path and encounter it from a different perspective, and with different eyes.
And it has me wondering about all the other ways we pave over the contours of human life. How we hide the mysterious, life-giving rivers and valleys of meaning and longing and despair and hope and love under concepts and frameworks, procedures and policies, under the shiny, hard surfaces of professionalism and consumerism. And, too, under the ever-growing plague of busyness that seems to have taken the place of a deep encounter with anything as mysterious, or quiet, or ancient as a river valley threading its way through the city to the sea.