Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


I’ve been reading and thinking about rooftopping; a highly specialized form of walking, and an essential part of a certain kind of urban exploration.  Like all great ideas it’s essentially very simple, you get up to a high place, usually by some quasi-illegal method, you find some thin girder or ledge or parapet - and then walk along it.  Photography seems always to be involved whether skilled or not: somebody generally takes somebody’s picture up there or maybe somebody takes a selfie.  At their best, the results are equal parts awe-inspiring and terrifying.

It’s a worldwide trend and it can’t be all that recherch√© given how many references there are to it online.  Still, I’m amazed that there are people who can do this stuff, and just looking at the photographs is enough to give me an attack of vertigo.  Below is a picture Tom Ryaboi, the best rooftopping photographer I’ve seen:

I think the guy in the picture is Vitali Raskalov, and I think the picture is taken in Hong Kong, though I stand to be corrected on both counts. Tom Ryaboi’s flickr page is here:  

Certainly some people die while rooftopping, but when you consider how inherently lethal it seems, the numbers appear surprisingly low. Perhaps it’s a self-limiting group.  If you feel safe walking on rooftops you’re probably going to be safe doing it, if you don’t feel safe walking on rooftops you’re probably not going go up there.  I certainly know where I stand – firmly on the ground whenever possible.  I’m definitely not a rooftopper.

And yet, and yet …  Thinking about this has reminded me of an incident from my generally all too well-spent youth.  I was a student at Caius College, Cambridge, and a group of us had been to the late-night bar.  Drink had definitely been taken but not so much as to lose all reason.  We went back to the room belonging to a Scottish lad named Tony Kidd.  His room was on the top floor, actually in the eaves, of a building on Trinity Street; the third floor if you’re in English, the fourth floor if you’re American. It's the building in the picture below with the street sign on it.

And as you can see, there were a couple of windows that opened out onto the roof, and there was a parapet running along the front of the building.  It was summer, the windows were open and I suddenly got the urge to climb out of one of them.  Once on the roof I began walking back and forth from one end of the parapet to the other.  I wasn’t showing off. I didn’t do any fancy antics like balancing on one leg or dancing around.  It was just something I felt I had to do at the time.  I did a few lengths (nobody took a picture) and then I went back inside again.  I think I may have had one more drink and then went home quietly.

         At the time it didn’t seem I’d done anything very extreme or foolish, and by rooftopping standards I very definitely hadn’t, but by my own standards I’d done something scarily out of character. When I thought about it the next morning, the full surprise and horror hit me. Even as I write about it now I can feel the cold sweat gathering and the tide of vertigo washing in.  It’s not so much a case of “What was I thinking that night?” rather a case of “Who the hell was I that night?”

         I’ve remained pretty much myself ever since, not  completely avoiding high places, but only going to them when I was absolutely able to feel safe there.  And to be fair I felt perfectly safe on the parapet in Cambridge while I was up there.   
            Here’s a picture I took from the roof, or rather where the roof once was, of the Old Hardwick Hall, in Derbyshire. 

The view was great, both of the landscape and of the ruined structure of the building.  I was there on the regular tourist visit, there was a firm platform under my feet and there was a rail to hold onto, but the fact is, I still felt a bit wobbly.

Of course some rooftops are far more walkable than other.  One of my pedestrian quirks is that I like to walk in parking lots.  They’re places not made for walkers, where walkers are not wanted or considered, although of course sooner or later everybody has to walk to their car.

         And the other day I parked up on the top of a parking lot here in Hollywood  - one of only three cars there – (wide open spaces – we got ‘em) and I walked around, looked down, took a few pictures.  A female security guard appeared at the other end of the roof, and I thought she was coming across to ask me what I was up to, but it was a hot day, and I was a long way off, and she apparently couldn’t be bothered to walk all the way over to me.  You can just about see her in the picture below.

         This, of course, is not true rooftopping, though I was certainly on a roof, and when I looked down at the building next door there was another guy walking on a rooftop: a working man going about his business (below), whatever that business was.  I guess rooftopping, true or otherwise, comes in many forms.

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