Earlier this Autumn we had the pleasure of joining Rosie Oliver of Dotmaker Tours on a walking trip through Central London with a difference. London in Slow Motion is designed to encourage people to look past the noise and chaos of the city in order to tap into the subtler rhythms pulsating below its surface. Starting at the north shore of the Thames, just below Cleopatra’s Needle, the tour takes you on a meander through the medieval landmarks and Dickensian side-streets that surround The Strand, focusing on objects that invite the walker to contemplate and reconsider the ‘ordinary’ and ‘familiar’ urban environment through all the senses. The fabric of London is used as a jumping off point to explore wider cultural and philosophical questions.
We began our tour on a beautiful Saturday morning where Rosie used the ancient needle as a focal point to get us thinking about the concept of time which led gently onto a period of introspection and reflection by the river. Standing on the shore of the Thames, listening to the lapping of the waves and watching barges and ferries slowly making their way along the river put us into a relaxed, almost meditative state. Meanwhile, Rosie told us stories which helped us to hone in on details in our surroundings that we usually pass by without noticing when in commuter rush mode. Leaving the river behind, we headed gently up the grassy banks of the Victoria Embankment gardens and onto the back streets behind the Savoy Hotel and Theatre (the first public building to have been decked out with electric lights). You’re never far from reminders of the past in London and the Strand is no exception, with one of the world’s first street gas lamps still standing in a tucked away back street.
We made our way along the busy Strand before ducking right through one of the many alleyways and courtyards which spin off from the main road. In the quiet stillness of this narrow street, where the harsh sounds and lights of the modern world were stripped away, we immediately felt London slow down and felt a peace which would have been impossible to imagine just meters away. Rosie tells many fascinating stories relating to slowness which we won’t spoil here but we would just like to mention one fascinating project which we discussed called The Long Now, founded by Steward Brand with a view to fostering long term thinking in the context of a society which has become reliant on the short term and disposable. This alleyway – with its leaning buildings and worn brickwork – made the perfect place to ponder this concept and Rosie has plenty of examples up her sleeve of people who are responding to the challenge in interesting and imaginative ways.
The rest of the tour took us to the Charing Cross and onwards to its original location near Trafalgar Square which also marks the official centre of London. Close by is a statue made of Portland stone (from the bedrock of the waters off the Dorset coast), which has itself stood on the same spot for 400 years, and Rosie pointed out that if you look closely you can see where the carved stone has given way to reveal the shells of ancient molluscs embedded in the rock hundreds of years ago. The traffic circling this little island seemed to melt away as we searched for more oyster shells amongst the stone.
The tour then takes you onwards through Trafalgar Square and onto Covent Garden, where we took a few minutes of time out in St Paul’s (a.k.a. the Actors’) Church and garden, which is a quiet fort against the busy West End of London. I could while away hours here just reading the fascinating plaques inside which pay homage to many unforgettable characters of the theatrical community (including the king of Punch & Judy – a quiet nod to the fact the first Punch & Judy show is believed to have been performed under the Church’s portico in 1662). This served as a reminder that London is rich with stories – both past and present – we need just take the time to look and listen and they are there for the unlocking.
Over all London in Slow Motion was an intensely enriching experience and we’d definitely recommend it to anyone wanting to experience a different side to a city they think they already know.