Walking barefoot through the city is a wonderful, liberating experience. I do it sometimes on my short walk home between the Cass at Aldgate at my flat in Bethnal Green. It all began one day when my sandals broke when I was half way down Brick Lane, and I was left with no choice but to walk home along the tarmac, concrete and paving slabs with only my very own skin for protection.
It was a warm day and I discovered for the first time the range of temperatures underfoot. Where the surface is dark and smooth and has been in the sunshine, the heat radiates at around body temperature, and feels like the warmed marble surface in a hammam. In deep shade the ground is cooler, but not cold on a sunny day, since every part of the street is exposed to sunlight and the ground has a substantial thermal mass. As well as temperature, texture becomes all-important when walking barefoot through the city. Cobbles feel satisfyingly fulfilling and smooth when fitted exactly into the arch of a foot and I had never before noticed how rough and stony the road surface is, compared to the pavement. It must be both for economy, and to provide traction for car tyres.With feet unaccustomed to walking without shoes, the road is sharp and prickly, and it is a relief to return to the velvety smooth surface of a concrete paving slab.The various signs and signals for blind people were also suddenly much more apparent. The bobble paving slabs to warn of a pedestrian crossing, and the stripy ones to warn of the entrance to a tube. I wonder if there is a code amongst the which as a sighted person you never need to engage with? [Yes there is! I found it here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/289245/tactile-paving-surfaces.pdf]
Without shoes, I began to instinctively think through my feet, and connect lots of different experiences of materiality, economy and society. It brought to my attention the difference in quality of road surfaces in different places - more affluent streets with more tourist value have fewer tarmac repairs on which to catch and scuff toes. Smaller paving slabs in posher streets have more spaces that could conceal glass, but at the same time there is less likely to be glass or other rubbish there. Is this because richer people drop less rubbish and smash fewer glasses, or is it because the council cleans the more affluent street more thoroughly or more frequently? But in general the streets of London are fantastically clean. I can walk for a mile without shoes through central-ish London, being moderately careful, and get home with feet that are just a little bit dusty – no injuries, no vile substances. I wonder how many other cities of 8 million people could boast the same thing?
The experience of shoelessness impacts on the mind and the eyes - mine are usually staring ahead while I think aimless thoughts, or at other people, or at shops. Without shoes my concentration is focused on the street surface - where is most pleasing to tread, where is warm and soft or smooth, is there glass, or unidentified wetness, or vomit or dog shit to avoid. I can’t watch other people to see if they have identified my lack of shoes, my focus on my own feet pleasingly clears my head of other thoughts. It’s a meditative, grounding experience, which reconnects me to the earth… albeit through the many urban layers of city surfaces.