I am astonished as I leave Dorking on the Thames Down Link to walk through, and spend the entire day walking though beautiful countryside. All my assumptions about these places that have hitherto been simply place names around and about London have been challenged and blown apart. I am delighted.
I really enjoy walking north through Surrey. At some point I join the Hogsmill River and learn that it used to power 12 mills. It is hard to believe now as it is quite narrow and doesn’t appear to be very fast running or deep. It does make for lovely walking however.
I stop for herbal tea at the Hogsmill tavern at Worchester Park. I have now reached south London. Still the way is pleasant and in no way feels like I am entering a vast conurbation. I find myself full of gratitude for those that are responsible for developing, maintaining, and signposting walks in and around London.
Then, I arrive in Old Malden, and the story changes. I am first aware that I have entered quite a different place when I hear the cries of young people from a nearby playground. They are playing but their voices have that strident edge of desperation often heard from those who have become accustomed to living in difficult conditions, akin somehow to the cries of nervous wildfowl, always on the alert for danger.
I pass them by without seeing them and come out into the first real urban situation of the day. The flats are those people wouldn’t have saved up all their lives to live in, the young children playing outside them are accustomed to their environment, the lack of trees, the soulless buildings, the sterile small green grass areas; I want to rush through as quickly as I can. I reach the main road, passing a father shouting at his small daughter for wanting to ride her scooter along the side road. It looks safe enough to me but his concern has a quality of fear to it.
From the main road I see the station and know I have somehow overshot my destination. I search about trying to pick up the trail again but it has vanished without trace though the signs leading back the way I came are still visible. I ask four different passer bys. They are all English, all local, and one tells me she has lived there all her life. None of them know where the footbridge over the train track so clearly marked on my brand new OS map is, nor can they read the map, nor have any idea where there might be a footpath, they are friendly, but have no sense at all that it is possible to walk anywhere in their town/village – I am struggling to find a word to describe the place – it has that peculiar air of no man’s land, un cared for, unkempt, so often found besides bus, train, and tube stations.
I give up and follow my nose. It takes me down a neat residential street and there I meet an older couple who tell me how to get to the A3. This is in the right direction. It is the next hurdle after the crossing the train line. I follow their directions. I have already been speaking to my host for the night, Hilary Gander of Transition Kingston, and she is going to meet me once I have crossed the A3 and am in Surbiton where she lives.
I find the road, by its sound first. It is the most terrifying sight of my walk so far. Three lanes of traffic either side divide the landscape abruptly in two. On either side of this monstrous vision; suburban houses, large, well kept, with front gardens, all too often paved over for keeping extra cars, driveways, and full of ordinary people living ordinary lives. I cannot comprehend how the noise does not drive them insane. I am close to putting my fingers in my ears but I am afraid that I will need all my faculties alert in the proximity of this speedway. I am required to walk along it a little way to reach the subway. As I follow the pavement I come across a little pathway, and the Thames Down Link marker post …I have picked up my path again – but what a place to emerge this would have been from the riverside idyll! I am grateful now for my several minutes of detour through streets. Even with that preparation the assault on my senses is immense. How much of themselves the people living here must have to shut down in order to survive living by this particular roadside.
I go under the subway and keep hoping it will feel different on the other side; it doesn’t though. By the time Hilary and her bicycle find me I am overwhelmed and in shock and she is stressed at the panic she had of losing me; she had been phoning me to get my location but of course I couldn’t hear it over the noise of the traffic.
We walk through suburban Surbiton to her home. The streets get gradually quieter and quieter until we reach her road where not a sound is to be heard. I gradually relax and start to ask my host about Transition Kingston. We both start to feel better and laugh at our difficulties in negotiating a meet up when all I had was an OS map that showed Surbiton and Kingston as an amorphorous grey blob and she a street map!
Later in the evening, after Hilary and husband Dave have been out to vote, fellow transitioner Toni and hubby Ben come round to visit bringing with them a gift of a bottle of organic red wine – called Stephanie!
I hear the tales of TTK (Transition Kingston). I remember this group from well over a year ago when they invited me to speak about Transition Tales at an event with Shaun Chamberlain, their fellow transitioner, and whose book “The Transition Timeline” (http://transitionculture.org/shop/the-transition-timeline/) had just been published. They were a lively vibrant close knit group then, and continue to be so.
Their big news is that they had their unleashing earlier in the year. They are thrilled with how successful this was. They had David Fleming (http://www.theleaneconomyconnection.net/about.html ) as speaker as well as local councillors, and Toni and Ben made all the food for the 250 participants! They had a beautiful cake, a fabulous affair judging by the photos – it was a replica allotment patch in three parts, complete with edible sweet vegetables, a chicken coop, and raised beds.
They are now planning, as a steering group, to gradually step back to allow others to come forwards and take on this role. They themselves are looking forward to getting involved in one of the working groups and start a project. I ask Hilary what she has most interest in and she says she’d like to get a transport group started. Up until now she has played a key role in networking between the various groups and organisations.
Toni is already involved in the food group, who are just about to launch a veg box scheme in the area, and is also one of the coordinators of the Stitch in Time project. Stitch in Time is a mending circle. People turn up who either have something they’d like to mend, a skill they like to teach, or want to learn how to make or mend something. This project is extremely successful and some have said they so far haven’t found time to mend anything, but they have a great social life from it! Hilary says one of the things she has most enjoyed about getting involved in transition is the amount of new people in Kingston she has now got to know.
A picture in Hilary and Dave’s lounge shows the steering group of TTK proudly holding the award they won last year; the Guardian Green Project 2009. It seems they go from strength to strength.