One day, whilst sitting alone together with hundreds of nameless commuters on a tube heading somewhere, I lost myself in the map of coloured lines. I’d been back in England for a few months, and was daydreaming about the freedom of travelling with a backpack, camera and endless time. As I scanned the various train’s paths, it dawned on me I needn’t venture too far for my next trip as London was brimming with the unknown. I’d heard a plethora of names over the tannoy for years, but had never thought of visiting these places. I decided I would explore the city that I lived in without a cumbersome backpack and passport but with the same intrigue and desire.
The first place I chose at random was Island Gardens. Drawn by the exotic name, I wondered who lived there, what the architecture was like, and what its inhabitants did. One day in June I took the train and Docklands Light Rail in the baking heat, armed with a Nikon D300 and an inquisitive mind. As I emerged from the station, I was met by the sweet smell of roses. Immediately, to my left I saw an expanse of green, lined with flowers and dotted with sunbathers. Children played noisily in the adventure park whilst young students accompanied by their teacher sat on benches, capturing their understanding of a replica of Fran Dobson’s 1951 ‘Woman and Fish’ on paper. Within minutes, as the roses permeated the warm air, I was more than content with my first choice.
Having no idea of my bearings, I chose to walk along the park’s path and turn right into an estate. The buildings struck me as being a little harsh in their strong lines, and an excessive ratio of concrete to greenery. However, neighbours chatted on solid lawns, and a sun-induced calmness exuded. My curiosity as to the inhabitants’ histories grew. If only I had been a little more forthcoming, then I would have stopped to chat. Usually I am very confident, but in certain circumstances, I fear people will judge me because of my accent. I assume that people may think I am some white middle-class lefty with nothing better to do than explore the hidden paths of London, and that they will judge my intrigue as invasive. My identity-based fears got the better of me once more, obfuscating the potentiality to connect.
Emerging onto the high street, I tried to figure out the area’s demographics. Skanuti’s Eastern European Food Store sat next to a wonderfully bizarre mish-mash shop called Island Photography Studio, inside which people were enjoying cups of tea. Perhaps on realising that printed photography was on the decline, the studio had been combined with a deli, where you could get a bagel and your passport photo all at once. This shop made me smile, as it didn’t adhere to a common thread and fused food and art in a way that I’d never seen before. As I snapped away, again I felt a deep sense of self-consciousness as an obvious observer. My SLR camera and self-induced feeling of alienation from this part of London rendered me temporarily uncomfortable.
I decided to take some brief respite from the summer sun in the cool innards of the Chapel of St John Apostle. Often finding churches and their cold walls and hard seats with depictions of the crucifixion, thorns, and blood estranging, St John was inviting, simple and humble. The unyielding pews were softened with small cushions that had been hand-stitched with the parishioners’ names in bright colours. Where the pulpit lay, the walls reminded me of a bright backgammon board design, packed with colour and warmth. If the pastor hadn’t had to attend an engagement nearby, closing this small haven, I could have sat there for an eternity, perhaps lighting a candle for loved ones that have passed on into some unknown space.
With the complete freedom of being purposefully lost, I walked out of the chapel, and turned left, and then left again, towards the Thames. Having been raised in a hamlet in rural Dorset, and regularly craving the embrace of nature, my heart lifted higher when I discovered a deserted sandy beach next to a little rowing club. This divinely bucolic scene, in the exotically named Island Gardens, where a tropical sun beat down on my welcoming skin as I pushed my toes into the soft sands on the shore of a tiny beach infused a sense of calm, connectedness and tranquillity that will forever be stored somewhere in my collection of memories. I fell in love with London a little more and my insecurities as a stranger and observer soon faded into insignificance.
Back through concrete protruding lines that contrasted with the undulating curves of the river, I saw decay and faded histories juxtaposed with bustling modernisation and wealth. What would become of the crumbling second-hand shop, recently acquired by developers? Who would eat, converse, smile and lament on the transformed land? Would they have any connection with its past? Would they know that items, once loved, had swapped hands in the once gloriously basic green shop? Time will tell. The face of the city was rapidly changing, with gentrification displacing thousands, replacing them with oligarchies, strangers and condoned isolation for the struggling classes.
Having traversed paths, pavements, chapels, and beaches I headed back to the park and lay down for a twenty-minute sunbathing break. Swiftly invigorated and replenished I ambled up a pathway and found myself immersed in a verdant scene, with the overbearingly awesome financial district lurking disturbingly in the distance. I plucked berries from their branches, and, despite their tartness, swallowed them with the satisfaction that comes from city foraging. Island Gardens blended into Mudchute, and I found myself on a farm, where pigs bickered violently, turkeys fluffed their speckled patterns, and donkeys hung around in the sun. At the sows’ sty, I met Donna and the little Indian boy who was in her care. Her warmth and broad smile made me feel relaxed enough to start a conversation. I told her I’d never been to Island Gardens or Mudchute before, and that I’d developed a new understanding and appreciation for the hundreds of Londons that make up the city. We parted after she allowed me to take her photo and had shared contact details.
After the farm, I felt like my first venture into London’s unknown was naturally coming to an end, so I walked slowly back through the park, past the statue and amongst the sweet-scented roses, to the train station. As the driverless DLR snaked through newly erected glass homes, skyscraping offices where dreams and nightmares are fulfilled, I pondered on my day. I felt a deep sense of comfort knowing that I didn’t need to venture to far away lands for new experiences for London contained a thousand awaiting adventures.