This isn’t about that kind of street walking. Sorry boys - I’m not Belle du Jour.
No, this is about the joys of urban walking, which I’ve recently discovered. And I don’t mean walking to work, or the bus-stop, or nipping to the corner shop to fetch a pint of milk and the paper. I’m talking about walking the streets for walking’s sake; an activity in itself.
It started on a Saturday when I had nothing much to do. I decided to walk to Gloucester Road. There was nothing I needed to buy, no-one I wanted to meet there. I just thought I’d go for a stroll and soak up the atmosphere for a couple of hours. I could have driven, as it’s a fair distance from my flat, but I thought I’d make an outing of it. So I took my time, meandering my way there, looking in windows, observing the people I passed, enjoying the sun on my face and the feeling of being out in the city but anonymous at the same time. I loved it.
Hectic weekends mean it hasn’t been possible to replicate that aimless wandering for a while. But, with summer passing, nights drawing in and the prospect of coldness and darkness settling on the city earlier, I’ve been determined to make the most of the daylight hours left when I get out of work while I can.
I thought about jogging (for the exercise, you know), but my feet have an uncontrollable habit of flailing out comically when I increase my pace beyond a quick stride. And then I remembered that blissful walk.
I reckon a good brisk walk is just as good as a jog, and it has the added benefit of giving you the time to take in your surroundings, and reflect on your day.
So at least once a week I’ve been trying to take the time to slip into something g more comfortable after work and then set out into the city again.
One of my preferred routes takes me through Clifton Village, where I laugh to myself at yummy mummies bringing their brood home from school and can gawp at the grand houses.
I peer unashamedly into as many lit windows as I can, guessing at the lives that go on in there and mentally redecorating the kitchens and living rooms as I go, thinking wistfully to myself “one day….”
Once I’ve had my fix of house envy I go on past Bristol Zoo. Here I usually see a few staff members chatting and smoking at the bus stop. I imagine they’re ruefully discussing what the monkeys got up to that day, or debating why the penguins are in such a foul mood.
At any rate, they’ve certainly had a very different day to mine (despite some of the monkey-like characters I deal with at work). It refreshes me to think of all those different people out there, with their wildly varying sets of concerns and hopes, all making the world go on its merry way.
Past the zoo, I go up on the Downs. Here the joggers come out. I never fail to marvel at the sheer number of them. In packs, pairs or on their own, all pounding the grass into well-worn tracks.
Their expressions range from grim determination to a kind of exhausted resignation, as though the god of health and fitness is constantly on their shoulder, berating them for every chocolate digestive and screaming at them to get their trainers on and run, dammit, whether they like it or not.
If I’m lucky, as I cross the Downs I’ll see one or two hot air balloons rising up from the grounds of Ashton Court and I’ll stop for a minute or two to enjoy their calm beauty in the evening light. I’ve inherited a superstitious belief from my mum that hot air balloons are a symbol of hope. I think it’s one of many superstitions she’s invented herself but I’ve adopted it because I like it. And living in Bristol I see a lot of hope hovering in the skies above me.
Crossing onto Whiteladies Road I press my nose up against the window of the wedding dress shop and sigh over their latest display. No, I’m not engaged but yes, I spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about my dream wedding dress. Generally I try to keep that to myself, for fear of scaring people.
Walking back down Whiteladies Road there’s a buzz of post-work drinkers, also enjoying the last of the autumn sun. This is the route I take to work but in the evening the cast is transformed; everybody moves that bit slower, ties are loosened, hair shaken free of buns, glasses tossed aside (hang on, that’s a man’s librarian fantasy, but you get the picture.)
People smile at each other and stop and chat. And I listen in as I pass, catching snippets about irritating co-workers and errant boyfriends.
And then I’m home, back from my mini-adventure and every time filled with a new-found sense of wonder at the amazing city I live in.
I think Virginia Woolf summed up perfectly the joy of being a flaneur, or “one who walks the city in order to experience it”, in Street Hauntings: A London Adventure. Reflecting on the people she encountered on her wanderings she wrote: “Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind but can put on briefly the bodies and minds of others.”
I don’t know if Virginia Woolf ever brought her flaneuring ways to Bristol. I like to think so. She would have loved it as much as I do, I’m sure.