Too often it was a sandwich at my desk, wolfed down. Sometimes a run — when I could find the time and energy. But more often than not lunch breaks were office-bound.

What was I thinking?

Since the coronavirus lockdown turned me and millions of others into reluctant homeworkers, my lunchtime exercise has become a cherished daily ritual.

At the beginning of confinement, when we were permitted to leave home just once a day, that precious hour was a chance to escape the one-bedroom flat where I otherwise spent all my time.

And while more frequent exercise is now permitted, I have kept up the practice, rotating between walks, runs and longer bike rides. On weekdays, at about 1pm, I say goodbye to the cat who is my lockdown companion and head outside, usually with little idea where I am going.

London Fields is a popular hang-out spot on warm evenings and weekends © Laura Thomas
Robert Orr’s lockdown companion has been a black cat © Robert Orr

From my home near London Fields, a compact and popular park in the east London borough of Hackney, there is no shortage of places to explore on foot.

North to Clapton and Hackney Downs, a previously unloved green space given a fresh lease of life in lockdown. West to De Beauvoir and Islington, whose wide 19th-century streets and elegant squares are ideal for social-distancing.

South-east to Victoria Park, reopened after an ill-judged council decision to padlock its gates, with the option to continue on to the waterways, woodlands and wild spaces of Hackney Marshes.

And the walk I will take you through here: south-west to Shoreditch, an area synonymous with tech start-ups and boozy nights out, but now fallen silent.

Globetrotter neighbourhood walk in Hackney and Shoreditch

London Fields is at the heart of the neighbourhood that has been my home since 2006. When I bought my first-floor flat, it was because I liked the local nightlife. If I had known I would be stuck here during a pandemic I would have chosen somewhere with a garden. 

The park itself was for centuries a stopover for farmers taking their livestock to the meat market at Smithfield. Local place names still reflect this heritage: Sheep Lane, Lamb Lane, the Cat & Mutton pub.

More recently, it has become a popular hang-out spot for young Londoners, who flock there on warm evenings and weekends to drink in the sun.

When the lockdown was imposed, the people of Hackney generally fell in line with the rules and stayed at home. Yet the sheer number of people living in such a built-up area, most of whom have no access to outdoor space, always made social distancing a challenge.

A fortunate aspect of the lockdown in London is that it has coincided with glorious spring weather © Laura Thomas

As spring has turned to early summer — and noticeably since the government revised its stay-at-home messaging — local adherence to the guidelines has frayed to the point of snapping.

It is now common for groups of 10 or more to convene in London Fields for a drink or a picnic. I watched recently as an 11-a-side football match took place nearby.

In the past two weeks several local pubs, including the Cat and Mutton and Pub on the Park, have begun serving takeaway beers and cocktails that drinkers carry gingerly to the park and consume. Thankfully, the public toilet facilities have also reopened.

Such activities has caused consternation locally and even outraged the national media. Without seeking to excuse it, I have seen much the same thing on bike rides around London, whether it be at Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common, Epping Forest or Regent’s Park. Friends elsewhere in the UK have made similar observations.

At the time of writing, an even more furious debate has erupted over whether the UK prime minister’s chief adviser flouted lockdown rules by driving more than 250 miles to his parents’ house, having potentially been exposed to the virus.

Starting at London Fields’ north-east corner, and with my friend Laura on picture duty, we follow the park’s perimeter in the shadow of the ubiquitous London plane trees.

Taking care to avoid the many runners, we pass the mothballed cricket pitch, the open-air swimming pool whose water has been unbroken since March, and the reopened tennis courts. Thoughts of work start to recede. 

Is there more bird song, or have we just slowed to a pace where we are attuned to it? A fortunate aspect of the lockdown in London is that it has coincided with some glorious weather that has made it almost bearable at times. Imagine enduring this in January.

Broadway Market is home to dozens of grocers, bakeries, delicatessens, pubs and eateries-turned-takeaways © Laura Thomas

We exit the park at Broadway Market, a now pedestrianised street known for its lively Saturday food market. The numbers of people milling around and the queues outside the grocers, bakeries, delicatessens, pubs and eateries-turned-takeaways can be unnerving.

But it is worth remembering that these are mostly independent traders, operating on fine margins, whose business models have been thrown into disarray by the pandemic. They cannot hope to survive without our support.

At the bottom of the market is Regent’s Canal, the waterway that first drew me to this area. On a run by the canal, I detoured off in search of water and chanced upon The Dove pub.

Regent’s Canal, with the iconic Bethnal Green gas holders in the distance © Laura Thomas

Slightly in love with the vibe and eager to discover new parts of London, I returned for a beer soon after and moved to the area a few years later. Back then the canal was mostly frequented by oddballs, dog-walkers and gongoozlers, but it has since become an intrinsic part of the east London promenade. 

This stretch of the canal is busy, but the absence of physical barriers between the water and the street means it is possible to meander along while maintaining social distance.

