For Ana Kinsella, an Irish writer based in London, a daily walk is not just about logging steps but a chance to experience unexpected sights and sounds and enjoy glimmers of beauty …
Every morning, when my schedule allows it, I like to start my day with a walk. Some days it’s a little easier than others – on the grey, drizzly mornings most typical of weather here in London it’s a little more difficult to rouse myself and get out the front door. But I never regret it. There’s something about stepping out into the streets, about seeing other Londoners doing the same, that creates some balance in me before I sit down to work.
Perhaps it’s a form of procrastination, perhaps a kind of neurotic habit, but these walks of mine have become deeply ingrained in my daily routine. I’ve found over time that a walk can cure some, if not most, of the problems thrown up by life in a big city. It can be a remedy against loneliness, a balm for everyday boredom and drudgery, or welcome relief from the stresses of office politics. For me, a walk can also help me feel connected to my fellow Londoners in a way that’s easy to forget in the midst of the daily grind. In that sense, walking has become an essential part of my time here.
For centuries, Irish women have been coming to London to make a life for themselves here. While growing up in Dublin I certainly felt the pull. As a teenager I wanted to work in fashion and spent hours poring over pictures of the city and its inhabitants in magazines. But it wasn’t just the riot of trend and style that made the city alluring for me. I could also feel the depth of possibility that such a large metropolis could hold. I loved growing up in Dublin, loved the familiarity and friendliness of it, the proximity to the sea and the mountains and the rich sense of history on every street. But London felt like a city large enough, wide enough, that I could be anyone.
Of course, that same breadth and depth can make the city a difficult place as well. I welcomed the anonymity that the city afforded me, but I can understand how others might find a city of over nine million alienating or unfriendly. The sheer size of London means it can feel inhospitable for some new arrivals, and a little irritating for the rest of us. In the years pre-pandemic, my daily routine here was characterised by long Tube journeys, packed social diaries, rush-hour commutes, restaurant reservations, queues and a bone-aching fatigue that tended to set in by the end of each week.
Ana Kinsella photographed by Sophie Davidson.
Over the ten years I’ve lived here, the flow of my days has often lacked a set rhythm. Working as a writer, I’ve freelanced in offices all over the city, as well as from my kitchen table, and I’ve commuted by every form of public transport (except by riverboat on the Thames, which remains on my to-do list). I’ve also gone from living in a six-person flat-share in the heart of Shoreditch to renting a quiet flat with my husband and cat near Hampstead Heath.
When life shifts and evolves like this it’s important to find a rhythm of one’s own. For me it was this: putting on my shoes and going for a walk. Sometimes walking would be my primary method of transportation; at other times, as during London’s lockdowns, it was a necessary diversion, a walk taken purely for the sake of it.
In March 2020, the city shrank instantly for me, like it did for city-dwellers all over the world. Gone were the weekend afternoons dashing into town on the Tube, stopping into a museum or a shop and then settling in a pub’s corner booth with friends. Now my days revolved around the same looping walks through my neighbourhood, with occasional trips to queue outside the local deli. From one angle, the process was fascinating: I found myself seeing things with fresh eyes, paying more attention to the everyday sights, the previously anonymous faces of my own neighbours. But in another more pressing way, it felt like agony to know that the tumult of city life – the endless procession of chance and opportunity – had been switched off, and nobody knew when it might be switched back on again.
Many of my favourite moments of the life I’ve made here have taken place not in my flat or in an office, but out on the street, in public – walking home at sunrise from a party at a friend’s house, dawdling on the South Bank watching the fat river Thames weave its way to the sea, waiting for loved ones to arrive at busy train stations, or sitting out on a Soho side street people-watching with a glass of wine on a fine evening.
And the same goes for other cities where I’ve spent much less time. Memories are made around walks I’ve taken while abroad. Looking back in retrospect, a weekend in Berlin a few years ago is cemented in my mind as one long, pleasant walk under autumn leaves along the Landwehrkanal in Kreuzberg. A heatwave in Zürich boils down to an evening spent sitting outside a cocktail bar on trendy Sihlfeldstrasse, nursing a negroni so expensive that the bill made my eyes water, while I waited for the heat to die down enough to walk back to the hotel. A whole summer in New York just after I’d graduated from university can be summed up in my memory by the long walk I took on my final night there, from Central Park down the length of Manhattan to Wall Street.
Many of my favourite moments of the life I’ve made here have taken place not in my flat or in an office, but out on the street
These walks are never just about reaching my daily step count, of course. They are also about the observation of the world that came with it. Having spent years working as a fashion journalist, I retain a keen eye for the clothes worn by passers-by, whether they’re clad in the latest designer gear or simply a well-loved practical anorak. I find I’m always eager to see what other Londoners were wearing, because it allows me to ask the writer’s questions that come to my mind: why are they wearing this? What might these outfits mean, if anything?
I ended up writing a book during lockdown about these questions, and about the enjoyment I take from observing the city. It was strange, in a way, to spend so much time thinking about the pleasures of walking and watching the city, being out and about among strangers, at a time when we were being told from all angles that to do so was dangerous, heavy with risk, and irresponsible. But the process was invigorating – like planning a summer holiday in the midst of a cold winter.
Since the city has reopened, I’ve found my daily walks to be a little more intoxicating than before. I stray further from my usual path, when time allows. I delve into parts of the city I wouldn’t otherwise reach. London’s streets look novel to me, and what was once familiar now can seem awe-inspiring when my mood is right. The summer sunshine helps, too: almost all cities are more pleasant when the weather is amenable, but nevertheless there’s something about London itself – a city so linked in the cultural imagination with raincoats and fog – that comes to life when the summer begins. I think it’s not just the clothes, either. We take to the streets with a different sense of freedom in the summer. There’s a sense of possibility that comes with the longer days. Why not stay out for another drink, or stop by a friend’s on the way home? In a city as large as this, so much of life is determined or delineated by lengthy travel times and packed schedules. Wandering on a sunny afternoon, bumping into people, making spontaneous plans to pop by the National Gallery or to buy tickets for the show you’ve been meaning to see are an antidote to the strains of city life.
Now, walking down Marylebone High Street in the early summer sunshine, I’m able to tune into the street’s particular frequency. I notice more keenly the other Londoners sitting outside restaurants enjoying the sun, or leaning in to admire the window of a boutique. A woman in a large straw sunhat walks her two chocolate brown poodles; across the road, two men in elegant linen suits clink glasses. There’s a sense of possibility here now that ebbs away during the long grey months of the English winter, and I feel lucky to be here on the street to feel it. In many ways, cities like London changed during the pandemic, but for me, some things remain constant. Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up, get dressed, put on my walking shoes and head out for another stroll.
Look Here: On the Pleasures of Observing the City by Ana Kinsella, Daunt Books, is out now.
Sign up to our MAILING LIST now for a roundup of the latest fashion, beauty, interiors and entertaining news from THE GLOSS MAGAZINE’s daily dispatches.