Dog Days in the capital: My Week
Published Country Life, October 10, 2018
I am a London walker. In the centre of town, traffic seldom exceeds the speed of 4 mph that the coachmen of England were complaining about in the 18th-century. By setting off at a brisk pace at the right time, I can be assured of arriving not only on time but in an exalted mood. For I have learned routes that take me down street markets, across cloistered squares, beside neglected churchyards and through the haphazard enchantments of a living metropolis. I have put this enthusiasm to work, and twice a year take a walk across the breadth of London (from Hyde Park to the Tower) jabbering away about history all day. I love it, partly because I am following in the footsteps of a great London historian and activist, the late Gavin Stamp who first set this walk up with Martin Randall Travel.
On Monday I walked our lurcher to my attic office, selecting a route that made no sense in terms of speed, but united four small parks in a satisfying patrol. She is a proper Londoner, adopted from Battersea Dogs Home. She has one or two 'issues' and is unable to resist either discarded pizza crusts or squirrels. Our nearest square boasts squirrels which a neighbour (always dressed in black shorts and a black cap) devotedly feeds. He also puts out trays of dog food for the feral foxes that breed in the old 17th-century waterworks that once recived an aqueduct of Hertfordshire spring water. I fear, since Monday, we are no longer on speaking terms, for the said lurcher finally achieved her ambition and despatched a slow-moving squirrel with one triple-fast shake of her head. He was not alone in looking horrified. Even our scruffy and inoffensive local drug-dealer snapped out of his habitual doze and screamed 'take that fucking killer out of this park'. So I did. We may also have done our community an unwittingly good turn, for I haven't seen him since.
On Tuesday our walk was halted, not by traffic, but by an East-End neighbour who pointed out a sparrow hawk busily plucking the flesh off a breast under the holly. He thought she had taken a young crow, I argued for a squab, but we could agree that their nearest known nest was in the tower of Tate Modern.
Returning from a fellow publisher (who gives an annual breakfast to her rivals in business) I was determined to use the river-boat. The crowd I mingled with on Wednesday morning was unusually elegant, travelling downriver from Chelsea wharfs to the gleaming financial towers at Canary Wharf, but the tides were not working in anyone's favour. However this unexpected pause gave me a solitary half hour watching cormorants and heron, sunning themselves on an old wooden jetty upriver from Battersea Bridge.
Thursday saw us heading for a park which is more understanding about lurchers. It has been established over a cemetery that was notorious in Dickens’s time as a place where fresh coffins were dug up and sold second-hand. In the mornings it is owned by dogs who exercise each other by racing around the park, some of them also keeping an eye out for squirrels. At lunchtime, it becomes 'leads-on' territory, when young dancers (from a local academy) pirouette on the grass, and millennial youths sprawl around in decorative clumps having a lunch break from designing web-marketing systems. The young men sport luxuriant beards, the like of which have not been seen in this parish since Dickens stalked these streets, listening out for stories. At four o'clock the park fizzes with energy released from our three local primary schools: green sweaters mark out Anglicans, blue the Catholics, purple the priest-free.
My brother-in-law once asked me, with some concern in his voice, where I felt at home. At various stages in my life, I might have claimed Istanbul, Tripoli, Tunis or Tangier, but I now own up to a London book launch as my parish. On Thursday I set off dogless for Giles Milton's launch of his new D-Day book at Hatchards on Piccadilly. The Moroccans have a saying that one chance meeting is worth a dozen failed appointments. And I certainly relish the chance encounters with old travel writer friends in these crowded, book-lined rooms, enriched that night by the Milton daughters pouring out Burgundy and a pyramid of cheese puffs made by his wife Alexandra.
I have made it a rule never to walk back befuddled with book-launch wine. I wait until I get home, knowing there is a lurcher waiting. It's never too late for a midnight patrol of the squirrel and fox population in the dark streets of the old London parish of Clerkenwell.
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by Barnaby Rogerson