CHARLOTTE CADE contemplates travelling around London as a mindful experience.
London is often labelled as busy, noisy, stressful, and overwhelming. Yet I find that there is also another side to it – an openness and a liveliness. Its idiosyncratic public transport, the people I meet along the way, the unique privilege of walking through one of the busiest, most diverse cities in the world, presents an opportunity to be fully immersed in a sensory, startling experience that disrupts the tedium of everyday life.
When stepping out to explore London, I prefer to take the tube: I find it more soothing than taking the bus, perhaps contrary to popular opinion. Maybe it is because I have no sense of direction, in general, so immersing myself in the underground cavern of the tube is a place I feel entirely at home in. I simply follow the lines and squiggles in vaguely the right geographical direction, and I’m bound to end up where I want to go, even if I can see absolutely nothing as I’m travelling. And if I don’t end up in the right place, I can just hop back on in the other direction. The familiarity of the tube’s sporadically terrifying and squealing noises, as it rushes through pitch dark tunnels, is oddly soothing. There is something paradoxically chaotic and organised about the bustling underground stations, with their neat timers and characteristic overhead voices that dictate your actions, especially when there is something just slightly different from the last time you went on the tube. There might be a new station with a unique way down onto the platform, or a poor employee voicing over and over that ‘the Northern line is closed. Do not get on the Northern line to go south, as this tube is going north’, whilst taking the chance to ironically comment on the weather. I can smell the bizarrely comforting mustiness of warm, trapped air and feel the invigorating rush of the breeze as I fight to hold onto an escalator rail when a gust comes buffeting, seemingly from nowhere. It creates a necessary relief from control and responsibility, as I spend a brief period hibernating underground before emerging blinking into the sunlight (well– rain) amongst skyscrapers, or grand, old architectural buildings, or with the roar of the wind coming off the Thames, or in the greenery and grandeur of a Royal Park.
Along the way, I encounter all kinds of people. Grumpy, kind, old, young, arrogant, shy, introverted, extroverted, dog-lovers, runners, take-up-as-much-space-as-possible people, headphone-wearers, loud, drunk, quiet people. I am prompted to look outside of myself, to see a different perspective. As an introvert, the opportunity to engage with another person simply for a fleeting moment, with no social commitment, is often quite appealing. Listening to the chatter of businessmen as they casually talk about a relative owning Pret, or bumping into busy commuters, being asked for directions by people when you also have no idea where you’re going. Even encounters where you’re glaring at somebody, who has decided to blare music in the middle of a busy carriage, provides an opportunity to look outside of yourself…
Of course, no matter who you interact with or how you travel, walking is almost always an element of exploring London. And if you’re like me, with my aforementioned lack of any sense of direction, you often end up walking even more as you get lost. I feel an invigorating rush of endorphins, and a sense of freedom, in having the time and space to both lose and find myself again. I wander around the little alleyways and giant roads that form a network around my desired location, complete with cars, traffic, rickshaws, pedestrians, smokers and interesting quiet pockets of space where the rest of London seems to disappear. I suddenly have time to pay attention to the pace of my walk, my breath and the sound of my shoes against the pavement. When I reach my destination, I feel both soothed and enlivened by the contrasting familiarity and variety that travelling and exploring London offers.
While London may come across as bustling, overpowering and formidable, this dissipates into a deep appreciation and satisfaction when I stop to notice the small, exquisite details and idiosyncrasies that make up its vastness. There is a quiet power and relaxation in taking the time to explore and experience London, I have found, fully for its own sake.
Featured image source: Flickr.com