Walking west, away from the iconic Bethnal Green gas holders, we tick off the names of the moored-up boats — Segedunum, Jupiter, Name a Dream, Harriet — and wonder what happens to the government’s stay-home advice when your dwelling is moveable. 

The 8.6-mile Regent’s Canal links the longer Grand Union Canal with the Thames river © Laura Thomas
The absence of physical barriers on this stretch makes is possible to walk and keep safe distance © Laura Thomas

Leaving the canal, turning left at Queensbridge Road, we take a detour to one of my favourite abandoned buildings: Haggerston Baths. The structure, which is subject to a preservation order, is more like a grand town hall than a public pool.

It welcomed swimmers for almost a century until it closed its doors (separate ones for men and women) in 2000, since when it has been boarded up. Campaign group The Victorian Society lists it as one of the most endangered buildings of that period in the UK.

When I lived nearby with my then-girlfriend, an all-night rave took place under its glazed barrel-vaulted roof. We were unsure whether to call the police or join in. A local campaign to restore the baths was unsuccessful, and a private company has the go-ahead to redevelop it. I hope it does not ruin it.

Boarded-up Haggerston Baths looks more like a Victorian town hall than a public swimming pool © Laura Thomas
It welcomed swimmers through its separate doors for men and women for almost a century © Laura Thomas

Nearby, Haggerston Park is another green space whose visitor numbers have surged during lockdown. We enter through the arched gate on the north side into a covered arcade topped with a resplendent wisteria.

On this particular lunchtime we made a discovery: the unusual metal sculpture at the centre of the park is actually a sundial, although by our reckoning it is about 30 minutes slow.

Haggerston Park is another green space that has become more popular during lockdown © Laura Thomas

Back on Queensbridge Road, the traffic has been halted for the construction of a new cycle path — welcome news for those of us who favour two wheels over four.

We turn right on to busy Hackney Road, an unloved thoroughfare but also a microcosm of an area that, despite decades of gentrification, is among the 10 most deprived boroughs in England. 

Bag and footwear wholesalers — a legacy of Hackney’s historic links with the haberdashery trade — and fast-food takeaways exist alongside businesses catering to a different customer base, such as wine bar Sager + Wilde and innovative Mediterranean eatery Morito, an offshoot of longstanding Moro in nearby Clerkenwell.

A few steps on, an enormous housing development nears completion on the site of what was a used-car dealership.

At the end of Hackney Road, we take in the slender columns of St Leonard’s Shoreditch Church, the resting place of a host of Elizabethan actors including Richard Burbage, a friend of William Shakespeare and the first man to play both Macbeth and Hamlet. 

St Leonard’s Shoreditch Church is the resting place of a host of Elizabethan actors including the first man to play Macbeth and Hamlet © Laura Thomas

Soon we cross into Shoreditch, east London’s answer to Silicon Valley, whose drawn-out journey from fashionable to mainstream can be charted in the slowly deteriorating quality of its pubs.

Despite this, I retain a fondness for the area, particularly Hoxton Square, ground zero of east London’s 1990s renaissance and home to one of my favourite bars, Happiness Forgets.

As the area is primarily a place of work and leisure, the square and its public garden have been largely deserted for months.

Curtain Road in Shoreditch, where the City of London’s empty skyscrapers loom into view © Laura Thomas
The Bricklayers Arms is one of many local businesses forced to temporarily close its doors © Laura Thomas

The same is true as we veer south along Rufus Street and Charlotte Road, and east on to Rivington Street, past the Bricklayers Arms and the Barley Mow pubs, boutiques such as Mr Start, and Cargo nightclub. How will any of them survive this?

The City of London’s empty skyscrapers loom as we recross Shoreditch High Street and turn into Calvert Avenue to face another favourite local landmark — and one with a unique role in the social history of the UK — the Boundary Estate.

A series of red-brick tenement blocks fanning out from a central circus, it is generally considered to be the world’s first council housing development. Built on the site of London’s most notorious slum, the estate has a rich history that can be found online.

The raised area of Arnold Circus that includes the bandstand was built using the rubble of the slum it replaced © Laura Thomas

But as we pause at the peaceful central bandstand for a drink of water, it is impossible not to feel admiration for the Victorian planners whose vision and commitment made it possible.

Realising I have been away from my desk for more than 40 minutes, we quicken our pace as we pick a path towards Columbia Road. The pretty street is home to one of my favourite pubs, The Royal Oak, and the famous Sunday flower market that is another weekend ritual for east Londoners.

In normal times, Columbia Road hosts a busy flower market every Sunday © Laura Thomas
The Royal Oak is a favourite pub for many locals © Laura Thomas

Zigzagging north to Goldsmiths Row, past Hackney City Farm, we navigate Broadway Market again before re-entering London Fields and returning to our starting point by way of the busy path on the eastern side.

I check the stopwatch on my iPhone and smile: 59 minutes, 50 seconds. 

Map by Liz Faunce

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