New Times,
New Thinking.

Walking into the past

Exploring London’s ragged borderland offers new perspectives on love, loss and the ephemeral nature of life.

By Jonathan Rutherford

The path led to the gravel road, but which way to turn? We went right, the wrong way, and arrived on a housing estate where parents were waiting to collect their children from school. It took another hour to retrace our steps and reach our destination, a Victorian church and village green, in the shadowlands of an old country.

Over the winter months we walked the circumference of London. My wife Frances and I began at Erith, on the south bank of the Thames estuary, and followed the London Loop, a full 150-mile circle clockwise to Purfleet on the opposite bank. We were exploring London’s raggedy, liminal borderland, where places lose their contours in a rural urban sprawl. Remnants of villages, market towns and redundant industries are all that is left of an older England overwhelmed and buried beneath the surging, unforgiving modernity of new housing developments, roads and office buildings. It is easy to lose one’s bearings and become lost.

We have been walking back into our lives in search of the place to which we belong, circumnavigating a London that has changed beyond our recognition. Only by getting lost can one begin to find oneself, writes Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005). In the past decade a changing economy, immigration and gentrification have transformed our road in Finsbury Park, north London, into a neighbourhood of strangers. Home is both strange and familiar.

Our street is full of the ghosts of people departed. The old man who would wait for his wife to return from her shopping, leaning against the gate, his gaze fixed on the corner shop from which she would emerge. The woman in the bottom flat next door. She told me, “My grandfather sailed on Nelson’s Victory.” I looked incredulous. “He did,” she insisted, and held up an index finger and counted off her years, her father’s years, and her grandfather’s birth date. “It was after Trafalgar, of course.” And there was the man who rode everywhere on an old bike with a wicker basket attached, his wife a schoolteacher. I never knew their names. One day they were together and then she was alone with the children. Year on year, older couples would walk out together until one day there was only one, walking alone.

Neighbour following neighbour, one generation giving way to the next. B— spent her last years trapped in her flat, dying in her mid-nineties. She had kept the accounts in one of the small factories that had once provided local employment. Her husband had worked in the local hardware store. J— had come from Wales and then died, leaving his grieving children and his wife holding her cardigan as he was lifted into the ambulance for the last time. T— had been a chef in the merchant navy. He became sick, and he too was marooned in his flat before dying alone. M— lived with her brother. They had a Buddha perched on the top of their house. She would cadge cigarettes and always sang the praises of the Queen – until one day she was found collapsed between parked cars. Our children, now grown up, were the last generation who played outside together on the street.

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Our own childhoods, too, are lost worlds. My comfortable Home Counties upbringing: a son of the officer class of the national economy that disappeared with the onset of globalisation and the rise of a new bourgeois class. Frances grew up in the end days of working-class life in a northern mill town, leaving school at 15 to clip handkerchiefs, and, she imagined, to be soon married. We were children in the same country but inconceivable to each other. The cultures in which we grew up attached us to a place and defined our position in the world. Without their constraints, free of their parochialism, we have been cast loose, the continuity between our past lives and the present broken.

For generations people were formed in the landscape and places they lived. But modernity has broken the link. Frances’s forebears moved from the rural poverty of Ireland to the Lancashire cotton mills and to work in service in the big houses in the coastal town of Lytham St Annes. My grandfather’s search for work moved his young family from Stirling in Scotland to a veterinary practice in rural Dorset. Only memories gleaned from partial family histories hold us to the places and ways of life that produced us.

We are a society that lives in expectation of the future. The idea of progress is a kind of religion that gives the illusion of meaning to our sense of homelessness. The city is indifferent to our fate, its anonymity best suited for the young. Its freedom is its promise of self-invention unencumbered by the past. But this is mere illusion.

We walk through sodden fields, in darkening woodland, along busy roads, alongside canals and motorways, their banks scattered with rubbish. We follow dark streams, and paths circumventing housing estates or squeezed between back gardens. Outside a house near Heathrow, a plane roars overhead, followed by another and then another. We pass through a Muslim cemetery high up on the hill with its recent graves and views across Hertfordshire and Essex. We cross waterlogged common land until there appears through the haze a plastic shelter hidden among the trees.

We have walked through the detritus of urban life as it scatters untidily into the countryside. The motorways carve their way through fields, the silent canals lead to the old industrial north, the railway lines, like sutures, tie together the city and the country. Everywhere there are tenuous connections to the past. On the Old Redding road, in Harrow Weald to the north, an old wooden bus shelter with its tiled roof is hidden in a tangle of ivy. Opposite lies a pub, the Case Is Altered, dating to 1800. Beneath the roar of the M4 near Heathrow, our path cuts through the churchyard of St Dunstan with Holy Angels, linking this site to the original Saxon church. And scattered and hidden along the way are what remains of villages such as Farnborough and Ewell, overrun by traffic.

We encounter people who tell us stories. Outside Harold Wood to the east a woman carrying her granddaughter stops us. “My daughter-in-law lost her child. I’ve been depressed but I’ve taken up Nordic walking,” she says. “It’s wonderful. I tell everyone to try it.”

Early one morning, on frost-covered fields outside Bexley, we meet two men with their dogs. “After my dog died,” says one, “it was three years before I could own another. I went on holiday, did the things I wanted to do and then I was lucky and found him.” He looks down at his dog with its beautiful face, peering out across the field.

Near the River Lea, as we walk through a field, a woman is feeding her rescue ponies. She tells us about the sanctuary she has created and how one morning she found the ponies standing in a circle around a fallen donkey. He was still warm and had died of old age after a harsh life. And then she says, “I lost my close friend. It was two years ago. He was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was my soulmate.”

We live in a moment that is ending, in time passing, in places that are not our own and where we do not belong. It is in the unbearable knowledge of the ephemeral nature of our lives – and our enduring bonds with those we love and who we will lose – that we make our way. We are walking out on the periphery, taking wrong turns, momentarily lost, searching for the right way as darkness falls.

One afternoon, 15 miles from where we began, we reach Hamsey Green, our day’s southern destination. There we crowd on to a bus with a large group of schoolchildren. We stand, squeezed among them, listening to the quiet, friendly buzz of their conversation. Two girls share chips doused in ketchup. A small group pressed together are in conference watching something on a phone. The bus passes through the suburbs and along a high street. The driver waits patiently for an older man hurrying to the bus stop. She smiles and nods as he thanks her. At the next stop, she calls to us and says, “Go right down there.”

We leave the bus and cross the main road and walk along a narrow street, take a wrong turn, and walk back until we arrive at the train station. The train will take us to the home in the street where we do not belong; where we wish to die but do not want to be buried because we do not belong there.

In recent months, we have been walking into the past. We have walked at dusk, searching for the small gap in the trees on the far side of a field where the path will continue. We walk towards it for the simple joy of walking until that time when we lose our footing.

[See also: How Take That helped me embrace middle age]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024