Walking has always been good for you, and in 2020 especially so. Indeed within central London, with tube ridership reticent at best, walking may well be your best option. But could you avoid busy pavements by following a quirkier more characterful backstreet instead? Perhaps Footways are the way to go.
The Footways network skips Oxford Street in favour of Soho, avoids Euston Road by taking Gower Place and prefers Hatton Garden to Farringdon Road. It's not necessarily the way to go if you're in a hurry, but as part of a general wander might well direct you towards intriguing parts of central London you've not explored before.
London Living Streets, who've been pounding pavements to decide what's in and what's out, hope their Footways network will eventually become a web of walk-friendly streets with broader pavements and better street furniture. I suspect that may be an optimistic view. But for now Footways exist solely as a map of streets you might like to follow, initially online. Head to footways.london and you can scoot round a digital map or wait a couple of weeks and you can hold a proper map in your hands. TfL helped to provide seed funding, Urban Good have curated a printed version, and anyone who pays £2.95 postage by 6pm on Wednesday will be able to pre-order a physical copy.
I decided to go out and try to use the current Google map to follow a Footway into town. Normally I'd walk straight down the Whitechapel Road and enter the City at Aldgate, but the Footways map instead nudged me off the main drag just past the market... up the alleyway where the temporary entrance to Whitechapel station is. It got much better after that.
On crossing Vallance Road a choice of Footway awaits. One forks left along Old Montague Street, the road 'one back' from the A11 hence a much less crowded path. The other forks to the right of the tower block and that's Hanbury Street, another great choice for walking but this time heading for Spitalfields. As you can see from the proliferation of No Entry signs in the photo you're unlikely to be knocked flying by a vehicle round here, indeed the first stretch of Hanbury Street is properly pedestrianised. I forked right.
I'm not unfamiliar with Hanbury Street, but it was good to be reminded it exists. Sights of delightful minor interest include a striking GLC lozenge, an arts centre the Duchess of York opened in 1935 and the varied architecture of the Chicksands Estate. How much nicer to be pondering the names of council blocks in peace than endlessly stepping out of the way of folk on the main road.
As Brick Lane approaches the road gets much narrower, funnelling up the side of a Banglatown cash and carry. The shops here are a true borderline mix of traditional trades interspersed with artsy boutiques and failed fusion restaurants. A tailor's workshop was visible up one alleyway, just beyond the prone form of a body in a bulging sleeping bag. It's worth pointing out that Footways predate the pandemic so social distancing wasn't a key driver, but traffic calming and a one-way system are helping to keep this narrow street relatively pedestrian friendly.
Suddenly I was in the thick of tourist-friendly Spitalfields, creeping up the side of the Sunday Upmarket past an unnecessary number of coffee shops. But the Footway suddenly wanted me to bear off, and I had trouble deducing where because white roads on a light grey Google map aren't easy to trace. Up Corbet Place, seriously? But this historic dogleg has a cobbled pavement and Hong Kong Phooey graffiti, plus it bypasses 50m of Commercial Street, so that was a win.
Folgate Street is next, which means following a delightful Georgian throwback rather than entering the busy slipstream of Spitalfields Market. I found a Stepney Borough Council manhole in the cobbles. I avoided a blazing row taking place on a very expensive doorstep. I passed the timewarp marvel that is Dennis Severs' House. And I noted with sadness the wanton destruction of Norton Folgate, bar a single pub marooned on a street corner, as British Land do their damnedest to transform 336,000 sq ft of grimy historical fabric into office-led identikit stacks.
The Footway slips across the A10 almost without noticing, taking Worship Street to skirt the northern edge of Liverpool Street station. At first it's investment banks and newbuild towers with pretentious hostelries underneath. Then a brief smidgeon of old Shoreditch survives, a run of half a dozen bay-windowed shops with steps to the door, one or two of which might still be in business. Worship Street gets somewhat blander after that, more a succession of anonymous lowrise office buildings, but still very much not the normal route to town.
The Footway network now branches off in all directions, indeed has been branching most of the way. Perhaps take Bunhill Fields as a shortcut to the Barbican and Smithfield, maybe head over to St Paul's or (as I did) meander back south through the City. I did start getting a bit lost at this point, a Google map with white roads on a light grey background being somewhat impractical for travellers on foot. This is where the printed version will come up trumps because that's a proper map, assuming anyone can still be bothered to carry one of those any more.
I'm unconvinced that Footways create a practical everyday network for getting around central London. Most of the routes wiggle too much to be easily memorable, and streets chosen for their character don't necessarily link together well. But if your objective is exploration rather than speed, and so long as you're in possession of some kind of map, walking the quirky backstreet route is invariably a winner.