The humble neighbourhood walk: the best way to discover hidden gems.

When was the last time you took a stroll through your neighbourhood? Not a purposeful power walk just to get somewhere, but a mindless, wandering stroll? We all recognise the thrill – and the benefits – associated with a hike to a high scenic vista, but what of the joys of simply pootling along, taking in the sights and sounds of your neighbourhood, perhaps with a coffee in hand and nowhere to be?

I grew up in what was, back then, rural Albany. I was privileged to be able to live on six acres of land with two parents, two grandparents and my beloved younger sister. We wanted for nothing and spent our days playing with our horses and dogs, and swimming in our pool. Back then, one of the best things about living where we did was that we had no neighbours. We were not part of a neighbourhood. One big, white house stood like a lone sentry in an overgrown field on our left, but we never saw anyone come nor go from it (although apparently my dad once saw someone mowing the lawn naked). To our right we had nothing but rolling hills and ancient pine trees. We loved having no neighbours. To my sister and I, it felt like we lived on a huge farm or station just like the ones we’d seen on Country Calendar. It was dreamy.

A beautiful sunset, as seen from my neighbourhood.

It wasn’t until I moved to the ‘burbs in my mid-twenties that I experienced living in a neighbourhood for the first time. Only, I never really experienced it. In fact, it was more like a ghost town. I never saw anyone; hardly anyone walked past our house and even when I went walking or running, I never saw a soul. Not in their gardens, not in their garages and certainly not peeking over their fences to say a friendly “hello” as I passed by. Many of my neighbours were so closed off they kept their curtains shut all day long, despite having what could only be considered as highly sought after, uninterrupted views out to the Hauraki Gulf. The neighbourly scenes I’d witnessed on popular soaps such as Home & Away, Shortland Street and of course, Neighbours, didn’t seem to exist. This was confirmed when the man next-door to our place spent an evening beating up his partner, and the chilling screams and moans echoed through the street. I stood at the window trying to ascertain which house these horrors were coming from. Up and down the street I saw curtains twitching, lights turning on, other concerned citizens wondering what to do. The police arrived shortly afterwards. Still, no one left the comforts of their own house, me included. In fact, the only time I ever converged with my neighbours, out on the pavement, was when our houses were rattled by a tiny earthquake tremor. United in confusion, we piled out of our homes and up our garden paths, hands gesticulating “what on earth was that?!” for five minutes before retreating back inside.

Later in my twenties, I was able to develop a love for neighbourhoods and walking through them, thanks to a stint in London which didn’t end until I was 31. Never before had I been in such close living quarters with other humans. The house I flatted in was attached to another house which was attached to another, and another, and another, and so on – terraced housing. Think: the opening credits of Coronation Street. If I’d felt so possessed as to bash down my bedroom wall, I’d have ended up in my neighbour’s bedroom or living room, maybe even their kitchen. This also meant that everywhere I walked (which was, quite literally, everywhere – I never drove in London) there were more of the same: terraced houses as far as the eye could see, peppered with the occasional large, brick, standalone house or a block of flats (apartments). At first, I pined for the vistas one might enjoy when walking around a suburb in New Zealand: a beautiful, sprawling garden; some big trees; a park; a random field featuring an urban goat; quite possibly the sea. But in London, what was I supposed to look at when I took a Sunday morning stroll or walked from place to place?

It didn’t take long before I began to recognise the bounty of sights, sounds and scenes that my neighbourhood – and others around London – offered up. Firstly: beautiful doors. Barbie pink, royal blue, orange, red of course, black, and green in every shade imaginable, from forest to duck egg. But it wasn’t only the myriad colours I noticed, it was the light fittings, doorbells, handles and knockers too. Each piece had been chosen for its uniqueness, perhaps to make a statement or to ready visitors for the warm, open arms that awaited on the other side. Once I started paying attention to these minute details, I began to get a little nosy. As I walked through leafy, manicured streets in Notting Hill I’d peer in the big, bay windows of London’s elite, ogling at their chandeliers, plush velvet sofas, eclectic collections of throw cushions, perhaps an exotic rug hanging from a wall, an ornate light fitting above a huge mahogany writing desk. Once, I caught sight of a room lined with built-in bookshelves stretching from floor to ceiling, a veritable library it would seem, and – perhaps best of all – a moving ladder whose sole purpose was to ferry the reader from one side of the room to the other to pick a tome of their choosing. Mouth agape, I stopped walking and stared blatantly through the windows like a neighbourhood busy body. Who lives here, I wondered, shaking my head as I realised I would surely never know.

No matter where I walked, whether it be Streatham or Chelsea, I peeked through garden gates, down into kitchens and up into home offices and sitting rooms.

As the seasons changed, so did the neighbourhood vistas. October saw pumpkins pop up on window sills and orange leaves swept into huge piles on the pavement. November and December meant wreaths on doors, candles in hallways and Christmas trees – real ones – dominating living room corners, so bustling and tall they could be seen from across the street. In summer, the houses of Notting Hill sat dormant, ornate furniture and fittings collecting dust as their owners spent July and August in the south of France. In other neighbourhoods, the warmer months meant doors and sash windows were flung open, music wafting out of them, or the sound of laughter. Plants would appear on window ledges and rooftops – along with their owners and a bottle of wine.

