Extract from: Mindfulness & the Art of Urban Living
Pausing to Absorb a View
A moment spent looking beyond the city can catch one unawares. Hemmed in by the jostle of strangers streaming both ways down the pavement; dodging deliveries staked by a shop door; peering into bookshops; walking past glass
windows, our reflection moving with us – everything is close and busy, when suddenly, while crossing a street, carefully looking both ways, you catch an unexpected glimpse of a distant landscape, fields and trees far out of town.
These views have a valuable part to play in the way we live our urban lives. They may at first appear to be, but are not, moments of escapism. We can appreciate them, not because they remind us of the unpressured life we desire (though they may), the rural dream far from the gaol-fever of urban bustle, but because they inject new life into the urban scene.
A good place to contemplate the out-of-town scene in my local town of Lewes offers a seat on the pavement at a small table, and coffee. I often pause there for half an hour. The High Street is steep at this point. Mothers toil up the pavement with pushchairs; a traffic warden idles down the hill checking number plates, sometimes halting humanely to give a harassed shopper time to dash out from a shop with a purchase and drive away. Snatches of disconnected conversation catch the attention, the speakers lingering long enough to give one an entertaining hint of family goings-on; gales of laughter get lost among the roar of passing traffic. A tired shopper rests a clutch of bags by your legs.
But you hardly have to raise your eyes to look out and over the centre of town to see a high curve of downland, up above some houses and trees. An ancient burial mound, a tumulus dating back to the New Stone Age, is a small hump on the horizon; it carries your mind back in time for an arresting moment. I always rise from the coffee stop exhilarated – and it is not just the caffeine. My love of Lewes is enhanced by being able to gaze out to the countryside beyond; the town is improved by knowing how it sits in its landscape.
An Evening in Ayamonte
Almost all small towns share this ability to reveal the landscape around them – vignettes of far-off countryside caught in a glimpse and cherished. I have a brother who lives in Spain, in the Andalucian town of Ayamonte. Sit of an evening at a small table with a glass of wine in the sociable town square, where the loud chatter of sparrows in the manicured palm trees vies with the shrieks of happy children playing ball or roller-skating around and around in front of their families, and you might catch yourself gazing out of town.
A narrow side street, leading away from the square, runs west down to the broad Guadiana river and sailing boats. On the far bank of this slow tidal river is Portugal and the Algarve; a medieval castle rises above the salt marsh, built originally to guard the land against Spanish marauders. The castle becomes a silhouette as the sun sinks in that direction. You might see a skein of pink flamingos flying elegantly upriver, their long necks, extended legs and strange bills making them look cartoonish – like aerial hockey sticks with wings.
Views from the Larger City
It is not just small towns that offer views and vistas from the bustle of the street – many a large city does the same. Anyone who has ridden a streetcar in San Francisco knows the exhilaration of catching a view of the bay – of Alcatraz with all its mysterious history as a prison island, where the ‘bird man’ was incarcerated; or of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. And in the afternoons the ocean asserts its near presence by the curling wave of sea mist that rolls in over the western suburbs. San Francisco would not be San Francisco without its hair-raisingly plunging streets and glorious views, or its proximity to the Pacific. It draws life from its surroundings, builds its character on things seen in the distance.
Sydney in New South Wales offers similar sea views beyond the ends of its thoroughfares. You step off the pavement to the encouraging ‘get-a-move-on’ sound of the crossing signal (I always think of the urgent laugh of a kookaburra), traffic halted and waiting, when mid-street you suddenly see, beyond the enormous overhanging limbs of a Moreton Bay fig tree, the harbour – blue water, sailing boats, a swiftly moving ferry; and beyond that the north shore at Manly. For a moment you are tempted to stop and enjoy the scene – but the engines of the stationary traffic are running, growling to be off, and so you rush on, the moment glimpsed and caught in memory like a butterfly in a net.
Every city has something to offer, whether it be the Rocky Mountains seen from Vancouver or the snow-covered Alps from Geneva. Every good view is easy to miss in a preoccupied life; even easier to ignore.
Views Over the City
People who have apartments in high-rise buildings can enjoy the opportunity of contemplating the way their city sits in its landscape every day. London lies in the hollow of the Thames Valley and there are many places from which the observer can get an overview of the city, get a feel of how it has been shaped and how it settles naturally into the local geography. From central London, such fortunate people have views of the suburbs rising up to the North Downs, or, in the opposite direction, the heavily treed slopes of Highgate and Hampstead Heath.
This view of London can be reversed. Instead of catching a glimpse of something lying beyond the enclosing buildings, revealed for a moment at the open end of a street, we may find ourselves looking out over the city, contemplating from above how it fits in its place in its entirety. Walk out of the woods on Hampstead Heath over the open grassland and all the major buildings of the metropolis lie beneath you – there is St Paul’s Cathedral, there the Stock Exchange; there the inside-out shape of the Lloyd’s building, and the new skyscraper affectionately known as ‘The Gherkin’; ‘The Shard’ rises above them all on the South Bank, while the London Eye turns slowly like a great bicycle wheel, revealing similar views to tourists in its rising, then falling, pods.
Views of the city from above, or distant views from below but above the snarling traffic and the milling crowds, help the city to breathe and us to breathe with it. They are worth seeking out and cherishing.