Drifting and striding 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.

Monday, November 25, 2019


Back in the day, and it was a long day, I had an idea for a sort of travel book to be titled The Seaside in Winter.  The pitch was that I’d buy a camper van, a Volkswagen no doubt, and in the course of a long winter I’d travel around the coast of mainline Britain.  By day I’d walk and look and feel the wind and rain and icy chill, and in the evening I’d return to the camper, park up, and spend the evening writing up my notes from the day, which would involve reflecting on and savouring the bleak melancholy of deserted seaside spaces.  

I can still see how it might have worked but I never turned it into a proposal, because I also thought it might be recipe for doom.  ‘Promising melancholic young writer found dead by his own hand in VW Camper.’  That might have boosted sales a little, but it wasn’t enough.  Yet that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped enjoying the seaside in winter.

And so at the weekend I went to Dovercourt: north east Essex coast, next to Harwich, and the casual flâneur might be hard pressed to say where one town ended and the other one started.

Dovercourt is where Hi Di Hi was filmed, in Warner’s Holiday Camp, renamed Maplins for the show.  I wasn’t a regular viewer, but I don’t remember many scenes being shot outdoors, though evidently some were.

Dovercourt in late November had many of the things I thought would be components of my long lost book, even though I’m well aware that late November isn’t truly winter. There was the empty seaside shelter – with pro-Jesus and anti-Satan graffiti.

They’ve got two  19th century steampunk(ish) lighthouses (no longer in use):

There was crazy golf – I would have played if the kiosk had been open:

And you know I love signs, not least this one, 

I think, and again I may be wrong, it’s warning you that you could be attacked by a blob of black ectoplasm rising from the beach and attacking you in the trouser region.  In general I think life requires a few risks, but I’m all in favour of being warned against that particular danger.

As well as being proper seaside, with groins, lighthouses and (rather small) stretches of beach, Dovercourt also has some serious suburbia, which of course I’m deeply attracted to.

Note how the two bungalows above are apparently mirror images of each other, but they have a different kind of pvc front door and a different kind of lamp adjacent to it.  That’ll make a house stand out from all the others, not that everybody in suburbia wants their house to stand out.

Anchors are another option:

So is a horse:

Sunday, November 24, 2019


Meanwhile Nicholson probed ever deeper into the Obelisk 

Jungle of Death. 

(photo by Yana Wormwood Smith)

Thursday, November 21, 2019


I went on an exploratory drift with my flâneuse pal, and walking tour guide Jen Pedlar (she guides for Footprints of London).  The expedition was all hers but I liked that, since it meant I was able to tag along without any sense of responsibility.  The walk promised the tunnels of Hanger Lane, various kinds of northwest London suburb and a good old cemetery. You can’t ask for more, can you?

We met at Hanger Lane tube station which is a remarkable thing above ground, like a very low budget flying saucer stranded in the middle of a gyratory system:

And below ground were the tunnels that looked like this.  

You could perhaps argue that these tunnels were actually a very complicated subway system, but one man’s subway is another woman’s tunnel. The various exits were colour-coded with tiles that had seen better days.

The tunnels seemed cheerful enough in the middle of the day - I mean not all THAT cheerful but I think they’d have seemed a lot less benign at one in the morning.

People like to say that London is a collection of villages, but we know it’s mostly a collection of suburbs, some much more appealing than others.  The first we came to on our walk was Haymills which was astounding, and in places astoundingly posh, a mix of architectural styles: mid-century modern, streamlined moderne, seaside moderne, and the just downright very fancy; a kind of super suburb. 

It was laid out around a series of concentric semi circles

much like the council estate in Sheffield where I grew up

but there the resemblance ended.

Then we wandered into the Hanger Hill Garden Estate, 
It’s a conservation area, and is by no means not posh, but compared to the other place it seemed modest, well comparatively modest.

I'm also pretty sure that it has the highest concentration of half-timbered buildings I’ve  ever seen.  

