It was a quiet Sunday morning in September, and I had just taken the Tube by myself for the first time. I had the whole day to myself, and as I wandered past tree-lined streets and pastel-colored flats, I spotted the flats I had been looking for: one painted mint green, the other a lovely shade of lavender. Both had blue English Heritage plaques marking the notable writers who had lived there: William Butler Yeats in the first, Sylvia Plath in the second. Plath had also lived in the other flat, and in fact she died there. Despite the slightly morbid nature of my literary pilgrimage, I was simply amazed at being able to see the homes where she had written some of her best work, and to explore her neighborhood. And it was a beautiful neighborhood, right near Primrose Hill, where I went next. After climbing the famous hill (which was not as steep as I’d imagined), I sat on a bench at the top with strangers and gazed at the beautiful London skyline, which is truly an incredible sight, especially when you see it for the first time. I kept walking—for what seemed to my tired feet an interminable amount of time—until I reached the home of another favorite writer, John Keats, where he wrote his odes and began his great romance with Fanny Brawne. Like Plath, he also lived near a beautiful park, Hampstead Heath, which is so expansive, green, and peaceful that you almost forget you’re in London.
And what I remember from that day, as much as the memories of the places I visited, was the feeling of freedom, the simple joy of having an entire day just to explore and walk wherever I wanted. I grew up in the suburbs, where you need a car to get just about anywhere, so the mere notion of walking alone in a big city was so new and alluring to me. This was the first of several solo adventures that made me fall in love with not only London, but walking alone in London.
Another day, I spent the afternoon strolling along the South Bank, starting at the Millennium Bridge and making my way past the Houses of Parliament and across the river to the Tate Britain. This was the quintessential London walk that I had been looking forward to. I savored every moment of it, getting curry chips from a food stand by the bridge and stopping by Westminster Abbey, where I marveled at Poets’ Corner. There were times on my walks when I had no idea where I was going, but the beauty of London is that no matter where you are or where you’re headed, you’re almost bound to pass some beautiful, historical, or otherwise interesting place. These personal walking adventures of mine were so different from the hurried 25-minute walk I had to take to class every day (which had its own kind of charm, with the people-watching and people-handing-out-flyers-avoiding). I even wore out a few pairs of shoes with all my walking, so that I came home with fewer shoes than I had taken with me (something my shopping-obsessed self had not been expecting).
Of course, I loved all the time spent exploring the city with friends, but there was nothing quite like setting out on my own. Walking alone in London helped me feel less like a tourist and more like a Londoner. Hearing my steps mark out a rhythm on the pavement, I was on my own yet surrounded by people, at peace amidst the colors and sounds of the city.
~ Karen Jin
© 2014 Princeton Traveler