Ever the fans of leftfield walking projects we were intrigued by the mission of Noelle Poulson. Over the course of a year and a half, she walked the length of every street, road, mews, alley, avenue, snickleway, ginnel, crescent, square and circus of inner London. We spoke to her in July 2014, when the project was near completion. If it 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!
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 she completed in 2014.