I Survived Lockdown in London by Going on 6-Hour Walks

"The more I wandered around my local haunts, the more treasures I discovered"

Millennium Bridge

Alysha Owen

We’re celebrating the joy of solo travel. Let us inspire your next adventure with features about why 2021 is the ultimate year for a solo trip and how traveling alone can actually come with amazing perks. Then, read personal features from writers who have traversed the globe alone, from hiking the Appalachian Trail, to riding rollercoasters, and finding themselves while discovering new places. Whether you’ve taken a solo trip or you’re considering it, learn why a trip for one should be on your bucket list.

To start with a disclaimer: I have always loved walking. Even when living in the notoriously pedestrian-unfriendly city of Los Angeles, I found ways to walk instead of drive. I consider anything within an hour as a basic walking distance. I only downloaded Uber mid-pandemic as a safe(r) way to the airport, and friends and family consistently admonish me for unrealistic walking speed expectations. Now that I live in London, I'm in a pedestrian paradise.

That said, when much of the last year involved a strict form of lockdown, the novelty could start to feel like a curse. Just ask my already-bad back. 

London’s lockdown involved many tiers over the 12 months. Still, the core rules from roughly mid-March to mid-June 2020 and mid-December 2020 to mid-April 2021 dictate non-essential shops are closed, walks should only happen once a day, unnecessary public transportation travel should be avoided, and socialization should only occur outside and in limited, restricted capacity. In addition to remembering the continually evolving lockdown rules, I needed to find the will and the capacity to make the most of the freedom I did have: walking.

Finding My Incentive

At first, my walks during last spring’s initial lockdown were motivated by what I called “an extrovert’s nightmare, but a photographer’s dream”—without constant waves of tourists and commuters, I had an unprecedented chance to capture the glory of landmarks like Millennium Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral without a single person in the shot. It’s no secret that London is home to some of the most stunning streets and outdoor art, but other than when I would go on one of my patented insomnia-driven night walks, I could never appreciate the natural beauty of this city when noisy crowds overshadowed it.

The same goes for my local neighborhood. Despite living in the same north-central area for nearly seven years, somehow, the more I wandered around my local haunts at the start or end of these exploratory walks, the more treasures I discovered: a little garden here, an ivy-covered side-street pub there, friendly cat perches everywhere. For a city that was completely closed, it never lacked opportunities to discover new nooks and crannies.

I also consider myself somewhat of a lizard: if the sun is out, I will find ways to extend basking hours. 

After I thoroughly traversed central ghost-town London and felt at risk for becoming jaded with local scenery, I turned to my London bucket list. For years I have kept a detailed list—categorized by location, distance from my flat, and type of attraction—of London “things to do.” Trite in concept? Yes. The reason I’m the go-to person in my friend group for any London recommendations, from restaurants and boozy brunches to rainy day activities and day trips? Also yes.

While most of my curated local travel goals involve places and events currently shut, the section on outdoor parks and walks became the inspiration I needed to expand my horizons quite literally. When I had nothing else to do in the evenings, on the weekend, or even during a slower workday, suddenly, several hours of walking to a new outdoor spot didn’t seem like a big deal. Somehow massive London felt a whole lot more accessible, even if previously I saw the equivalent hour-long bus journey as an inconvenient deterrent or waste of my time.

Call it lockdown logic, if you will, but a 9-mile roundtrip walk to a cheese shop I’d always wanted to visit (and the subsequent 40 pounds I dished out to feast for days) never felt more deserved.

Epping Forest

Alysha Owen

Improving My Connections

In a year when I consistently felt “stuck” and “in limbo,” walking became one of my biggest sources of purpose and fulfillment. The movement and journey to a planned destination gave me the literal feeling of progress while the fresh air took advantage of and soothed anxiety and restless energy. The more I did it, the better I felt, and the longer I wanted each walk to last.

I actively avoided being rigid in my walks—if I saw something interesting off my path, I took a detour—but I did self-impose one rule I found crucial to enjoying a physically arduous activity as “relaxation.” Other than checking maps, take occasional photos, or change what was playing through my headphones, I wasn’t allowed to look at my phone when I was outside. No e-mail, no texting, no news, and no social media. No matter what time of day it was or what else was going on in life that day, the walk was my time to reconnect via disconnecting.

I live alone, so lockdown life can get lonely, and tech fatigue made texting and video call socials more and more unappealing as the year went on. These long walks allowed me to reconnect with my city and my love of solo travel and other people in a time of isolation. Sometimes the destination was a place where I could meet with a friend in my support bubble to catch up and explore new places together, and sometimes I would use the walk as a chance to call my family and friends without having to stare at a screen. It feels rather wholesome for the go-to social events to be walks rather than drinks or activity-driven pursuits. I found myself developing deeper friendships with certain people and having more open conversations devoid of pinging notifications.

Equally, and arguably, more importantly, these walks allowed me to reconnect with myself. I always score 50/50 on the introvert/extrovert scale, so with lockdown forcing me too far toward the introvert side of that spectrum, these walks became a way to enjoy my own company again via new surroundings and experiences. Only weather and emotion dictated what I did on my fully solo walks, so I could experience and process what I needed at the time. Sunny days meant energizing girl-group K-Pop (my other lockdown obsession), whereas frustrated days meant hard-hitting pop-punk. Gloomy, cloudy days meant a creep-fest podcast like “Up And Vanished," and sad days meant my go-to comedy podcasts: Nicole Byer’s “Why Won’t You Date Me?” and Andrea Savage’s “A Grown-Up Woman.” I always think better and feel calmer when I’m moving, and with my swirling pandemic brain, walking turned into my best form of lockdown self-care—that and learning K-Pop choreography.

(Re)discovering My City

I know walking isn’t for everyone—I do have friends who describe it as “literal torture.” Even if it isn’t typically your thing, I’d argue that much like anything in life; it’s about finding your niche. Love reading, but can’t sit at home for another second? Try meandering with an audiobook. Love crime dramas, but can’t stare at another screen? The walk and podcast duo is perfect. Make it interesting for you, whether that’s about the incentive behind where you walk or what you do along the way. For me, walking is a way of creating new experiences and accomplishments when life is the embodiment of hold music. 

When the world is stripped down to the bare essentials, our first instinct is to feel limited. We can’t do this, or we can’t have that. But in losing the option to indulge in my usual favorite London luxuries and social outlets—traveling, going to restaurants, and exploring speakeasy cocktail pop-ups—I found something else: a deeper connection to my home city that was based on its core, its land, and natural charms, rather than its more modern distractions.