If local evidence is to be believed these houses, and some of them are converted into flats, are very popular with Japanese buyers and renters – by which I mean that an estate agency named Japan Services appears to be doing some very good business in the area.

And of course we saw all the things there that make suburban walking worthwhile.  A stray cat:

a Volkswagen Beetle: 

pampas grass: 

an inscrutable arrow carved into the pavement:

And when we got to the Acton cemetery we went to see the grave of George Lee Temple, the first man to fly a plane upside down (Who knew? – Well, Jen did.)  And while we were there, I was able to indulge my taste for obelisks.

That all adds up to a pretty good day’s drift.  

And you know, all the time I was walking through the Hanger Hill Garden Estate, I kept thinking about Osbert Lancaster’s illustration of Stockbroker Tudor.

To be fair to Lancaster and indeed to the Hanger Hill Garden Estate, the illustration doesn’t show a half-timbered house, it shows a fully timbered house.  The thatched garage is especially fine.

Friday, November 15, 2019


I was digging around in the archive looking for something else and I found this in the craw of my hard drive.  First there was a quotation:
‘He was walking in America, always heading west, dodging cars, walking with ghosts and madmen, with saints and scream queens and with those who refused to ride the bus:  Thoreau and Kerouac.  Sometimes it was a lonely walk.’

I have no idea where I got this or who it’s a quotation from – Don De Lillo? Steve Erickson? - and searching online revealed nothing.  And suggestions?  I know I didn’t write it.

On the other hand I did write this, presumably as the draft of something I intended to use in the blog and forgot about till now:
I was walking in downtown Los Angeles, a place where a lot of others walk too.  It was a busy weekday lunchtime.  The streets were full of people.  There was a lot to look at, a lot of distractions, and that was why I wasn’t paying much attention to the youngish, hippie-ish man who was standing not very far away from me as we both waited for the light to change so we could cross the street.  
He was a panhandler however, and apparently he’d been trying and failing to get my attention for a while and he thought I was deliberately ignoring him, which was unfair, since I hadn’t been sufficiently aware of him to deliberately ignore him.  And now he said loudly, pointedly, in a sneering tone that did finally get my attention, “Hey, who do you think you are?  Jack Kerouac?” 
I have no idea what he meant by that.  My physical resemblance to Mr K is non-existant and in any case Kerouac was surely not the kind of man who went around ignoring panhandlers or bums of any kind.  He usually embraced them. Still, as sneering insults go, this wasn’t the worst.  Kerouac remains a sort of hero mine.  I still didn’t respond to the panhandler, but then the light changed and I walked across the street with a big smile on my face. That probably only made things worse for the guy.

Saturday, November 9, 2019


Have we discussed how people walk in art galleries?  Maybe we have.  But we all know that nobody walks in art galleries the way they do in ‘real life.’ In galleries the walking is ponderous, thoughtful, heavy, a way of showing that you’re taking the art seriously. And of course it’s not real walking, you walk for a bit then you stand for a bit and then you kind of shuffle from one exhibit to the next, then you walk into the next room in the gallery, and so on.  We also know that an hour walking round an art gallery is probably the equivalent of a three hour walk in the street.

No great revelations in all this, but I just found a cosmically perfect description of the phenomenon in PG Wodehouse’s – ‘The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy’ written, would you believe, in 1925.  Seems like it could have been written this morning.  The narrator, naturally, is Bertie Wooster:

‘Well, you know, I have never been much of a lad for exhibitions ..’ That wonderfully inappropriate and maybe self-referential use of the word ‘lad’ gets my chuckle muscles going, and it continues, ‘The citizenry in the mass always rather puts me off, and after I have been shuffling along with the multitude for a quarter of an hour or so I feel as if I were walking on hot bricks.’

Personally I can probably do 45 minutes rather than 15, but otherwise, this describes my exhibition walking experience perfectly.