Meet The Lady Who’s Walked Every Street In Central London

Day 1...starting near the Tower of London and just 400 miles to go.

Day 1…starting near the Tower of London and just 400 miles to go.

Ever the fans of leftfield walking projects we were intrigued by the mission of Noelle Poulson. Over the course of the past year and a half, she’s walked the length of every street, road, mews, alley, avenue, snickleway, ginnel, crescent, square and circus of inner London. If that raises as many questions in your own mind as it did in ours, then read on…

So you’re walking every street within the Congestion Zone boundary. Woah, that’s quite a project. Give us some stats about just what a task that is.

So far, I have walked 382.49 miles over the course of 63 walks (160 walking hours). I generally walk three times a week for an average of 2.5 hours each walk (around 26.5 miles a week). I have no idea how many streets it is. Also, considering the blog is a peripheral part of the project, I am pretty shocked to see I have racked up over 60,000 words and still have several posts to go.

What sparked this crazy adventure in the first place?

This started as a personal fascination when I first moved to London. I wanted to see different places all the time so I hung maps in my room and marked off streets as I walked them. This helped me keep track of where I’d been, but also helped me map out the city in my head and see how it connected.

I have a freakishly spatial mind, and once I have been somewhere I know it — it’s on my mental map and it stays put pretty solidly for a long, long time. That’s where the idea of walking down every street originated, I think, from a personal desire to create a big map of the city in my head and not need to carry one (although I still do because I love maps!).

Last autumn, I had to finally admit to myself that my time in London is going to be over very soon, and I could not bear the thought of leaving without having seen it all. I fired up the project again and really got to it in October (with some breaks here and there for work and holidays). In many ways, this project has been a process of saying goodbye.

I have walked many of these streets many times in my four years here, but I chose to walk them all again. Some days have been almost painfully nostalgic as I see shadows of myself sitting at cafes with friends, picnicking in the parks, ringing in the New Year, stumbling home from the pub, etc. Some of it has been new and has made me sad I didn’t know about it sooner. But overall it has been a really intense bonding experience with the city, getting to know it for real before I have to leave it.

So how’s this work? Do you walk every metre of every street, or just stick your toes in?

I walk the FULL length of every street. It means quite a lot of doubling back which adds to the fun. I mostly enjoy it though because I see the street from a different angle and often see things I missed when I came from the other direction. If it is a dead end mews, I walk down and back. Usually those suck the most because they can be pretty nasty, and I get to see them TWICE! Hooray!

Almost done.

Almost done.

Your project reminds us of Phyllis Pearsall, who supposedly walked all 23,000 streets in London while compiling the first A-Z. Is she a personal heroine of yours?

I have had a couple of people compare me to her when I have told them about the project (mostly cabbies. I talk to a lot of cabbies). I was pretty intrigued by her story so I went to go see The A to Z of Mrs. P play that was on at Southwark Theatre a while back and attended the Q&A to ask about the mythology of her walks. They admitted she didn’t exactly have to walk them all but that she was really obsessed with them and definitely saw her fair share when she was recording the house numbers for the A to Z. She’s not necessarily a hero, but I would have absolutely loved to have met her and been able to compare her London and mine to see what is different and what is the same.

What have you learned about London while exploring its streets?

Londoners love their city. They love to talk about it. They love to share it. They love to walk it. They’re also really friendly. I often get stopped by people who ask if I need help finding my way. When I tell them what I am doing (after they look at me curiously and ask, ‘why?’), they inevitably check to see if I have been to their favourite places, and if I haven’t they point them out so I don’t miss them. I have had several tell me, “no one walks London’s streets more than I do!”. They are so proud to show that they know the city. It usually leads to really fun conversations where we share our best secrets and walk away as new friends.

I have also learned that London isn’t all shiny, fancy, bright and clean. Even though I had spent a lot of time walking through the streets before I started this project properly, I had a really naïve notion that every day would blow me away. I thought I would have all kinds of amazing things to tell people about every single day and that I would be more and more amazed by London with each passing mile.

