I Found This Year's Small, Quiet, Unexpected Joys On My Local Back Streets

Tom Nicholson
·4-min read
Photo credit: Esquire
Photo credit: Esquire

From Esquire

It’s been a tough year, on that we can all agree. But it’s also been transformative. Amidst the trials and tragedies, there have been unexpected moments of celebration. Changes that could and should outlive the pandemic. The Bright Side is a series in which we delve back into the past twelve months and pluck out those positives. Here, Tom Nicholson goes on a nice walk.

At first, I was happy in the park. During the first lockdown, my single trip outside each day led there. For a couple of weeks it was a pre-work run, but very quickly that turned into a walk, at some point in the day, possibly with a can.

The paths were rammed with people doing the same thing, but it’s a big park. It took a couple of weeks to wear out every bit of it, from the loop round the boating lake at the top to the ancient concrete cricket deck at the bottom. There are muddy tracks spurring off like branch lines from the main paths and into the undergrowth. They added another week or two. Pulling a Mario Kart and reversing my routes squeezed a bit more enjoyment out of it. Soon, though, my walks started heading around the streets.

It didn’t seem like a very interesting prospect, but given that the nearest green bit was too far away to get to in a lunch hour, and there weren’t any buses or tube trains running to more interesting places, it was the most interesting place I could plausibly be.

Photo credit: Leon Neal - Getty Images
Photo credit: Leon Neal - Getty Images

At first it was faintly depressing. Stumping from dead high street to empty football pitches via streets of houses I'd never be able to afford to look inside, let alone own, was a bad vibe. It was sticky and hot, and there was nowhere to be.

But some time in June, when I was walking around an extremely fancy estate of gigantic houses, something clicked. The sun was going down behind the hill, turning the sky orange and purple, and the wisteria was in lilac bloom. Suddenly the idea of going home just when I’d wandered somewhere new was dispiriting. Each building and back road was a question. What’s over there? Why does the road go that way? Who lives in the big house on the corner?

The walks got longer, and I started finding more interesting things. A water-course that’s served London since 1613. Roger Lloyd-Pack’s old house. A filming location from Shaun of the Dead. Best of all, a hidden wood, squelchy and thick with orange leaves. (And, if you walk far enough, Dennis Nilsen’s old flat. Yes, that one.

And my god: the info boards. Soaking up factoids about this and that – the local bird populace, the life cycle of a sycamore, a disused railway line, the rehoming of a bat colony – from an angled perspex board was very soothing. I could hear myself boring my girlfriend about how Alexandra Park used to have a racecourse. Up until the Seventies, actually. Hence the pubs called the Victoria Stakes and the Starting Gate. It felt good.

Photo credit: Sam Mellish - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sam Mellish - Getty Images

Even when it was just suburban roads leading into each other, I did rediscover the very basic joy of walking down a backstreet and seeing how its thread ties together the wider web of your neighbourhood. When I first moved to Newcastle years ago, I spent a month criss-crossing the city on foot most days: Leazes Park to Dean Street, down to the quayside and around the medieval city walls. It was something I hadn’t realised I’d missed, after a few years of doing the shuttle runs between home and the office, and the office and home. It made the little flat I’ve been in for the last 10 months start to feel a lot less cramped.

And because of that, other great stuff started happening. At the same time we got to know our neighbours. Our big block of flats became a dense knot of crossed paths. We got to know all the cornershops and cafés and pubs and restaurants which turned into emergency greengrocers and bakeries and markets while they couldn’t trade normally. Everything felt less abruptly lonely.

It’s easy in any big city to feel like you’ve lost yourself in it, and sometimes that’s fun. But after months and months spent hurrying through and around and under the bit near where I actually lived, this year has at least forced me to stop and discover its quiet joys.

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