THE PERFECT LONDON WALK. By Roger Ebert and Daniel Curley. Andrews McMeel.
LONDON -- "When I'm in London," Roger Ebert once said, "I hardly ever go to the movies."
Ebert died on April 4, at age 70. Much has been written about his elegant prose, his film industry clout, his hallowed public standing and, in the end, his fortitude in the face of cancer. But much less is known about another essential Ebertism: his anglophilia. Ebert -- the lifelong Chicago newspaperman -- loved Britain. Each year he visited at least once, but often many times. He dreamed of moving to London. In his 2011 memoir "Life Itself," he wrote, "I felt a freedom in London I've never felt anywhere."
But few Ebert devotees know that in 1986, Ebert penned a love note to the Old Smoke in the form of an all-but-forgotten little book called "The Perfect London Walk." Co-written with Daniel Curley, who had been Ebert's mentor at the University of Illinois, the slim volume is a gushing, gluttonous and Dickens-filled homage to Ebert's favorite town.
"For twenty years, my favorite pastime has been to walk around London," Ebert wrote in 1986. "However, there is one walk that is more than just familiar. It is a ritual. It is one I have taken every time I have visited London. I have walked it in snow and sleet, in rain and cold, in burning hot drought, and, most often, on perfect spring or autumn days. I have walked it fifty times with a hundred friends, and I am not half through with it yet."
This is why, on a recent Tuesday morning, I found myself cursing Roger Ebert from the heart of Hampstead Heath, an expansive public park in north London. I had followed Ebert's 30-year-old instructions to the T. At the summit of Parliament Hill -- where, legend has it, Guy Fawkes planned to observe the destruction of the Parliament buildings by anti-government plotters in 1605 -- I had turned my back squarely to cityscape, walked downhill "at about eleven o'clock," continued "in a generally northwest direction," crossed a meadow, and found "a tree with a curious knob on its trunk" and "a little ditch beside it."
Ebert had advised me to "hop across" the ditch. I could have walked around it, but I'd wanted to play by his rules. This being England, however, it was raining. And I slipped mid-hop, narrowly saving my copy of the book from muddy ruin.
"The Perfect London Walk" begins with "a stroll through the leafy streets of Hampstead" and ends with a plunge "into the Gothic gloom of Highgate Cemetery." In between, walkers following Ebert's steps visit museums and old manor houses. We stand outside a cafe that was formerly a pizza parlor that was formerly a bookstore where George Orwell worked and wrote. We gingerly inch down Swain's Lane, the narrow passage leading to Waterlow Park where, in 1626, "on a cold winter day while riding in his carriage, Sir Frances Bacon conceived the notion that refrigeration might retard spoilage."
Walkers are not exactly sent off the beaten path. But even if the stops are familiar, the book is delicious in its detail. Ebert and Curley advise readers on appropriate walking attire and list bus routes at length. They suggest particular benches to rest on and tall trees to admire.
For all this, "The Perfect London Walk" is a terribly unusual book, one without any aspiration to timelessness. Or, perhaps, its authors trusted that London would remain timeless enough to render their book indefinitely useful.
Just as the light rain was morphing into a proper shower, I found my way to the other side of the Heath, and up the road to the Spaniards Inn, where Ebert had sent me for lunch. Dick Turpin, the celebrated highwayman, used to frequent the Inn -- perhaps, Ebert mused, "sizing up the travelers as they maneuvered past and deciding which ones were worth robbing." Charles Dickens was also fond of the place. It was in Inn's garden that Mrs. Bardell of "The Pickwick Papers" was arrested for nonpayment of legal costs in her lawsuit against Mr. Pickwick.
Ebert's attachment to the Inn, however, was more epicurean. "It was there I first tasted a banger," he later wrote. Today, instead of "bangers and mash," the Inn serves "free-range Gloucester Old Spot sausages" with "cider gravy."
A ritual, a pilgrimage, a meditation
In 1966, Ebert, finishing up a year abroad at the University of Cape Town, passed through London on his way home to Illinois. His professor Daniel Curley was also in London, on sabbatical, and the two met up. Curley led Ebert on a stroll through Hampstead Heath. "The Perfect Walk" was born.
In the end, the Perfect Walk is something much more than a stroll. In his memoir, Ebert reflected on his habit of taking the same walks over and over. "These rituals are important to me," he wrote. "I have many places where I sit and think, 'I have been here before, I am here now, and I will be here again.' "
Throughout Ebert's writing, the act of walking without purpose acquires a certain religiosity. In this vein, the Perfect London Walk functions like a pilgrimage, a trip to be repeated over and over, step by step. And always at a pace that befits reflection: "I was not a fast walker," Ebert said, "but I was steady. Walk too fast and you miss the show. I doodled. Dawdled. Moseyed. Sat down and thought. Gazed into space." To take Ebert's walk just once is not to experience it in full. Take it enough times that you lose yourself in it, even while walking the path. If you can't make it to London, find your own perfect walk in the perfect place you love the most.