Commuting is tedious and time-consuming, but what if we stopped to explore the places we blindly hurtle through every day?
Every day, millions of people commute to work. For most this is a tedious, expensive, time-wasting part of the day. You probably take the same route to work every day, but how much do you really know about this journey? How much do you see?
Next time you are on the train, look up for a few minutes from your phone or newspaper and look out of the window at the world. As you race through towns and villages you can miss the places in between: the fields and woods and pockets of countryside that are among even the most built-up regions – it’s easy to miss them. What is it like out there? How would it feel to sit on that small hilltop and watch the trains rattling past? Where does that footpath beside the stream lead?
One evening, when you finish work, why not walk or cycle or run the route of your commute? You could go all the way home, but even better, pick out a peaceful spot along the way and spend the night there. A night in the wild beyond the fringes of the city you work in. A blast of wildness sandwiched between two days in the office.
“Next time you are on the train, look up for a few minutes from your phone or newspaper and look out of the window at the world.”
To affirm this idea, I sought out the most expensive commute in the country, St Albans to London during rush hour, to demonstrate how simply heading in a straight line out of any city can lead you, in just a couple of hours, to a pleasant patch of countryside.
At 5pm one evening I left my imaginary office by London Bridge – a central departure point chosen because this bridge was built by the Romans as part of the road I was now going to follow to St Albans – and set off.
I turned onto Watling Street, the old Roman road, nowadays known as Edgware Road, or just the A5. Heading north along the Edgware Road, my nose twitched as I passed kebab shops grilling chicken on hot coals. Red London buses trundled up and down, and the cinema I passed was showing films in Arabic. I was full of curiosity and enthusiasm.
Leaving a city in a straight line is like sucking a gobstopper in reverse. You begin at the central core and then pass through all the different layers, flavours and colours until eventually you arrive on the outside, seemingly a world away from where you began.
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I had no idea how rural the trip to St Albans might be. The journey wasn’t long: less than 30 miles. But I didn’t know if there would be a swathe of greenbelt countryside or if it would be suburbs and business estates all the way, so I was pleased when I reached the first proper field north of London, stretching away from me for a hundred uncluttered metres, rising gently up a grassy slope to a cluster of large trees. I took a deep breath and inhaled the still air. Horizons are too close in cities.
Shortly afterwards I crossed the M25. I was surprised by how easy it had been to get out of London: leaving the city by car is always such a hassle. I was only a few miles from St Albans now, so I decided to start looking for a place to sleep. The evening light was bright and golden, glinting through trees and lighting up a meadow of pale grass. I had a quick pint in a pub, bought a Chinese takeaway and then turned off the road onto a riverside trail.
“Leaving a city in a straight line is like sucking a gobstopper in reverse. You begin at the central core and then pass through all the different layers, flavours and colours.”
A beautiful stream ran demurely through green water meadows. I even found a clear, still pool where I could have a refreshing skinny dip, observed only by some disinterested cows. I certainly had not expected that on my commute from skyscraper to sought-after dormitory town. It was a delightful spot, the very epitome of seeking out fragments of beauty in built-up places.
Above the pool was a grassy hill, which I climbed to eat my spare ribs. The flat summit looked down over the river, fields and woods. A takeaway and an early night: this sounded like a typical weekday night for many a commuter. I lay on the grass and read my book for a while. I fell asleep to the sound of crickets in the field and the soothing roar of the dual carriageway beyond the trees.
In the morning I would wake with the sun, follow the riverside footpath into St Albans, then hop on the fast train and roar back all the way I had just come – past the grassy knoll I was sleeping on, the pool I swam in, the fields and the Roman road. In 30 uninteresting, expensive minutes I would be back in the centre of London. It is as easy as that to switch between worlds.
So the next time you are on your commute, be sure to take a moment to look out of the window. The wild world out there is waiting for you to grasp it.
Based on an extract from Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys published by William Collins, £16.99.