A familiar ritual: I would unhook my leather trench coat from the peg, rotate into it and let the heavy weight swish the tail around in what always felt like cinematic slow motion coolness. With one hand I’d unlatch the door as I grabbed my cowboy hat and step out into the the urban night. Sometimes it was nine o’clock. Frequently it was ten thirty, with enough time to make it to One-Stop to grab a snack and maybe a drink for the walk. More often than my roommate would have preferred, it would be around midnight. Down from the house that was halls of residence for twenty two guys I would hit the road and toss a mental coin in the air; left or right?
It didn’t really matter. There was no destination in mind other than the bedroom I’d just left behind. It was time to move, to let the energy of my thoughts shake themselves out through my body into the ground beneath my feet. I’d choose a direction, and then chose and choose again. This was a regular part of my life during the five years I spent at the London School of Theology doing my bachelor's degree. Over that time I came to know every public footpath and alleyway surrounding the college within an hours walk, and I had a good sense of anywhere within two hours walk. On a couple of occasions I explored as far as the M25, on others I went as far as Wembley, sitting on a bench looking out at the stadium; quiet even though just hours before there had been a football match.
There’s a certain romance to late night walks in the autumn, when the orange glow of the street lamps easily temps you to imagine you’re walking the streets of an Arthur Conan Doyle novel. Doing so in a full length leather trench coat paired with black skinny jeans and t-shirt and a pair of chelsea boots, topped with a dark cowboy hat gave me a sense of presence which was respected by those other nocturnal wanderers. I was often asked “What if something happened to you?” and I’d respond, “Trust me, I’m the scariest looking thing out there.”
That’s not to say there weren’t moments where I would need to be more vigilant than others. There was a particular pedestrian underpass in Harrow where there would often be people sleeping rough. It wasn’t a tunnel as such, more an area which passed under a couple of different roads with several different ways you could go, either by tunnels or up steps. Some of it was well lit. Some of it was gloomy even in the middle of a summer’s day. One corner would often, though not always, have someone selling drugs. No one ever spoke to me as I would pass through, though I would exchange a silent nod with one guy who would always be sitting up in his sleeping bag in the same spot. A couple of months later he was no longer there. I would often wonder what happened to him, imagining a range of scenarios from having found a place to live and become a successful car sales man to having died of an overdose. Who could know?
Walking around one am was another time to be careful. Closing time. Perhaps my most vivid memory of a potentially sketchy encounter is of walking along and spotting about fifteen, maybe eighteen (though more likely ten or twelve) Chavs exit a pub and start walking towards me. They were all in tracksuits, with hoods up. I could hear them laughing and bantering in the gently raucous manner of young men who had had a pint or three. Then they clocked me from about a hundred yards away and became noticeably quieter. Something within me kept my head up high and my strides steady. I continued walking on and along, as if I were entirely unperturbed. When the distance had closed to about fifty yards they as one suddenly crossed the road and walked along the opposite pavement. I nodded as we drew level and once they had passed I could hear them beginning to laugh amongst themselves once again - and, I suspect, began making comments at my expense.
“Trust me, I’m the scariest looking thing out there.”
These moments of vigilance were rare and memorable, distinct from the typical flavour of these walks. Ordinarily they felt safe and somehow cinematic. There was something to the heft of my leather trench coat which was reassuring. It made me walk with good posture and feel impervious to any threats, be that from people, the weather, or the cold. Most importantly it made me feel proactive and in control of myself. People used to assume that I didn’t get much sleep because I was often out for long walks late at night but it was the reverse, because I couldn’t sleep I would go on my nocturnal wanderings. The reasons why I couldn’t sleep varied. Earlier on there was a lot of unresolved emotional turmoil rattling around in my heart and head which would frequently be expressed through bad dreams, to the point I would resist sleeping for fear of them. Later, much of that was resolved and yet I still found these walks satisfying and comforting for dealing with whatever I was processing at the time, be it essays, theological concepts, or even just an introvert’s desire to escape the bubble of the on-site community. Earlier on, I managed on minimal sleep. Later I would often nap for an hour or two midday.
Whatever the situation, once I reached for my leather jacket and hat, once the door had closed behind me and I’d made my way out into the night and faced my first choice: left or right? I would be free, on the road ‘down from the door where it began.’ The therapeutic rhythm of the ground beneath my feet, the constantly changing horizon and sense of exploration as I rounded each corner, and best of all the sense of solitude in the midst of many people. All around were houses full of sleeping people, dreaming their own dreams and living their own lives. But at two in the morning, not a soul was about except for me.
It didn’t take me long to question why I would follow the same rules at night as would be common sense during the day. For instance, why wait for the traffic lights at a pedestrian crossing when in the whole of a three hour walk I might see four cars? I remember that it felt oddly exciting the first time I decided to walk down the middle of a long straight road. Before long it became a natural part of my routine in various places to cross the road in a long and lazy diagonal, which was in reality just the most direct way of walking where I was heading. All this reinforced a sense of separateness from the normal day to day life. The urban nightscape became my safeplace. More than this, it consolidated my enjoyment of walking as something which I find helps me to be the best of myself. Even now, I find that how well I am doing correlates closely to how often I go for a walk, though now I’ve swapped the night for the day and walk through Norfolk fields and lanes under the open blue afternoon skies.
Yet there was something else which would often happen on those nocturnal wanderings. Something unexpected yet enriching. They created the space for me to think, or to think less, and each time there would come a moment where journey would begin to arc back homewards. Each step became more familiar as I drew closer towards the halls of residence to find my bed. And it was around that point of beginning to move towards rather than away that I would find myself beginning to pray. I would offer up to God the things I had been thinking of, the people who were on my mind and the topics and ideas that I was working my way through. I would pray for the streets I trod and the houses I passed. Sometimes I would lose track of what I was praying and find myself praying in spiralling tangents punctuated by moments of reassuring silence. Often there was peace. Occasionally there was strict conviction followed by repentance. More than this there was a sense of being seen and accompanied. A sense of… well, a sense. Something intangible, indescribable, and ineffable - yet undeniable. It was this which transformed my walks from the eccentric habits of an insomniac to a kind of pilgrimage, echoing the spiritualities of all those who have walked through the wilderness of their lives to discover that somehow God is present with them.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
The last stretch would be the first that I would begin to feel tired, whether it was midnight, one, two or three in the morning. I’d reach into my coat for my card and tap my way into the building, taking care to close the doors quietly behind me. The freedom of the road exchanged for the invisible maze of squeaky floorboards in muffled darkness as I made my way to my room. Shrugging the trench coat off, I’d hang it up and place my hat on its hook before sitting on my bed. I was back. And for a moment I’d want to leave again, to walk again, to be free again. But then my head would hit the pillow, the dreams would come - and life carried on.
With every blessing,
Samuel S. Thorp
Husband | Priest | Wanderer