Urban ramblers: ‘It does make you feel better. Being with people, but also just walking’

The idea of rambling might evoke strolls through fields but members of London’s Metropolitan Walkers say you can ramble anywhere if you have the right attitude

Clustered outside a tube station, 20 or so Londoners are preparing to roam around Tufnell Park (which is not actually a park) as part of a ramblers’ group.

This is not, though, a roam through the countryside. They huddle under street lamps for the customary introduction to the night’s event – a three-mile loop around a residential stretch of the city, culminating with a trip to the pub.

The Inner London chapter of the ramblers is a coalition of 10 walking groups scattered throughout the city. This particular offshoot, the Metropolitan Walkers, is geared at people in their 20s and 30s, though they are not very strict about the age cut-off.

On this night, some members came straight from the office with backpacks slung over their shoulders; one took off dress shoes and slipped into sneakers. Heading out, they charge up and down car-lined hills, walk in single file to traverse a narrow slip of footpath and wait impatiently for the rest of the group to cross the street before taking off again. They pass a barrier covered in graffiti, neon vape signs glinting in shop windows and an endless parade of buses.

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These scenes might seem incompatible with the idea of rambling, which evokes sunny strolls through fields. But members of the group argue you can ramble anywhere if you’ve got the right attitude. “If people enjoy it, the walk’s a good one,” says 41-year-old Phil Bennett, who led the Thursday night expedition.

Part workout regimen, part social club, ramblers’ groups combine two wellness truisms – walking is good for you, and so is spending time with others. These types of groups have a long history – the Inner London Ramblers can trace theirs back to 1905 – and newer descendants have taken hold in cities across the globe.

The Inner London Ramblers groups attract all kinds of walkers, but lately, they seem to have become landing strips for people undergoing transitions. Some, like Bennett, sought out a walking group a few years ago, after moving to London; others joined as a way to endure, and then ease out of, pandemic lockdowns; some get involved after they retire.

“It’s a nice little community,” says John Lovett (46), who joined the Metropolitan Walkers two years ago. In addition to their city strolls, the group takes weekend excursions to the countryside, where they trek and also get together for karaoke and darts and sailing trips.

Ramblers walk in all weather. In Andrew Strouthous’s four years leading walks for the London Strollers, a group focused on shorter distances, he has seen only one walk cancelled – and that was when the path flooded. Strouthous (76) was in charge of leading a walk on Thursday morning. He counted off 42 walkers and two dogs – a schnauzer and a Chihuahua – along for the jaunt. It was suspiciously bright out; one member announced that she had a raincoat wedged in her backpack, just in case.

Strouthous has been part of the walking group for about eight years, but became a walk leader during lockdown. His water aerobics classes shut down during the pandemic, and walks fill that void. “I needed something to keep going, really.”

He meticulously plans the routes ahead of time, making sure they’re scenic and not too arduous, and have a good spot to stop for lunch. Thursday morning’s trek checks all the boxes – a route through the South Bank of London, curling past the Globe Theatre and under the London Eye, with a stop near a string of shops and cafes, where some members order hot chocolates.

Pat Thomas (67) has been walking with them for the past two years. When she retired, she felt “quite aware that I needed to keep active”. Thomas lives alone and finds comfort in the steadiness of the group’s calendar, the constancy of its companionship. “It just makes you feel that life doesn’t have to deteriorate once you turn 70. There are lots of people who are well into their 70s and very fit, still walking and enjoying it – it’s slightly inspirational.”

The London Strollers clap and cheer as they end their route by the Thames. Julia Cooke (70) edges closer to the river, what she calls London’s “best asset. Days like today, she says, make her never want to leave the city. “It does make you feel better. Being with people, but also just walking.”

This article originally appeared in the New York Times