Going for a walk with a book is one of my favourite things to do. Planning a route with pit stops for reading and eating a sandwich (and a flask of tomato soup if it’s cold). It’s finally spring, it’s the first day I’m not wearing my winter coat, so, I decide to take myself on a walk from Putney to Kew Gardens along the River Thames.
I hop on the tube to Waterloo, followed by a ten-minute train ride to Putney station. I’d love to say I’m one of those serene people who can walk while simultaneously turning the pages of a book but, alas, I am not. In light of this, I’ve brought a copy of Watching Women and Girls by Danielle Pender. This is a short story collection, which means I can read an entire story every time I stop to sit on a park bench. I’ve been particularly intrigued by this book as the author currently lives in London and is originally from Newcastle, like me, and many of these stories are set in the northeast. I should note that audiobooks are also wonderful for walks — plus, the audiobook of Watching Women and Girls is narrated by Kristin Atherton, who is absolutely brilliant — but today I’ve opted for reading and listening to the city.
I stroll down to the river and walk west, over Beverley Brook, along a path arched with blossom. To my right, there are people rowing in the Thames, and along the way I see plenty of happy, muddy dogs. Near Hammersmith Bridge, there’s the old Harrods Furniture Depository, a ridiculously huge building which is now split into flats. From the bridge you can spy pubs from the 1700s lining the other side of the river, and mudlarkers hunting for treasure in the slush of the low tide.
I cross Hammersmith Bridge and take the north river path, walking through Furnival Gardens up to Chiswick Mall, passing blue plaques for famous calligraphers, and William Morris’s house. Along the Upper Mall, where William Thackeray set part of Vanity Fair, there are huge houses on the right — yet, strangely, their front gardens are on the other side of the road. There’s something very Alice in Wonderland about it: a bit of nonsensical geography and many an animated tulip.
I stop for lunch in the grounds of Chiswick House, which is free to enter, eating my packed lunch by a waterfall. I pull out my book, intending to read one story and move on. However, captivated by the writing, I read three in one go. In Paper Dolls, a young woman called Carmen travels home to help her mother move house. Over the years, they’ve changed as individuals, but their relationship has not, so it strains at the edges, threatening to rip open and reveal their younger, more fragile selves. Junction Sixty Four, which turns out to be my favourite story in the book, is a claustrophobic tale set in a service station — the setting being a metaphor for the protagonist’s life: a teenage girl, who is feeling trapped. In another story, a woman repeatedly feeds a cat that wanders into her back garden. Becoming more self-aware, the narrator starts drawing interesting parallels between these interactions and her relationship with the man she’s dating.
I want to read more but, knowing I’m near the end of my walk, I put the book in my bag, wipe sandwich crumbs from my lap and set off again. From Chiswick House, I make my way down to Strand-on-the-Green, one of Chiswick’s four Mediaeval villages. First recorded as “Stronde” (shore) in 1353, it’s now a series of small houses snaking the river, with raised painted boards on the doorways to protect against flooding — although, now we have the Thames flood barrier, these remain mainly decorative.
From there, I cross Kew Bridge and end my walk in Kew Gardens. Grabbing a cup of tea and sitting by the daffodils, I can’t help people-watching as I read a few more stories from Watching Women and Girls — which is a bit of a strange feeling, given this is a book that perfectly articulates the different ways that the world watches women, and how women are always watching back.
To see more photographs and a map of Jen’s walk, click here.
Watching Women and Girls by Danielle Pender is published by Fourth Estate, available now.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written twelve books for children and adults, the latest of which is Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.
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