Category Archives: walking philosophy

What does it really mean – to go walking with friends?

On the gorgeous Saturday of June 10th, I set out to walk the Chess Valley Way with three of my friends (N, E & L). It turned out to be one of the best days in months.

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However, it was not the gorgeousness of the Chilterns AONB nor the perfect walking weather nor even the shallow chalk rivers that allowed us to playfully wade through them that made that day into an acutely special one. After all, technically speaking, the entire last month has not been lacking in the special – I finally obtained my PhD (yup, I’m Doctor Marion now :)) and signed my first book contract (oooh yeaaah!). But none of those specific moments can now be compared with June 10th. Why?

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For starters, had I walked the Chess Valley Way alone, it would have still been a gorgeous day out. Also, had I taken the same friends into a pub – we would have most definitely had a good day out as well. But I would not be writing about this at the moment. So now I’ve been wondering for nearly three weeks… What renders walking with friends so special that it makes your heart sing with joy even 1.5 fortnights later?

 

Where does the walking joy come from?

There is enough research out there (without me having to repeat it) about the benefits of walking in nature. It lifts your mood, boosts creativity – and hence, helps to think outside any box and see new connections -, pimps your immune system, and generally makes you into a better person (fine, fine, meta tests are yet to prove this last one, but I don’t think I’m too far off the mark). But this is not all.

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People who undertake longer treks and walks seldom do it out of politeness. This means that all the people you meet during your walks are enjoying what they’re doing. Fully. I think this feel gets mirrored back into your micromuscles and neural networks. Also, lots of people come with dogs – so, even better. You can pet the dogs together with your friends. But even this does not fully explain the essence of that special joy to me. So, to properly figure it out for myself, I’m turning to my oldest friends: lists.

What does it really mean to go walking with friends?

  • It is a perfect combination of alone and together. Walking with friends allows you to fall silent for long periods of time with the knowledge of the bubbling word being right there, at your fingertips. It is the feeling of doing your own things in your room while overhearing all your friends having a party in the kitchen. My semi-silent version of a secret heaven.
  • It is old topics. It is new topics. The change of scenery acts as a catalyst for new ideas and for new connections. Suddenly, you are asking questions about your friend’s thoughts and feelings on topics you had not even worded to yourself yet. This is the time that showers you with ideas for new stories, games, services – you name it!
  • You let new people into your life. Better than a dinner at home or a pub visit – walks with good acquintances have a good chance of turning them into friends later.
  • The shared process of witnessing the new. This experience is richer than a bag of gulab jamuns dipped into clotted cream! This how life itself should unravel, being on the road with the people you love, not fully caring about reaching the destination or getting lost.
  • It pushes you into the present.
  • It feels like a micoradventure.
  • And you see your friends being happy.

 

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When England gets DRY –> Epping Forest (Chingford, 09.04.2017).

Life is out there,  and I celebrate it, quietly

The older I get, the more I like spring. With every year. It was the only season I never noticed in my 20s. In my 30s, springs come with a sense of relief.

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Entering the Epping Forest in Chingford.

On Sunday, 9th of April, me and my lover set our course to Epping Forest (of the Chingford area). We had been there once before and we both remembered it for its luscious magical properties. READ: tense green foliage with foxes jumping onto forest glades and butterflies circling the air. The last and only time we visited this area, we walked out of it mesmerised and refreshed.

For the record, I don’t know Epping Forest very well. So far, I’ve been to:

  • Epping Forest in Chingford
  • Epping Forest in Epping
  • Epping Forest near Whipps Cross
  • Epping Forest in Aldersbrook (across the Wanstead Flats in E7)

Of these forest areas, the Chingford one was the fairy tale one, the Epping one the muddy one, the Whipps Cross one the wormhole one (you can end up where you started while thinking you have just reached the other shore of the lake) and the Aldersbrook one the cultural looking one.

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Silent walking made impossible by all the leaves on the forest floor.

Choking on expectations

But this time, Epping Forest was different. That’s because the spring is uncommon. How? It has not rained for weeks. For WEEKS. In England. In Spring. In London. On top of that, on that particular Sunday, I was not walking with my mind really at peace, so my steps were not always in the present but also falling into past memories and expectations of the forest. I think it was the only time I have expected the forest to be something. To show me something. To give me something. (How funny and stupid is that?)

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Life pressing through forest shadows.

But forests teach you good lessons. When you go looking for foliage magic, you will end up inside the landscape of Arizona. When you go looking for foxes, you’ll barely spot a squirrel. When you want to find moist moss, you end up staring at cracks in the dead bark. What is this, spring of death?!

