It’s an hour and fifteen to New Cross. I go from winding single-lane roads cutting through fields to the towering corporate buildings of London Bridge. Each day I wake up to silence and light through the trees, and end up on concrete pavements with the rattle of trains and constant sirens.
As I commute from Bedfordshire to London, I’m eased by the change of scenery that passes the train as I’m on my way. Deep valleys and fields, no person in sight, and then roads and clusters of buildings, telephone wires and graffiti. A lot of people commute from small towns to London (31% of workers at last Census recording), so this experience is hardly singular to me, but either way the world feels so different in these two spaces. The polarity of English landscapes is captured in that journey, and when I get to my stop I notice the contrast of other things too.
The same things feel different; the same weather feels different in each place, grey skies are miserable in the city, everything feels more industrial, but grey skies make the grass more lush, the leaves more colourful against the clouds at home. The same hours feel different too, this time of year 5 o’clock is marked by only the setting sun and the birdsong stopping, but in the city it’s marked by packed trains and crowded platforms, everyone rushing to get home. The world is fast in London, and much slower outside.
I’ve lived in my village since I was 6, now 19. I have often taken its slowness, it’s beauty and it’s tranquility for granted. Until lockdown’s stir-craze effect I would only go for walks when it snowed, but I learned to love my home in a new way when it was my only way to leave the house. Landscapes I’ve passed so many times seemed new to me, the fresh air reviving, the scent of nature soothing, what was once an isolating burden that made it harder to meet friends was now something to be grateful for, peace and picturesque others may not ever know. The natural world felt so vast, so much larger and greater to me after that, and walking here knew no hour, it was timeless.
London, on the other hand, is definitely a place of duration. Everything moves quickly in the city, people move too fast, and I feel as though I’m robbed of normal time. Hours feel shorter, minutes matter more. Any time of the day the pace is the same, that quick, precise walk that makes any tourist easily spotted among a crowd. As you walk with swarms of people across roads, or through currents created from one point to another, one platform to the next, the world feels so human, so anthropocentric. We only look forward, not around, because there’s no time to wander, and nowhere to look.
The city reflects a concrete shell to me, unmoving, obstructing. The cement is impermeable, pavement is too hard for comfort, London is harsh, London is loud, everything rings with the sound of people and their machines. As I travel home every afternoon, met with landscapes of fields and woodland halfway, I feel the quiet, the peace of home, and when I sleep in comforting darkness, with no sound outside my room, that concrete world feels so far away.
But there is beauty in its brutalism, in its bustle of life and purpose, in its fascination with people, that the countryside does not contain. Here the trees and fields breathe a different life, larger than man and man-made, but London grounds you, keeps you aware and focused. When I go from grass to concrete I feel new connections to this world London offers me, and I can understand why we’re always looking forward, moving quickly and precisely – toward ambition, toward the future – and I am grateful that I can walk between these two worlds.