But I learned that it is a well-rounded character with all kinds of different moods and personalities. It sounds silly to say I had to walk 400 miles to find that out but I feel so much closer to it having been through it all. I feel like I know what it is really all about and what makes it tick.

Maybe getting to know a city is a little like dating someone. Most people can hide their crazy for the first six months pretty easily and it’s easy for things to seem sparkly and perfect. You go out to fancy places, you see shows and eat good food and dance the night away. But then you start to see hints of the dark stuff and the potentially not-so-appealing sides of them and wonder if maybe they aren’t who they seemed. If you get past that and still like them though, those things end up bringing you closer. You see the bad and good together as necessary elements of the whole person.

I feel like I know London as a real place now, not just a playground or a place of excitement and entertainment.

Walking so many miles through the smoggy urban landscape…is that good for your health, or very bad for your health?

My long-distance walking endurance has certainly improved! I walk 5-6 miles now without even thinking about it. I have always been a walker, so that distance is not too far out of the norm, but the frequency of long walks has been much higher for a few months now and I can definitely feel a difference in my endurance since the first walks.

And what next? Are you going to branch out further and explore the streets of Greater London?

I would love to say I am going to walk more areas of London, but I have the two-fold problem that: I need to earn money (none of this is bringing in anything and I’m doing it full-time), and I will probably be leaving the country after January. Who knows? Maybe I will get a chance to but for now it doesn’t seem like that would be for a while.

Noelle’s blog Congestion Zone chronicles her 400-mile mission, which comes to an end this month.

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  • hostile_17

    I do this a lot. I just go and wander, and map… I like to know how everyhting connects up. I have large areas pretty good… however the whole of Central London, that I do not!

    • Congestion Zone

      It just takes time! I was the same until I made a project of it. Start linking those areas and you’ll suddenly realise you can move around without even thinking about it :)

  • KTS

    What a fascinating and inspiring project! Well done Ms. Pou

    • Congestion Zone

      Thanks so much!

  • Emily

    That lady is my aunt!!!! Go Noelle :)

    • Congestion Zone

      Hahaha! Thanks, Em :)

  • David Contreras Magaña

    I do the same! but not just central London, and not EVERY street :) Around 1700Km and 900 pictures in one year ^_^ (davidcontrerasm on Runkeeper and Instagram) My map: http://instagram.com/p/n7wgmFQDlZ

    • Congestion Zone

      Oh my god that map looks so familiar!! I really thought I was the only weirdo who kept track of this stuff. I have fellow map makers! I really can’t tell you how exciting it is to see that! If you’re free for the celebration party on Saturday, it would be great to meet you and hear about where you’ve been :) https://www.facebook.com/events/173410132856731/?fref=ts

  • Col McGillveray

    Oh! This is very, deeply wonderful.
    Huzzah!

    • Congestion Zone

      Aww thanks :)

  • Hadley Stirrup

    Noelle sounds like my kinda gal, and I`m going to check out her blog now. I also love walking in London, but prefer to explore new areas without a map, just looking around (remembering to look up) and following my nose. I like the idea of exploring every street though, and might give it a try in a limited area (starting with Bloomsbury, perhaps). The other day I thought of doing walks to every park cafe in London…

    • Congestion Zone

      Interesting you should mention Bloomsbury! I just wrote a little piece about that area for a free walking ebook you might like (http://londonhiker.com/guide/). I like to explore without maps too and see where my feet take me. I did find that being forced to see it all made me go into places I don’t think my feet would have willingly taken me otherwise and sometimes there were some really cool things there. I think one fun way to do it is a mix of the two, pick an area and wander around but contain yourself a little so you are forced to explore some stuff you might not get to otherwise. :)

  • Chaz

    Assuming the streets she has walked are coloured blue it is interesting and curious that she has left Bermondsey to last… hope she’s not going to be disappointed when she finally gets round to it.. :)

    • Chaz

      For the purists of course, it’s technically Southwark, but I was focussed on the eastern side as that’s nearest to my manor.

