30 June 2011

Set Me Free

Needing to spend a long day in London, I took the coach from Oxford and alighted at Notting Hill Gate. It was a real summer day and even at 9 o'clock it was getting warm. Past Kensington Palace Gardens, with all its embassies, and into the park, I headed east towards Lancaster Gate with a view to picking up the Last Friday course at the end of the Long Water - the extension of the Serpentine. Lots of other runners out, all seemingly plugged into their own musical worlds and studiously avoiding eye contact. Gaggles of foreign tourists or language students too, with no idea that spreading out across the entire width of the path really isn't acceptable. And random hazards too, like the woman who, seeing me approaching, still turned sharply to her right into my path to head for a park gate.

A day for seeking out the shade. Along the path parallel to Rotten Row I passed a slim, long-legged girl, ears plugged, but at Hyde Park Corner I stopped for a quick breather and she passed me again, with not a word of flicker of acknowledgement. I didn't see her after that. Down Constitution Hill I took to the horses' pathway, for the shade and the soft sand - though it was packed pretty hard.

By the time I gained St James's Park, three miles in (and therefore half-way to my destination), I was hot and thirsty and looking forward to getting to the drinking fountain. I'd completely forgotten that last time I'd needed it it had been out of action, and although it had a new tap fitted (replacing the sawn-off copper pipe that used to spout water when a button on the side was depressed) that produced a tiny trickle. It was also still surrounded by bollards and tape, though the tape had been broken and didn't act as much of a deterrent - but without water there was nothing to be deterred from anyway.

I backtracked to the refreshment kiosk, deciding to invest an extravagant pound or so in a bottle of water. Three people behind the counter, one serving another customer and taking a long time to do it: neither of the others saw fit to serve me, so I pocketed my money again and figured I'd get to the office without expiring. Indeed, leaving the park there was a pleasant, cooling breeze from the direction of the river.

Ahead of me on Horseguards Parade a man on a Boris Bike was making for the arch - through which stern notices tell cyclists not to ride. He showed no sign of dismounting, but when I reached the arch myself and could see in the shadows he was pushing his bike - I wonder whether the Guardsman in his ceremonial uniform with sword in hand had persuaded him to abide by the law? Could this be a more general solution to the problem of anti-social cyclists?

The Embankment could usually do with a few sword-yielding Guardsmen to keep the cyclists off the footway, but today there was no need, and as I counted the miles and looked ahead to Blackfriars it seemed to me that the stretch along the riverside was shorter than I remembered. Onto the footpath under Blackfriars Bridge, and   I put in a quick few hundred yards before coming to a halt outside the City of London School, at the foot of the steps under the wobbly bridge.

Another runner, heading west with a bigger backpack than mine, a man with the air of an ultra-runner, makes some jokey comment which has gone from my mind before I could note it down. Did he call me "young man" or something similar? Was it irony? Did he sympathise because it's hard, or tell me it wasn't really hard? Who knows? Maybe I should use poetic licence and put words in his mouth. What does it matter? After being blanked by all the other runners I'd seen, this friendly exchange was very welcome. I bounded up the steps, jogged to the pedestrian crossing 50 yards further on, crossed because the traffic was waiting, paused again for breath on the other side, then bounded again up to St Paul's - featuring in several tourists' photos of the landmark, I bet.

And so, eventually, to the office. A bit of extra distance, a touch of speed (pretty slow, still, but faster than it could be) and a fantastic feeling of well-being, of ease of movement, for the rest of the day. Set free, indeed.

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