Relaxing into it

There was nothing left to do than to give into the half-lifeless state of it. And just like any good story or a well-built moral structure would suggest – as soon as we accepted the New Arizona, bits of life started revealing itself to us. We even found grass to sit on.

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There is no moral to this sotry. Apart from not to expect things, from people or from nature.

Why you don’t always need the sun to be happy

March 2017: A Different Time in Scotland

I travelled back to Scotland in the middle of March. The aim was to gather more technical winter mountaineering skills with the help of Rob Johnson Expedition Guide. Luckily, when I contacted him near the end of 2016, the group had just one space left. I was set to go!

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What I absolutely had not planned on, was developing either a monster migraine or an uncanny sinus infection a couple of weeks before the start of the winter skills & mountaineering course. In my case, getting the train up to Fort William from London could have easily been taken for a road trip to Damascus, only with a difference that instead of a ruggedly holy calling I was starting to have doubts whether I could climb at all.

About that pain

There will be no cliffhanger in the middle of this story. Sorry! 🙂 All went well, albeit laboriously. The prescription drugs I was taking at the time lowered my walking heartbeat to 50 bpm. Even a single set of stairs became an accomplishment of sorts, not to mention a mountain. True story! The ascent of Stob Ban ended up the hardest walking experience of my life. I actually had to rest my head on my axe after every ten meters.

But when there’s a will (and the love for the mountains, and a truly patient mountain guide and one other patient climber), there’s always a way. I did end up:

  • climbing/scrambling the quartzite North Buttress of Stob Ban in the Grey Corries (a borderline route between grade II and III, if my memory is not jig dancing);
  • climbing my first Grade I winter gully in the Cairngorms (Jacob’s Ladder). A very gracious gully for learning, I have to say.
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The last meters of Jacob’s Ladder. (Photo either by Rob or Rachel.)

I also spent one of my climbing days in bed with vertigo, holding on to my mattress and ignoring the fiercely orange flashes the smoke alarm in my room was producing. I mean, you go out with many things, but you don’t go climbing with a vertigo.

So, this time it was a a slightly mixed bunch of feelings. And definitely the only time in my life I have felt less than flawlessly happy in the mountains. But still, I aaaaalmost got there, of course.

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After the last climbing day, feeling properly vague in the head but so devastatingly happy I spent these days in Scotland.

This year, man!

The beginning of 2017 has not been particularly lucky. Having been almost professionally lucky (and healthy) so far, it has been tremendously hard for me to accept the physical daily pain. I’m definitely better equipped to deal with years of high level mental strain (positive and the other shade) than even a week of physical discomfort. Not kidding.

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Fort William at the end of winter 2017.

When I can’t move, all my versions of the future lose their grounding and their zest. It’s as if someone has changed my light switch for a capriciously functioning dimmer. There are bursts of normality, but mostly I inhabit a space filled with thick, gooey air. In here, I need to refocus my eyes and my itinerary with every step I take.

I have no idea how people with chronical pain deal with it. Where do you find your projections of peace? Can everything be trainable?

Why you don’t always need the sun to be happy?

So, where on Earth is the only place to find peace when you are officially burnt out, over worked, over stressed and physically crumbling? In the Scottish Highlands, of course.

In here, you do not need the sun to be happy:

  • The light and warmth often hide some of the smells eminating from the soil. Although warmth gives free reigh to blossoms and such, it also takes the soil away from underneath your feet. You kind of stop noticing it. But sometimes you need to feel the ground the most.
  • The sun is always about the present. The mirky weather fixes your thoughts on possibilities instead.
  • The grey weather gives you time to think. The sun is an action call. (In other words, the wolf-coloured weather makes for a great travel planner.)
  • You notice more shades in colours in the hands of a dubious climate.
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View from the top of Jacob’s Ladder, Cairngorms.
  • As long as a snowstorm or a gale is not visiting the same place as you, you can still go forwards with your most loved activities.
  • The dramatic (and the grand) scenes mostly welcome the traveller in the non-sunny landscapes.
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On top of Jacob’s Ladder. Last day of climbing, Cairngorms. (Photo by Rachel.)
  • The mirkiness makes you feel as being part of a story. You feel yourself and your itinerary in a specifically intense manner when hitting the road in proper dreary weather.
  • The sunlessness makes you notice more allurement around you. It does.
  • A tough weather brings strangers together.
  • The gloom makes you move. The sun habitually traps you into the moment. (By no means a wicked trap, though!)
  • The overcast weather works wonders for the imagination.
  • A weather with an epic temper makes you feel like being on a journey the legends are made of.
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The Mamores Ridge.

