UNPLEASANT EXPECTATIONS ON GOWER STREET | LUCY PAGE
The walk from my university back to where I live in Camden is, for the most part, a pleasant one.
First, an amble to the end Gower Street, which, unlike Tottenham Court Road, isn’t commercial and is one way; it lacks the flurry of polished shoes leaving their offices to barge a way into the march, whose collective goal is to get the groceries and stock up on stationary and to debate over the best place to eat passing it five times before deciding and to replace that old stained shirt and to pick up flowers for the girlfriend or plastic treats for the kids, all whilst trying not to get annihilated by vehicles of all forms forcing their way, both ways, through just the same, and after all that, out of breath, trying to get a clean seat on the bus or to not slip on the steps descending to the tube as they make the commute home, all within one rushed hour.
Gower Street, in contrast, although it does not meander, does breathe. A mishmash of residency and university, the walkers of this street dive in and out at different times of day. They pace and stroll, they might even stop for a chat. The Waterstones on the corner halfway up is a good place for a coffee and a read; the steady hum of the crowd, if listened to right, is white noise blocking out individual sounds, leaving space for the voice on the pages in front of you to speak. The one-way system heading south is admittedly dull. Since the 134 stopped going past Warren Street a few months back, there’s been no red, or colour of any sort, to counter the sophisticated grey and black of seemingly the same Mercedes, and a taxi here and there, on an endless loop. Even so, at least a pedestrian knows which way to look. On Tottenham Court Road, a pretty face or an attractive outfit can be glanced at in a flash, and then forgotten for the next. On Gower Street, the same can be admired, smiled upon, and stored in the mind’s library. And this is why, despite enjoying the antics of Tottenham Court Road at the height of a busy day, it’s Gower Street that makes the first half of my walk home so likeable.
Except, of course, when there are roadworks. For any person who dares travel above ground in London, roadworks will be no news. Usually they’re minor, closing off one lane to refit some pipes or extend the pavement. On occasion, however, an entire street must be cut off for the men in orange jackets to do their job. This happened on Gower Street recently, already underway by the time I was back in the big city for year number two of studies. And when the workers finished for the day and joined the Tottenham Court Road march for commerce, they left their cones and metal fences up, a fragile dam against the current of grey and black Mercedes, and a taxi here and there. The cars of course change their routes, filtering downhill through the crevices of smaller streets towards their destinations. Cyclists might find ways to swerve through the obstacles, but for the most part will follow the stream of the four wheeled vehicles. Pedestrians, then, have free movement within the terrain.
You would think that this made for a better walking experience. During daylight hours, perhaps yes: dense fumes no longer soured both nostrils, and each blue plaque, signalling for you to stop and take in history, could be read in turn without concern about not hearing footsteps of the person you might walk into, or the beeping of the green man. But when it’s dark, which is insultingly early during winter and means I’m almost always heading home in it, it’s a very different story. A sizeable road is supposed to be full of cars honking and revving the same way a forest is supposed to be full of birds chirping and tweeting. A birdless forest is a setting for a horror movie, and a carless Gower Street felt the same. The normal enveloping white noise gives piece of mind, whereas the silence gave way to unpleasant expectation of the individual voice out of nowhere. For the few weeks the roadworks were in place, I found myself marching my way down Gower Street until I had reached the forever busy crossroads by Euston Square Tube, and could let myself breathe again.