Londoners have always loved exploring the city on foot, and have been doing so for thousands of years. As the novelist and historian Walter Besant wrote in 1897, “I’ve been walking about London for the last 30 years, and I find something fresh in it every day”. In this post, we’ll take you through the history of walking in London, from famous literary ramblers like Virginia Woolf, right up to the urban adventurers of the present day.

The Romans arrive on foot

Romans didn’t waste any time when it came to walking — or, to be specific, when it came to marching. When they first arrived in the city they christened ‘Londinium’ all the way back in AD 43, one of the first things they began to do was build a network of roads to allow them to march from one place to another as quickly as possible. The Romans built their roads straight— levelling anything which got in their way in the process — as this allowed them to take the most direct route and reduced travel times.

Of the fifteen major road routes the Romans built during their conquest of Britain, seven ran through London, showing the importance of the city. You can still walk along the remains of one today: Oxford Street runs directly over the route of the old Roman Road.

Promenading in the park

Thomas Gainsborough, The Mall in St. James's Park (1783)
Thomas Gainsborough, The Mall in St. James’s Park (1783)

Although the working people of London had always gotten around on foot, the idea of walking for leisure didn’t really become fashionable for members of the upper classes until late 18th century. But by the Georgian period, it had become very popular for the elite to stroll through London’s well-heeled streets and parks during the late afternoon, an activity that came to be known as ‘promenading’.

For the aristocracy, promenading was more about status than exploring the city. During the Regency era, a walk in the park or through the streets wasn’t just a chance to get some fresh air: it was also a fashion show and social event, where people would show off their finery and stop to chat with other members of high society. Hyde Park was the place to see and be seen, and on a fine day during the spring and summer you could expect to see hoards of aristocratic men and women — and social climbers hoping to fit in — promenading in the park.

The figure of the flaneur

Towards the end of the 19 century, a new type of urban rambler emerged: the flâneur. Meaning ‘stroller’ or ‘saunterer’ in French, the word is thought to originate from old Norse, meaning ‘to wander without purpose’. But it wasn’t just about aimless wandering. For the flâneur, walking through the city streets was very much an intellectual pursuit.

While promenading was all about being seen, the flâneur preferred to observe the city around him, taking in the sights and sounds and indulging in a bit of people watching. The idea was to mingle among crowds of people from all walks of life, while remaining a detached observer with no real purpose or destination.

The typical London flâneur would have been wealthy and well-educated, with plenty of time to kill. It was a turning point for the upper classes: before this figure emerged, the elite preferred to keep away from urban crowds, but it was now fashionable to blend in with the lower classes on the street.

Creative walkers in the 20th century

During the early years of the 20th century, the idea of the flâneur continued to develop, and walking through the city became connected to creativity. The artistic bohemian set would take to the streets in search of ideas, using the swarms of people around them as inspiration.

One of London’s most famous creative ramblers was the novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, who frequently explored the streets on foot in the 1920s and 30s, an activity she called ‘street-haunting’. In a 1927 essay on the subject of walking, she would write that “to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures.” Strolling the city’s streets and parks also provided solace during low or stressful periods: as she wrote in her diary in 1930, “to walk alone in London is the greatest rest.”

Modern urban explorers

ParkourAs the 20th century gave way to the 21st, urban thrill seekers began to practice a new type of exploration known as parkour, or free running. No longer content to stick to the city’s pavements and walkways, free runners sought to make the city their playground, climbing, vaulting, and leaping across London to put their agility and courage to the test. By taking flight, free runners were able to see the city from a different angle.

While parkour was originally invented in Paris, the release of a documentary called Jump London in 2003 brought free running out of the shadows and helped to popularise the sport. Before long, training groups and gyms were springing up across the capital, and London is now home to Parkour UK, the official governing body for free running.

If you’re looking for something a little less high-octane, then our Foxtrail London trail is the ideal activity for you. Along with your friends, family, or workmates, you’ll be put to the test as you try to follow our cunning Fox’s clues across the capital on foot in a thrilling race against the clock! Plus, you’ll get to see some of London’s most famous areas and landmarks in a whole new light. Learn more about Foxtrail here, or get in touch to make your booking today.

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