And what else forms the core of a human heart than all of the above?!

Can bleakness be good for the soul? (A few words about that Norfolk visit…)

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So. I visited Norfolk for the first time this February. Norfolk has a skull-shaped coastline but I did not discover it all on my feet. We wandered around Hunstanton and the Holme Sande Dunes instead. And the biggest thing that happened to me in February is straightly related to that visit.

Namely, I came up with a new theory about human nature which answers the most spike-y and acute questions I’ve had about what makes us all so different. (Well, technically, what makes us all the same, but using different means to reach that sameness.)(Uhuh.)

Surely?!

Imagine you get an unplanned job project that suddenly leaves you with you a nice amount of extra money. What’s your first reaction?

I, being a slow thinker, spent the most of 2015 and 2016 pondering over the following question: is it possible that not all of us feel the same thing in that situation?


The answer: it is not only possible, but it also is the actual case. The actual life. With a perfect shock I discovered that not everyone is thinking about new routes, roads, mountains and destinations all the time. And that explains it. The difference of us all.

Yes, I have a job that’s my love and my hobby, and which I would also do it for free (for any clients reading this, only kidding). Yes, I’m reaching an end of a long academic road this year which just might leave me with a PhD degree. And yes, there is life, and a house renovation that is nearing its finish this year as well. But surely, SURELY, all one really thinks about is what unknown roads there are, just hours from their doorstep?!

 

New theory for human nature

Based on long hours of interviewing my friends, and on accounts heard from others, I am now convinced that humans fall into two large (and obviously not always straightforward) categories:

– people who get properly grounded, energised and refocused by visiting places they know well or where they have been before (visiting the same fells feels like visiting an old friend, a friend once said);

– people who get their soul back and reach their metaphorical home by going to places that are completely new.

 

How the theory really explains it all?

Here’s why and where it can be applied. It shreds light on:

  • why some people are not upset when an idea of a trip gets forgotten because no one really takes the lead in organising it;
  • why people have savings accounts that are actually savings accounts, and not cover-names for Travel Accounts;
  • why some people follow maps in new cities and others could not think of anything worse;
  • how certain work and living choices get made;
  • why it is not the most shared dream of all people throughout all times –> to sit around a map or a globe, dreaming of places you can’t yet pronounce;
  • why some of us have a need to return to certain places that give us back the sense of self (a ritual of sorts, technically);
  • why some people always choose the new dish from the menu or never cook the same dish twice, and why some do.

 

A ritual for relocating the self

Usually, humans need rituals to create a new space either physically or mentally. This is why we choose the same roads to walk on when feeling on the edge, and why we re-read the same books or visit theat same holiday spot. This is partially why meditation works, and why regular workouts keep us sane (apart from the funky hormones, of course). It is curiosity that’s been given a form. But there’s another way to handle curiosity.

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The ship skeleton on the Hunstanton Beach. Norfolk 2017.

Gaining security and strength from the new

The other way is the following: you are one of those people who feel most secure and yourself-like in places where you have never been. This makes a rucksack full of sense. In a new place, your idea of the self has no familiar triggers to bring on the feel of a certain image, so you can feel borderless and – in the lack of a better description – the most authentic version of yourself.

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River Great Ouse of King’s Lynn.

You probably belong to this category, if:

  • you’re willing to sit on a bus for 7 hours just to see a new place for one evening;
  • you feel like sleeping in the palm of your favourite god when sleeping in a new place (a bunkbed, an airport, a hotel, someone’s sofa, etc.);
  • you prefer hiking new trails to returning to a set of sweetly favourite ones:
  • your mind rests like crazy when having boarded a local bus or a train in a country you have never been in;
  • the unfamiliar makes you love and respect life and strangers more;
  • an amount of fear in the day renders the peace of your evening more serene;
  • it’s bliss to sit on trains for 12 hours withour internet or books;
  • you need the knowledge that you’ll never run out of streets to walk on. You need it for your daily sanity;
  • horizonless cities make you feel home;
  • mountaineous terrains make you feel home (ok, now I’m just talking about me, but mountains are some of the last areas of true wilderness left);
  • not having your things around you makes you feel creative again.

And this is why bleakness is good for the soul.

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Norfolk. February. Between Holme Sand Dunes and Old Hunstanton.

 

 

 

Simple techniques for hunting for unstructured experiences in spaces you already know: London vs Tallinn

I shall now continue with listing all possible ways for gaining unstructured experiences of old and new spaces.

