Thursday, 18 February 2010

Spring Cleaning

Okay, I admit it. Last Thursday night I was in a bad mood. Really bad. Foul even. Why? I can’t even remember. But whatever it was, something needed to be done about it. A friend had invited me to the Porchester Turkish Bath the next day, but so deep was my funk, even the thought of lounging about in steam rooms could not tempt me away from the shadow of my own personal black cloud. I needed solitude. I needed space. I needed to be alone.
In London, these conditions are very hard to find. Unless you are stupidly rich the chances of you having more than four rooms in your flat are slim (unless you flat-share, squat or are one of those lucky sods who bought a place before the property price boom). In a vain attempt to ignore the fact that Him Indoors was within ten feet of me I hid behind my glossy mag. Its pages chirped to me about happiness, how to find contentment, and where to find it. Women wrote about where they went to escape from the stresses and strains of life; Italy, France, Cornwall. Descriptions of rugged cliff tops and windy beaches made me ache with longing. That was what I needed, and I needed it yesterday. Cornwall being a good 6 hours away by a car that I did not have, I knew this was not going to happen any time soon. Then I had a flash of inspiration. The Heath.
Thank God for Hampstead’s answer to the Yorkshire Moors. A haven for North Londoners (and probably popular for those south of the river too) it offers not only an expanse of greenery, but if you venture deep enough into its muddy, uneven, almost rustic terrain, you can find yourself situated in what has to be one of the very few places within the M25 where you cannot hear traffic or see a high rise. Instead you see trees. Grass. Squirrels. You hear birds that are not pigeons calling to each other. People smile at each other, even if they have never seen each other before, let alone become friends on Facebook.
So, by the time I retired to bed, I had a plan for the next day. Get up. Have breakfast. Get dressed. Maybe make up a flask. Then go. In the morning, Him Indoors watched me as I pulled out my London Walks book, pulled on my boots and rooted around for a suitably woolly hat.
“I thought you were going to that spa?” He enquired cautiously, aware of my unpredictable state.
“No. Don’t fancy it. Going to Hampstead Heath.”
He looked at me. “But it’s been raining. And it’s cold.” He spoke slowly and deliberately, convinced I had finally lost the plot.
“I need to clear my head.”
With that, I stuck my head phones in my ears and headed out to the bus stop. The Prodigy thudded into my ears, propelling me forwards on my mission (yes, The Prodigy. I told you I was in a bad mood). On the bus, I stared out of the window, glad of the barrier of sound between myself and the rest of the world. Then, I was there.
Dodgy nineties dance still drumming into my skull, I consulted my book and plunged in. Walking past the local secondary school, my pace slowed as I spotted some Snowbells. I stopped, slightly calmed by their simple charm. I decided to take a photo. Satisfied with my snap, I soldiered on. On the outskirts of the heath, a huddle of seagulls paddled in the mud, sheltered by a withered yet masterful tree. My pace slowed once more. Again I felt compelled to utilise my phone’s camera. Another fifty yards passed and I came across the first pond along my walk. Framed by a bench commemorating the life of a loved one and another majestic oak, I stared at the natural beauty. My eyes drank it in like a thirsty alcoholic as I trudged along.
As I approached my first incline a couple of dog walkers crossed paths, their dog’s natural curiosity turning boisterous. Through my music I heard words being exchanged. Head down, I headed deeper into my sanctuary and solitude. Following the map in my book became harder so I let my path stray whilst keeping easy landmarks within sight so as to prevent from becoming completely lost.
By the time I approached Kenwood House, I was feeling better. My eyes and nose were streaming from the cold, but my head was clearing from the cobwebs that had clouded it for too long. Grateful for the public toilets provided I helped myself to a wad of tissue and headed back south towards Gospel Oak. The album I had been listening to reached its conclusion. I decided to see how I got on without artificial intervention. It was quiet. Okay, not completely silent, but the hum of traffic was only a hum peppered with birdsong.
It started to rain when I got to the muddiest, most precarious part of my walk. Starting out as a shower it quickly accelerated into a fully fledged downpour. The pages of my book curled and mud splashed up my jeans. Him Indoors was right, the weather was not ideal for my endeavour. But I didn’t care. Memories of walking through the dales of Derbyshire with my dad every Easter flooded back. I decided, with a smile, that getting cold, wet and muddy was much more fun when it was your own stupid idea.
Towards the end of my walk I reached one of the highest points of the Heath. A few benches and a map lined the path, allowing walkers to rest and admire the city below. Through the veil of drizzle I ticked off the sights; the BT Tower, the London Eye, Canary Wharf. Satisfied I had taken in the view I headed back to Highgate Road and caught the bus down to Camden for a well earned coffee.
On the bus, I looked at my watch. It was two hours since I had left my flat. The equivalent to four episodes of Friends, a movie, a chat with a friend followed by a soak in the tub. But it had been worth every second. You see, sometimes you need to escape from city life in order to fully appreciate it, to clear your head from smog and information overload, the noise, the constant bombardment of people, cars, buildings. An investment, if you like, to prevent London burnout.
By the time I got home I was feeling much perkier. Him Indoors eyed me suspiciously.
“So, how was the Heath?”
“Good. I needed that.”
He nodded, clearly not sure what it was that I had needed, but equally relieved that I had come back refreshed, repaired and raring to go again. Next time he’s got London Fever, though, I know what I shall be recommending.


  1. Of course it wouldn't be a REAL Easter walk with Dad unless you fell on your arse in the mud :)