Walking through Brixton at night

Map of a walking route between Oval and Herne Hill.
Oval to Herne Hill via Brixton (Image: Google Maps)

I’ve missed a few Throwback Thursday posts over the last few weeks because of … reasons. This is one that I’ve had in draft form for a while.

It involves a visit to London and a surprising encounter with a stranger at night in Brixton.

In May 2008 I enjoyed a short vacation in London, stayed with my dear friend Steve Lawson when he lived in Herne Hill—he has since relocated to Birmingham—and used it as a base for visiting a few friends and a few of my old London haunts.

The sun rose into a blue sky on the morning of 20 May, not that I was aware of that—I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a windowless pantry off the kitchen. I crawled out of my cupboard, caught up with Steve, his wife and other flatmates and then walked the 2½ miles from Herne Hill to the Oval to visit my old National Youth Choir pal, Mike. It was his 40th birthday and we’d arranged for me to spend the day with him in his studio flat, a stone’s throw from the Oval cricket ground.

Forty-five minutes and one album later, I rang his door intercom and got buzzed up to his wee two-room flat to catch up with him. I told him about all that was going in my web architect job at the University of St Andrews, and he showed me his latest web projects. We caught up on news about mutual friends from our days in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, and gently put the world to rights.

For lunch, Mike took me to his favourite, local ‘greasy spoon’ café and then we returned to his flat to while away the afternoon with chat, laughter and music, before his then-girlfriend, now-wife Rachel turned up for dinner which we enjoyed at a local Indian restaurant.

Sometime after 22:30, I sent a text message to my host, Steve, to let him know that I was planning on returning to his flat shortly. He said that he would still be up but that I should seriously consider getting the train or a bus to Herne Hill as my morning route through Brixton would be too risky at that time of night. “You don’t want to be walking through Brixton at night,” he warned me.

The last time someone had told me that, it was the week I moved into a new flat in Marchmont in Edinburgh when I started at theological college.

A fellow student passed on the advice he’d been given when he moved into Marchmont: don’t walk across the Meadows at night. (The Meadows is a large public park of grassland and tree-lined paths, south of the city centre, not far from the university.)

“Is it dangerous?” he’d asked.

“Someone got mugged there.”

“Oh. Okay. When was that?”

“About ten years ago,” the local replied.

I was always fine when I walked through the Meadows at night. Chances are I’ll be fine in Brixton too.

I gathered my things, said my goodbyes and stepped out into the stuffy London evening air. I walked up to Clapham Road and stood beneath a lamppost to evaluate my options.

When I lived in London between 1995 and 1997, I always preferred to walk places, if I could. I enjoyed the exercise and I loved to see how London joined up, piecing together in my mind a mental map of the layout of this magnificent city. You just don’t get the same picture if you hide below ground on the tube, or sit crammed in a bus with 100 strangers. I knew that I could work out what buses to get, and I was sure that a quick text to Steve could confirm my hunch but it was a nice cloudless evening, I had my trusty London A–Z stuffed in my pocket and it would only take me 40 minutes if I walked but that would take me through Brixton.

“Should I walk through Brixton?” I asked myself.

“I’ve worked in three homeless hostels and a prison,” I thought to myself. “I am six foot four and I’m Scottish, what could possibly go wrong?” I put my earphones in and set off down Brixton Road.

It was a warm evening and I got a good pace on. Retracing my steps made the journey easier, meaning that I didn’t need to stop to check my map and draw any unnecessary attention to myself. Not that that would have, other than a few cars and night buses, I didn’t see a single person.

I reached Brixton station in good time, swung a left towards Herne Hill and prepared myself for the final short leg of my walk.

A little further on, I spied a man standing alone at a bus stop. He was swaying a little.

As I drew closer, I pulled my earphones out in case I needed to interact with him. I could also see him clearer in the dim light of the bus shelter. He was a young black man in his 20s, very thin, with very dark skin, dressed modestly and with a fabulous big, tight-curled Afro hairstyle.

“Excuse me,” he said very politely.

“Hello!” I replied, and smiled.

“Do you know how much the bus is to Peckham?”

He was still swaying, drunk I thought, and held onto my arm to steady himself.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I haven’t lived in London for about 10 years now, I have no idea about bus fares.”

His face fell.

“I’ll tell you what though,” I said as I reached for my wallet, “Do you think £4.00 would be enough?”

“Oh, thank you!” he said. “Thank you so much!”

He let me drop the four pound coins into his palm and then he pulled me closer and hugged me. I remember how soft his hair was at it brushed against my cheek and that it smelt of apples.

“You are very welcome,” I said. “I hope you have a good journey and that your bus arrives soon. And I set off again for Steve’s flat.

“Wow! You’re back quickly” said Steve after he let me in.

“Yeah, I walked through Brixton—it was the quickest route.”

“You walked through Brixton?!” he said. “Were you okay?”

“Yeah, fine. I got a hug from a black guy. His hair smelt like apples”

“… what?!”

And so I explained.

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Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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