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Walking the Bounds

When I was young, we were forced to read Ethan Frome for school.  I found this novel utterly infuriating because one of the major themes is that the titular character leads a depressed, reduced life because he’d “seen too many New England winters.”  Now, New England winters are tough, but they don’t KILL people.  Okay, actually they do.  But not from sheer ennui.  It takes a tree falling on them or perishing of cold in a snowbank or something.  You don’t just spend your entire adult life in slowly strangulating desperation because of WINTER.  That is not how it works.  What was wrong with this Edith Wharton woman?  Why did we have to spend hours reading about the freezing cold, bleak, grinding existential crises, blah blah blah…

But after this winter, I finally understood.  Wharton, you know whereof you speak.

Then, two weekends ago, it at last became balmy enough to go outside without feeling like the wind was trying to slice my face off.  In celebration of the sudden release from the Frome-ish blues, I decided to walk the bounds.

There is an old and widespread tradition around Britain known as “beating the bounds.”  In essence this involves perambulating around the boundaries of the local parish in order to instil knowledge of one’s territory into the local populace.  Handy in the days before maps.  Often these jaunts were accompanied by strange little rituals to help cement the knowledge of the bounds in the minds of the populace.  Things like thwacking little boys on the head, thwacking the boundary markers, thwacking the ground, thwacking pretty much anything as far as I can tell.

I confined my bounds ceremony to walking, breathing in the healthful spring air, and beaming genially upon the sparkling Thames.  Wapping by the river is very beautiful: its many former warehouses have an Industrial Revolutionish charm, and going west towards the city tall ships moored by Tower Bridge give an impression of mighty transatlantic trading.

From there I walked the Thames Path up towards St Paul’s, past the solid bulk of the Tower of London, past  Custom House, past old Billingsgate Market and St Magnus the Martyr church with bells pealing.  Then over Millennium Bridge and down the river the other side, with Shakespeare’s Globe, Southwark Cathedral, the strange shape of City Hall which looks to me like a jelly mold that someone has poked and is in mid-wobble.  Along Butler’s Wharf, very much of the same era as Wapping with old walkways leading from building to building suspended over the streets, toward the Arts Ark.  And at last, pointing my shoes homeward over the turreted glory of Tower Bridge.

I find it interesting that such an iconic symbol of London isn’t very old at all–it was completed in 1894.  It sits, of course, next to the Tower of London, from which it takes its name.  Where the Tower now sits, William the Conqueror built one of his initial defensive fortifications in 1066.  It’s not clear exactly when construction of the current Tower began, but certainly by the 1070s it was beginning to take shape.

And now you can sit in the restaurant in the base of the not-so-old bridge, taking tea while looking at the ancient Tower, and at all the streaming life of London walking by.

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