Two hours ago I set out for a walk. I wasn’t planning on going far, to Bishop’s Park probably, 15 minutes from my house. The park lies just off Fulham Palace road, and contains Fulham palace itself, for a millennium home to the bishops of London. The sun was already low by half past two, and although its light was fierce, it let out no warmth. The chill in the air was brutal and sharp.
I reached the park and with it the river. There is a lovely path running between the water and the green. A few weeks ago leaves piled feet high, for dogs to scuff through and kids to kick merrily. Now they are fewer, blown or swept away, or sogged down into a mulchy lining. The late winter-afternoon light was stunning. In the sky across the river the sun blazed with great might, casting the buildings below it into darkness. If I turned to look at people with my back to the sun their faces burst with golden illumination.
On a whim, upon approaching Putney bridge at the end of the park, I decided to cross it to explore the boat houses that lie along the southern bank, occupied by hundreds of rowing boats, oars and soggy wellies. Something about this afternoon just struck me as right. It was one of those moments when everything fit into place. This city has a strange way of offering itself up to me, as if it opens up its arms and welcomes me into a strong, soft embrace. The frequency of these opening-moments surprises and gladdens me.
I was worried that I would lose the best light on the south bank, under the shadow of the boat houses, but although I was in shadow the whole of the north bank now shone in its own glory, and there was no hint of complaint on my lips. I watched a little rowing action. I felt little envy of the rowers though. I am quite happy on water in most sorts of vehicles or situations I can imagine, but the sharp hull of the row-boat always looks precarious to me, and coupled to the temperature and colour of the Thames, I was content to stay on the bank.
As I walked along the Thames path towards Barnes, leaving the boat houses behind, I reached decision time: either I should turn back to return the way I came or continue all the way to Hammersmith bridge and cross it, returning to Fulham on the north bank in one big loop. It wasn’t a hard decision. All I had to do was to not stop my feet from walking onwards, which was easy as that was what they wanted to do.
The path turned to dirt, mud and small frozen patches as I walked, now skirting around the boundary of the London wetlands centre. My fingers weren’t happy with the cold but the rest of me buzzed with pleasure. I always enjoy observing people and this journey didn’t disappoint. A lone fisherman stood mid-thigh in the river, casting out his fly frequently as I ambled by. His boots stopped before his crotch, making me concerned that waves would overcome them. Moreover, I can’t imagine that, even dry, his legs could be holding up well against what must be very icy water. Why was he there this Saturday afternoon? Was he hoping to catch his supper? Having said that I wonder, does anyone eat what comes out of the Thames? Perhaps he loves fishing; perhaps he loves the river.
A little further on I passed a father whom held in each of his hands one of his daughters. The girls were aged about 9 and 11, and the dress of all three of them struck me. Their simple, long, brownish coats and undergarments belonged in the 1950s, or even wartime Britain. Where do they live? Do other aspects of their life also look like they came from other decades? Father was telling a story in a gently posh yet strict voice, and as they passed I made out the words “…it was Moses who…”.
At Hammersmith bridge a rather amazing thing happened to the sky, as the last of the day’s light seeped out.
Back on the northern bank I headed south in the dark. With the departure of day and the switching on of all our artificial devices to keep the darkness at bay, came the possibility to peep (with only the smallest hint of guilt) into the front windows of the houses I passed and catch glimpses of the life they contained. As I swung my head to the right and then to the left of the street, I saw at first a man winding a stretch of tinsel around a green pine tree I could almost smell, and then to the other side a man who’s face was lit by his laptop screen, sitting at a dining table with his head in his hands.
Craven cottage, home of Fulham football club, marked the point where I turned inland from the river to return home. As I did this, and turned onto a little road going east, I saw the moon. It was huge, full and rising. It hung just above the street lamps, balancing their orange glow with a silver aura that transfixed me. With a giant grin on my face, rubbing my hands together as they’d just about gone frozen, I trotted home.