A dangerous, scary place for pedestrians

Cole Moreton treks across London with its noxious fumes, terrifying tunnels and broken paving
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The Independent Online

Leave the car behind. Walk into town, you'll feel healthier. Sensible advice on the face of it. I took it, and and it nearly killed me.

Leave the car behind. Walk into town, you'll feel healthier. Sensible advice on the face of it. I took it, and and it nearly killed me.

A trek across central London from south to north meant breathing suffocating fumes, negotiating broken, obstacle-ridden pavements, braving disgusting tunnels, and playing traffic roulette.

It started peacefully enough, with the ponies grazing under a tree at Vauxhall City Farm. The Lambeth Walk had seemed an appropriate place to begin such a journey but it was profoundly depressing. Cranes picked over the rubble remains of half the despised Ethelred Estate, behind a long white wall covered in graffiti. Opposite were semi-derelict flats waiting to be knocked down and replaced.

The only consolation was the absence of traffic; but that changed with a vengeance as I headed north along the busy Kennington Road. Even as an experienced Londoner who worked out long ago that it was often quicker to travel on foot than trust the twisted logic of the Tube map, I was shocked by the state of Westminster Bridge Road as it passed under the main line out of Waterloo station.

It was hard to see in the gloom under the low arches, but my feet found the broken vodka bottle and skidded on pigeon excrement. Half the pavement had been fenced off and dug up, leaving only a narrow passage for strangers to squeeze past one another in the dark. The traffic lights in the roundabout beyond were hooded, and the fumes from stationary vehicles filled the enclosed space. It was claustrophobic, alarming, and it stank in there. It had always been easy to get lost between Waterloo and the South Bank, but roadworks now made it inevitable. Finally I climbed up to the Hungerford Bridge. There used to be a wonderful view from the bridge, but then someone was thrown over the side and died. Now the river was blocked out most of the way by corrugated iron, with scaffolding overhead. A stroll along the Embankment might have cleared the head, but for the thunderous traffic. Lorries, taxis and sightseeing buses raced past, and coaches disgorged tourists. A gaggle of them stood, waiting for the lights to switch up on the Strand, but the changes were set for drivers, not walkers, so the locals dodged between cars instead. That was the only way for anyone in a hurry to reach the BBC at Bush House, marooned on an island in the lunatic swirl of Aldwych.

Using a café table outside on the wide, soulless avenue of Kingsway would have been like sipping tea on the M6. A motorcycle suddenly appeared from a recess in the Civil Aviation Authority building and roared across the pavement close to me, swerving past boxes of abandoned files. I had been inches from injury, or worse. The quiet streets around Great Ormond Street were a relief with their leafy squares, then came the gothic spires of St Pancras station and more pavement pandemonium: broken slabs, pointless signs, no room to walk.

After nearly two hours my chest was tight and my throat burned from the fumes. I was stressed out, exhausted. The streets around King's Cross were dark, dirty and felt dangerous, but then so did the Northern Line home.