I loved my neighbourhood walks so much that I sometimes took a longer route than necessary, just to soak up as much as I could from these sidewalk scenes. Unlike my previous suburban experience, neighbourhoods in London produced not just dreamy aesthetics but a myriad different people as well. I once saw Lily Allen leaning against the brick wall outside what was presumably her house, smoking a cigarette and having an intense phone conversation. In Shoreditch’s back streets, Russell Brand once rode past me on an old red bicycle. When the guy across the road from me yelled out to him, Brand replied “Alright then gov’!” I’ve seen worn out party people returning home from weekend benders in sparkly dresses, fur coats and no shoes; drug dealers astride slick new mountain bikes, waiting on street corners; preachers sharing the very same corners, bible in hand; businessmen on Segways; lovers kissing; a harassed-looking mother on her phone whilst riding a bike, with a cigarette in one hand and her toddler in his seat on the back; and an elderly man who would lean against his garden gate every afternoon, waiting to say hello to the school kids as they walked by. “Go speed racer, go!” he would shout in a thick Jamaican accent before bursting into fits of loud laughter as I rushed past and the two children I was looking after sped ahead on their scooters, giggling along with him.

When I arrived back in New Zealand, I wondered if my neighbourhood walks would provide the same rich scenery London had proffered. We all know this country is as aesthetically pleasing as they come, but what if you live on the city fringe, away from the rich native bush and long stretches of white sand? Are there places to peer into? Libraries and chandeliers to admire? And what about the people? Are they eclectic, odd and friendly? Do the drug dealers ride fancy new mountain bikes?

Thankfully, after 18 months of living in the ‘burbs on the edge of the city (Grey Lynn, to be precise), I can report that the neighbourhood sightings are just as bountiful. Sure, there’s no Lily or Russell, and I haven’t seen any less-than-stealth drug deals take place from the back of a push bike, but the scenery has been just as intriguing. From battered old villas to the crème de la crème of the Auckland housing market, my neighbourhood brims with every walk of life and then some: hounds of all size, shape and manner; scooter-riding men in suits; a person who wears clothing painted with statements about politics, race and war and seems to always be walking, on an endless evangelical mission; students sitting on couches on sunny porches, drinking cheap wine; backyard concerts, just over the fence; entire teams of stroller-pushing mums, pounding the pavement, much-needed coffees in hand; and perhaps best of all – the attendees of the Free Church of Tonga, just a block down the street from my house. Once a week, they gather outside the unassuming church on the corner, in bright colours, patterns and prints, their Sunday best, family in tow, meeting and greeting one another before entering the church and filling the neighbourhood with the sweet, soulful sound of choir song.

But, just as in life, I am well aware not all neighbourhoods are puppies, rainbows and cheery hellos; I’ve walked through my fair share of those too. From council estates in East London, infamous for knife crime, to permanent campsites set up by those sleeping rough in East Acton, I’ve seen enough to know that not every house has a library and a plush leather sofa – and even the ones that do could be harbouring treachery, tragedy and grief we’ll never know. On a wintry evening walk once, a homeless man barked at me like a wild dog, after I woke him up with my heavy footsteps. I took the long way home, feeling terrible that I’d interrupted possibly the first bit of sleep he was getting in days – and because I was going home to a warm house, when he had but a sleeping bag. I’ve seen a man shooting up on the pavement, talking to himself as he flicked the vial and pushed the syringe; a room full of dirty mattresses; and an elderly man sitting alone in his sitting room, looking isolated and lonely in big old armchair, staring into space. Not every home is a happy one and I don’t pretend to know anything about what goes on behind these doors.

Just before writing this paragraph, I decided to take a break and walk to the supermarket while it was still light outside. I picked the furthest away supermarket and took a meandering route to get there, weaving through the quiet roads of my beloved neighbourhood. On the way there, the atmosphere on the streets was harried. A police chopper buzzed in circles overhead – no doubt reporting traffic incidents on the jam packed Auckland motorways below – and it was obvious people were rushing to get home to their families or after work activities. I wasn’t long in the supermarket (we only needed mayonnaise and chocolate after all – although, those are two mandatory items in our household) but when I left and started walking home, the neighbourhood vibe had changed completely. Two tradesmen laughed together in a driveway; another day’s work done. Crickets chirped peacefully and the sun was setting in such a way that, for as far as the eye could see, the clouds were orange, pink and purple. Palm trees, houses and lamp posts were nothing but dark silhouettes against the sun’s last rays. I noticed for the first time, a ramshackle old cottage, it’s porch light glowing warmly, as if to highlight the friendly looking couch taking pride of place on its veranda. To complete the look, a tabby cat was curled up at the garden gate, watching the evening pass by. On the corner, our local café, Crumb, was being watched over by a lone palm tree.

As I approached the home stretch, I noticed the lights on in the Free Church of Tonga, the door wide open. A man with perfect posture and an immaculately tailored, crisp black suit was crossing the footpath and heading inside. He stopped and gestured for me to pass by. “Good evening,” he smiled, then headed into the church, where I could hear the gentle hum of conversation waiting to greet him.

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