The following two ways are slightly inspired by dreams, and include a bit of luck. They are both, however, feasible ways for going on microadventures that have the ability to give you a completely new experience of a space you already know.

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London Wanstead Flats. October 2016.

1. Wait for the fog

Lesson learned from the fogs that took hold of East London’s Wanstead Flats in October and December 2016.

A proper fog can change your surroundings within 3 minutes. (Yes, there is a post on London fog already but it deals with different nuances.) Apart from being the most existential of all natural phenomena, the fog can also make things look crazily similar to something from one’s childhood. And this skill is a mystery to me. Surely, my childhood was not spent in some never-talked-about Soviet fog. #alternativefacts

Fair point, though. In my case, the childhood reference is definitely  linked to “Hedgehog in the Fog”. It is a legendary cartoon by Yuriy Norshteyn (1975) that gets deeper with every time you watch it. Give it a try. But not when already feeling existential.

When wandering around in the fog, creatures from the cartoon can actually come to life. True story! (Yes, fine, someone placed a hedgehog doll there just for me. Yes, fine, someone who waited for the fog to arrive for a year. <3) But even if you won’t deliberately go after exorcising cartoon characters to life, the fog will introduce another world into your own.

Even if you think it strange to head out (well, you can’t really see much), then even just a short walk can quite accidentally lead you to a moment or into a scene where other type of powers seem to govern the place. And that is actually pretty amazing. And valuable.

2. Visit the wildest place of your childhood

Lesson learned from visiting the Pääsküla bog of Tallinn in December 2016.

If you happened to grow up in a bog or next to a forest, this will be easy. But if you had a place where your parents took you twice a year but which stands out the most from your early years, it is also worth the effort to visit that.

Preferrably, choose a place you have not visited for 5, 10, or 15 years. Go when you have time. Go alone.

Notice how the reality and the memory start mixing. There’s also a high chance that you have dreamt about that place so much throughout your grown-up life. At least this is what I felt when I visited my childhood kingdom – the Pääsküla bog (located in the wetlands nature reserve in the capital of Estonia). (And no, there was no nature reserve there when I was growing up.)

Walking on the streets felt like crossing the border into a dream. But entering a forest from a path which I had not used for 15 (!) years turned the entire space into a living dream. I found an apple tree that I had forgotten. It was still holding on to its winter apples, transforming them all into natural Christmas decorations.

Walking further, I noticed more paths I had not used for more than a decade. But I left them alone for now. It feels magical just to know that they are there, waiting for a visit in the future.

Apparently, that forest is more deeply engrained into my mind than I ever knew. While walking (well, making my way through) thin larches and winter bushes, I suddenly stopped dead by feeling an presence of emptiness. “There used to be a tree here”, said the quick thought entering my head. Soon, I was already scooping half-frozen leaves off the ground to test my sanity. I passed the test. The tree stump was indeed there. Who knew that forests engrained their spatial maps so softly into our memories.

But there was also a moment of disbelief. What surprised me was the visible lack of new paths and the shrunken number of the existing ones. Also, it was a sunny weekend day and barely a child could be seen. I had not ventured far at all, so maybe the children were hidden deeper in the forest. But they weren’t also around houses. Everything was empty. All these areas used to be THE place of life and adventure for 20 years of my life. A place of sickeningly high tree houses, bog rafts, map drawing, bridge counting, island living and for all types of hunting and orienteering games. But now? (Ok, I sound old, right?)

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My favourite the place for playing “home” in the early 1990s. Tallinn 2016.

Walking on the borders of semi-realities always assures me of one thing: every type of travel is possible. You see tree roots that have found their way out of the ground more briskly, yet they are the same ones you used to play under when far away from your current height. Some of the paths feel almost too strange, some you recognise but are bitter-sweetly intimidated of. Your forest has become a stranger. Not an inhospitable one, but a stranger nonetheless. And yet. And yet, and yet. You feel like it would welcome you back.

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The forest of the bygone. Tallinn, Estonia 2016.

And then you notice something else, and all the worlds become alive within each other. The sharp creek banks remind you of the careful measuring it took to jump over them, of the frog spawning locations you kept secret from the others, of the greyish Elven thickets you found your way through, of the creek suddenly becoming a sandy-bedded one, and  of the sedge tufts that you used for stepping stones when getting to the other side of the bog. Estonians are actually so fond of their sedge tufts that there’s even a famous children’s book dedicated to them. A children’s book and a theme park.

This is the thing with revisiting your childhood kingdoms. It opens up a way to change your understanding of time. Everything feels intensily possible. Once again. Although, even these words do the experience no justice.

