A walker's commute

WHEN I first came back to live in England, I stayed with friends in Surrey and commuted to work in London. I loved living out in the country, but the fares cost a fortune, and I was spending three to four hours a day traveling. With some regret, therefore, I resolved to find a flat from which, if possible, I could walk to work.

And so it eventuated, right in the pulsating heart of London in busy, fascinating, up-market Covent Garden. I walk to work every morning. It takes me 15 minutes, door to door. At least, it would take me 15 minutes door to door if I didn't stop at other doors, windows, or way stations.

I live a few yards from the Covent Garden tube (subway) station, and my first stop is the newspaper vendor there. We discuss the weather. Everyone discusses the weather in Britain. It is a national bond; the rain falls on us all.

Northward from the tube station runs Neal Street, with restricted traffic and brick paving. This is an area of specialty shops. One sells only tea and teapots. Almost every variety of tea you've ever heard of and many that you have not are here, from any part of the world. The teapots range from the small and utilitarian to the delicate and elegant, to large china curiosities modeled as a car, or a lady in crinolines, or a house, or Queen Elizabeth holding a corgi dog which becomes the spout.

Another shop sells only copperware; another only post cards; another only buttons; another only badges; another ``Oriental musical instruments.'' Being Covent Garden, with two great opera houses, there are many shops musically oriented. Around the corner in Earlham Street is one selling guitars and drums, Dickensianly run (if you can believe the sign, which I rather don't) by Messrs. Allbang and Strummit.

Another shop sells only brass instruments, and walking past one day I counted 14 French horns in the window, which seems enough French horns for most purposes.

Back nearer Covent Garden market, there's a shop called Doorknobs. I thought this was taking specialization a bit far until I discovered it was a rental agency.

Just off Neal Street is Neal's Yard, a delightful courtyard with elegant trees in pots, and with a real bakery and an almost perpetual queue for its grainy loaves hot from the oven.

There's a store selling only ground meal; one selling only cheeses of the British Isles; one, a variety of ``health foods''; an old-fashioned apothecary with homeopathic remedies; an ``organic'' (of course) fruit and vegetable shop, with earth still clinging to carrots and parsnips to show their authenticity; a soup-and-sandwich place that does a roaring trade come midday. The whole place smells marvelous, especially after the first bake.

In the spring, Neal's Yard becomes a forest of daffodils massed in the tree-pots and in window boxes at all stories right around the courtyard.

Walking north, I come to a cut-price bookshop. Like Oscar Wilde's Lord Darlington, I can resist anything except temptation, but shops tend to open and close late in this area, and on my way to work this particular temptation is denied me.

Then into Shaftesbury Avenue -- theaterland -- but right there, to remind you that this is a maritime no less than a thespian nation, is a yacht chandler, his window full of ropes, compasses, marine lights, and other instruments. I calculate I'm halfway to work.

I pass a wool shop, with great baskets of yarn on the footpath; and a record and cassette shop with the nostalgic name of Caruso & Co. -- nostalgic for me because of old 78 rpm records of the great tenor that my father used to play on our wind-up HMV Gramo-phone.

As I approach the British Museum, the density of shops selling prints, lithographs, paintings, maps, and books ancient and modern thickens appreciably.

Here now is the museum, that noble symbol of civilization and vast repository of many civilizations. I bow metaphorically every time I pass this fantastic place. Details of current special exhibitions are up on posters.

I am three-quarters of the way to work.

There is a crowd waiting for the museum gates to open. I walk past them and around the corner. There are unobtrusive hotels here, and students with backpacks on the footpath, or more sedate groups of tourists from almost any part of the world standing by their buses.

And so, along the side of Russell Square, one of London's loveliest small parks, and on into the Georgian building where once two families and their servants lived, which now houses the institute where I work.

I climb the stairs, unlock my office door, throw up the window, and look out on the square below, with its huge trees, well-mown grass, neat, gay garden plots. I breathe in the soft morning air, and I think: ``What a privilege!''

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