28 Nov 2010

In Praise of Urban Twilights

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Another dreary weekend, little light, less warmth, winter is setting in.  No real point in heading for the hills because as soon as you start you’ll have to think about getting back before it gets dark: the joys of the northern hemisphere once the clocks go back.

Think of walking and cycling and most images will be of hiking and biking in the hills, coastal walks, rural rambles, forest trails: however diverse the activity the common factor is the location; always the countryside. But, as the dark lengthens, the leaves turn to mushy litter and diminishing daylight and unpredictable  weather make expeditions to the hills and mountains more difficult and time restricted, why not make full use of what limited light there is by exploring urban this autumn?

Indeed, the couple of months from the clock change in late October until early January is the one time of the year when, on balance, I actually prefer to be in the city, especially at twilight: bright lights glistening on the wet pavements illuminating the spindly silhouettes  of naked trees in misty parks, the treat of a hot chestnut stall providing a Dickensian tinge and unmistakeable reminder that Christmas is on the way.

And the impending festive season is  another reason  to enjoy a  wider city experIence, away from the retail ghettoes and without the crowds of fair weather tourists, This is the season to take back ownership of the parks and the attractions often too crowded to enjoy in sunnier and holiday times.

Victorian philanthropy bequeathed an impressive legacy of parks and open spaces in our major cities.  Often they also house museums, galleries and other places of interest.  Use them, make up your own walking and cycling trails linking different parks and other circuits round the city. And, as this is usually the quietest time of the year,  you’ll probably have them to yourself on raw, late autumn weekend afternoons when the visitors have left and the indigenous natives are desperately thronging the shopping malls and retail centres in pre Christmas hysteria.  Stop off at the museums and galleries en route – you’ve probably always intended to visit anyway, but never got round to it – enjoy their collections and warm up at in their (mostly) decent cafes and tearooms.

Perhaps you live in an unattractive post-industrial city that you try to get out of as much as you can?   Well lucky you, devote a few afternoons to get to know it better and take advantage of what it does offer.  The heavy industry of the nineteenth century may have declined and permanently scarred the landscape, but it will almost certainly have also left  a post-industrial legacy of canal towpaths and disused railways.  Use them. OK, you won’t find many gradients, but they are great ways of getting through cities and the longer the industrial decline, the more established and varied the flora and fauna. You’ve missed the blackberries and sloes, but you’ll find plenty of ducks, swans, moorhens and other wildlife to keep you company on the way.

Think up a theme – history, art, sport, literature, famous people, anything from the locality – get the kids involved, put together some related clues to find on your circuit, maybe devise a photography competition and you’ve got a whole day’s outing, maybe six to eight hours, with as much exercise as you would get on a three hour country hike or hilly cycle. You will be using all the daylight available with no long travelling times and, if it does get dark before you finish, you’ve always got the streetlights to see you home.

And don’t overlook the weird  allure of the city in the raw, murky months heading to mid winter. Those solid, but extravagant, Victorian municipal buildings assume an eerie and bizarre beauty highlighted in the shadowy orange glow of streetlights and headlights.  River vistas strike a more dramatic edge with the lights from bridges and quays reflected vividly  in the black water

Our continental neighbours, perhaps as a response to their traditionally colder climate, seem to make much more of their winters than we do and lighten up the darkest months with markets, celebrations and festivals  So, take a leaf out of their book, get out and about, resist the temptation to crawl into a hibernal nest  and instead, exploit what daylight there is.  Re-acquaint yourself with your city and, when the first signs of spring emerge in the new year, you will be fit and raring to get back on the hills and in the forests.

Oh, and getting out, getting hot and keeping the circulation active, sure keeps the home heating bills down during the day.

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