      • Congestion Zone

        Hi Chaz, it kind of just worked out that way because I did an anti-clockwise circle from Tower Hill so I’ll end at London Bridge/Tower Hill. I have walked all but just near the station now and yes, there were some parts that were not all that exciting around there. It’s great if you live there but just to walk around and look for stuff I did get a little bored at times. I don’t have the posts up about it yet but I still managed to find some nice spots around there and I did talk to a lot of strangers, which is always fun for me. So it wasn’t totally boring :)

  • Jack

    So cool!!!

    • Congestion Zone

      Thanks :)

  • http://www.kai.co.nz/ Greig Buckley

    Great adventure! Consider publishing your walks in card form so tourists (and locals) can simply choose a walk or tow and head off with a handy card to guide them. These have been done in many cities (City Walks brand??), but you could add a little more personality to the stories.

    • Congestion Zone

      Hi Greig, I am definitely thinking of some ways I could put it together to help out fellow walkers who are looking for some new streets. I kept track of my thoughts on all the streets so I know which ones I liked, loved and hated. Just need a publisher and I might be able to make it happen ;)

      • http://www.kai.co.nz/ Greig Buckley

        Great – good luck with that. I hope to use it one day (I am in NZ…but kids are there…)

  • UbleyHalt .

    This is great! I’ve been walking home every Friday from work (about 10 miles) a different way (EC2 to SE9) I’m now incorporating all the Thames crossing between Tower Bridge and the QEII bridge at Dartford, there’s 21.

    • Congestion Zone

      That’s a great strategy!

  • Anthony Lawless

    I’d love to have done something like that when I lived in London!
    Did they allow you to walk down closed off streets like Blackburne’s Mews, Culross St and Downing St?

    • Congestion Zone

      There were quite a few I wasn’t allowed down – construction, lorries in the way, private access etc. I kept track of them so hopefully one day I can cross them off :)

  • Anthony Lawless

    I’d love to have done something like that when I lived in London !
    How did you get to walk along Downing St and did the American’s allow you to walk down Culross St and Blackburne’s Mews ?

  • https://soundcloud.com/inhead-kay/ Kay

    Yay, Im a massive London walker too. I turn on my tracking on the phone and just start walking. 3 hours later and Im in an almost hypnotic mode, just synchronized with the beat of the city. Then when Im back and look at the map it never makes much sense, but then after doing that for months you start seeing patterns. Like for instance I always start somewhere, and walk roughly 6 miles on a certain trajectory, its never loopy or random, it seems like my inner compass is following something. Its probably not the sun since we hardly get that most of the year in London.

    For me its about architecture and urbanist settings. So London is perfect for that. Where London is strange, but thats something you get used to, is the medieval layout of the streets. There are no grids, no proper city planning, just a mish mash or roads that vaguely connect with each other at random acute and obtuse angles. Never a 90 degree, always bending and lots of time just abruptly ending. London is BIG on cul-de-sacs, they can be annoying too, but you get over it and keep on going. In many ways this random nature of the streets makes it much more exciting than traversing the perfect grid systems of New York or Barcelona, because you can’t guess what will happen next, its pretty much mostly the same streets that have been there since before the London fire, so you’re walking history!

    • Congestion Zone

      I couldn’t agree more! That’s a great way to describe it :)

  • Love London

    Fantastic feet & Fantastic feat

    • Congestion Zone

      I love a good pun ;) Thanks!

  • Vickeegan

    Could you now sit The Knowledge

    • Congestion Zone

      I wish! That would be amazing. I definitely have a head start but they cover much more than the congestion zone. Maybe that’s next…

  • amber

    I’ve probably done most of Central London, in the 60s I lived very centrally in bedsitters and was short of money so walked everywhere, was able to do Downing St because it wasn’t gated then. I started marking my walks on a map, just like lots of others describe here, and if I had a free weekend walked somewhere I hadn’t been just to fill in the gaps.

    • Congestion Zone

      Very jealous you got to do Downing St! It’s so great to hear about all these people marking maps. I thought I was a lone weirdo. ;)