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The road I have walked the most in my life, so far. Pääsküla bog. Tallinn 2016.

Watching nostalgia being born in Istanbul in May

I returned to Istanbul at the very end of spring. And with that, Istanbul became a second city that I ever revisitied as a chosen destination. (London was the first one.) Because usually, it is still about new and new and new and new and new and new places. Still.

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The walks from the first Istanbul trip are described in one of my favourite posts on Institute of Wander so far. (* pet pet pet *)

And this time it was all different.

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Last September I travelled there with my lover, so Istanbul became a whirl of sweetness (from baklavas and otherwhere), of wandering steps, crazy shop keepers and blindly discovered alleyways. But this happens to places where we end up together – wormholes open into storybook illustrations of giant icecubes or dancing monkeys in the night. (Long stories, all of the private enough.)

This time, however, I still walked Istanbul with my lover but also with two of our friends. Istanbul being Istanbul, everything still became dressed in baklava honey.

But something new also took place.

As I’ve never felt full nostalgia in my life (blame it on the boogie, the youth-time weed pipes or an insensitively structured memory), I wasn’t quite sure what was happening when the first signs started popping up. There was also no single deail that would have unleashed a string of yearning. Somehow, it was all around me.

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I have always thought of nostalgia as of something somewhat linear. It is something you feel when you go back in time through your chosen means: visiting an old school, looking at photos, entering your room in your parents’ house after having moved out, etc. Always back, always in the back of the head of Time. But! In Istanbul, nostalgia is alive at the same time with you. It does not point backwards but spreads iself out in a parallel fashion.

In here, nostalgia is not only personal.

One of the strangely beautiful things that starts happening in Istanbul is that you start seeing your childhood years as something less unique; of them having been spent inside less of an idiosyncratic structure – in a place that was somehow connected or still is connected to other places and cities of this world. Maybe this is where Istanbul’s magic comes from? (Yes, I’m still after its source.) It is a city that manages to hold all other cities and all other times inside it.

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Fun Fact: we actually did try to keepa list of all places Istanbul reminded us of, and ended up with nearly 20 items listed, from Krakow at the end of the 1970s and Vilnius in the 1980s to the side streets of Montmartre and of Marrakech right now. And none of us has even lived out of the current centuries.

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And I think there’s one more way for nostalgia to get born. It comes to life from the feeling of not having to prove yourself as a place, of embracing the past in full totality, of selling old photographs of the city to the locals and to the fresh-eyed wanderers instead of the newest design bric-a-brac. (Although, yes, yes, all that totally exists.) But what place offers authentic pieces of itself away to strangers so freely? You can only do that when you have near-endless amounts of yourself to give, and when by doing that, you feel like not giving away your past but sharing your very present. This is how nostalgia can be born and alive right in the same moment with you.

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And since Istanbul seems to stand above and around time, I now know that my next trip there will be a (definitely baklava-fuelled) hunt for the future. Because – where else?

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The embodied philosophy of London fog

It is getting close to the end of 2015. Since all types of endings are either bigger or smaller borderline rites, they need some sort of celebration. If not celebrating, than just being noted. Noted and noticed.

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The two first days of November marked a new beginning for the last stretch of the year. Those were the days when London became covered, smothered and embraced by its famous fog. As a rather young Londoner, I’ve seen my share of fogs in here, but never anything like that. Never a carpet of fog that would last for 48 hours.

 

I spent most of the waking time within those 48 hours walking the Wanstead Flats and part of the Epping Forest. Sometimes alone, sometimes with my lover, sometimes with a bigger group of people.

During those hours, each meter of the Flats was turned into a playground I had never encountered before. I knew I was not there on my own, yet every time when the fog revealed yet another person, the glimpse of a human figure arrived as a soothing realization of not being alone. In that sense, fog is like philosophy. It reveals that you are not alone in the space you are inhabiting. Not often does philosophy take physical shape in such a grand manner.

Of course, everything becomes ridiculously romantic in this type of ephemeral, temporary landscape. From photographing strangers exiting a white wall to trying to decipher where the sitting heron ends and the tree branch starts. And then trying to decipher whether it was a heron at all and what became of the strange man squatting on the lake shore.

Fog Philosophy would make for a gorgeous essay collection subject. The collection would touch on topics of accidental holiness and patches of ground created for dancing and dancing only. It would speak of the ritual joining of the visible and invisible space, of depth, about the landscapes of air and of walking into possibilities. In this type of world, mythologies would become the everyday.

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Wanstead Flats, London. November 2015.