Walking Downtown

The past two Sundays I’ve had writer-group meetings downtown in the early afternoon, and on both days I’ve chosen to walk. It’s about 4.5 km (2-3/4 miles) by the most direct route; it takes me about an hour, and it’s a walk I’m growing to love again: we used to do it all the time, back in our university days, but those were thirty-five years ago.

The first part of the walk takes me through the university campus, on its bricked walkways, walking between buildings that range in age and architectural style from the limestone houses of the 1870s to the concrete, wood and glass of the twenty-first century. Only a few students are out and about so the wide walkways aren’t crowded, unlike Monday to Friday. I cross College Avenue and follow a minor path behind MacDonald Hall, in all its red-brick and terra-cotta glory, to University Avenue – and then down a footpath that joins two dead-end streets that more-or-less parallel the main road to downtown. The footpath follows the road allowance, it’s unmarked but partially stabilized with pavers, and I have never known if it’s an official city path or not, but I’ve been walking it for over thirty years and there are no signs to tell me not to.

This brings me out onto Gordon Street, the main road, a steep-ish downhill and busy, but the sidewalk is wide and I only have to use it for 600 m or so. At the bridge over the Speed River I stop to look at the waterfowl: Canada Geese and mallards at the confluence with the Eramosa, and a few ring-billed gulls. Just beyond the bridge is the Boathouse, home to ice-cream and canoe rentals in the summer months, afternoon tea well into December, and the point at which I turn and walk along the gravel driveway to the covered footbridge over the river.

I remember the bridge being built: in 1992, the Timber Framers Guild held a conference in Guelph, and 400 volunteers built this bridge to an 1880’s design, raising it by hand. It was an impressive project, and an important one, because it meant the river trails on either side of the Speed were now continuous. We lived for a decade or so at the far east end of the river trail, and I would walk home from work at the university down Gordon Street and across the bridge, along the trail and home. And vice versa, in the morning.

But now I cross the bridge and turn left, away from the river and towards downtown. I walk up past the Armoury and into downtown proper, find the cafe where the meeting is, buy a coffee and start talking.

Two hours later and it’s time to come home, after a short detour to buy a loaf of bread from one of the downtown bakeries. I have two choices: I can re-trace my steps from earlier, or, at the covered bridge, I can turn east and walk along the river trail to Victoria Road, watching the river for bird life, greeting the dogs out for walks, and avoiding tiny children learning to walk or ride bikes along this safe trail. At Victoria, I turn south, up the hill, walking here on a wide road shoulder for a few hundred meters until a trail turns west into the University’s Arboretum. From here I can follow the trails and gravel roads back to the University gates on Stone Road, and cross the road to home. It’s longer: it takes me about ninety minutes to walk that way, but it’s a lovely walk.

Last Sunday I came home through the longer way; today I chose to retrace my steps. Another day I may go downtown by the long route and come back up Gordon Street hill. There is always something to see: I can stop to look at architectural detail on campus, or watch a soccer practice; on the walk down Gordon the spires of the Basilica dominate the skyline. The downtown itself I never tire of. And if I choose the river-and-arboretum walk, I’m guaranteed some birds, even if it’s just a flock of friendly chickadees. Yes, it takes me two hours at a minimum. But I plan to walk for at least two hours every day, and if some days that walk is in the city rather than the fields and woods of the Arboretum and the river, well, it fills a different need. And not just because I can stop at the Boathouse for a pastry!

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