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, April 30, 2012


And speaking of walking and swimming pools, I was in San Francisco a couple of weekends back, and decided to go walking in a place I knew next to nothing about.  I headed off to Point Lobos, not so far from Golden Gate Park, the ruins of the Sutro Baths.  I was there on a bright, warm, sunny April morning and the ruins were surprisingly well-populated with walkers and amblers and the occasional scrambler.

The Sutro Baths, I know now though I didn’t know them, were a vast indoor bathing complex opened in 1896, by Adolph Sutro, a successful businessman and one time San Francisco mayor.  They were located between a cliff edge and the Pacific Ocean, a great turn of the century scheme, all glass and wrought iron, seven pools, six of them filled by the incoming tide, the seventh containing fresh water.  

Images from the time make it look like a cross between a football stadium, an opera house and the Crystal Palace, and evidently many visitors back in the day were there to watch rather than swim: there was seating for 8,000, and photographs show the seats absolutely packed. There was also a skating rink and a museum containing Mr. Sutro’s collection of curiosities.

Very little of this could be deduced on the ground from looking at the present day ruins, and after looking at photographs and even blueprints from the baths’ glory days, I’m still not exactly certain how the current fragments relate to that elaborate and optimistic nineteenth century structure. 

What we have now are chunks of strewn masonry, broken columns, pools of still water, a pedestrian tunnel, and an inscrutable block that looks like an above-ground bunker, but must have been in one of the lowest levels of the original building.  There are also a number of what appear to be concrete catwalks, actually the foundations of the baths’ walls, I suppose, raised not so very high above the surrounding water.  Some of them appear to be the retaining walls of the individual pools, but the longest one runs right alongside the ocean, from one end of the baths to the other. 

I wasn’t sure exactly how seriously to take that sign, “Cliff and Surf Area Extremely Dangerous: people have been swept from the rocks and drowned,” but I don’t think it was a completely superfluous warning.  Certainly the sea was rough even on that warm sunny day, and some sections of that oceanside walkway were wet: you could certainly have got drenched if not necessarily drowned.

Of course, the vast majority of the people visiting the ruins felt the urge, perhaps the compulsion, to walk along at least some of those catwalks.  In one sense there was nothing very challenging or risky about most of them.  At their narrowest they were still a couple of feet wide, and if they’d been at ground level and not edged by water they’d have presented no problem for anyone.  Even as it was, some people just strolled along them as easily as if they were walking down a garden path.  Others however walked as delicately and deliberately as if they were on a tightrope, or tiptoeing through a minefield. 

Personally I was somewhere between the two.  I walked the concrete strip alongside ocean, purposefully and carefully, making sure not to slip on the wet sections. I didn’t fear for my life, but I did fear the terrible humiliation that would have ensued if I’d lost my footing and got a soaking.  I did just fine.  It was a fun little walk, and invigorating enough, but I admit there was a certain relief when it was over.

Drenching and drowning are not the only risks around the Sutro Baths.  The cliffs are high, the drops steep and scary, and on one of them there was this wonderful sign. 

Of course it’s actually very ambiguous.  It obviously started out as a simple “no walking” sign, a pedestrian with a diagonal line struck through him.  Now he’s been turned into the grim reaper, but the line through him is still visible, as though it means “no death,” which is a nice idea, but there’s something about that cliff edge, with the view of rocks and ruins below, that made death seem a perfectly real possibility.

Here's a terrific website that tells a great deal more about the Sutro Baths:

Thursday, April 12, 2012


I just got an email from a satisfied customer who’d read The Lost Art of Walking, “had a good time with it” and thought I might be interested in her artwork.  She wasn’t wrong.  That's it above and below. Her name is Foster Spragge, which sounds somehow like an anagram, and indeed is an anagram for a great many things including “far gorge steps,” which isn’t entirely inappropriate.

One of her projects is to make “Walking Drawings” that record the walks she’s done, and I’m always fascinated by the question of how we want to remember or memorialize our walking.  I know there are some walkers who don’t want any sort of record, but I think the majority do, whether it’s just making notes, or taking pictures, or marking it on a map, or in extreme cases writing books and blogs.  Of course there are myriad other ways too.

Foster Spragge writes on her blog, “Whilst searching for a venue for the installation of Ticket Cylinder (that’s one of her ‘sculptural’ artworks) I began to Walk & Draw. Mirroring the walking process, tracing a movement while allowing the mind to roam exploring new thoughts. To start each Drawing, the paper is folded so that only part of it can be seen at any one time while working. This stops aesthetic decisions, allowing the drawing to take its own shape. The whole Drawing is not unfolded until the walk is finished. 
 The initial Drawings are filled with an explorative range of marks to represent footsteps. For every step during the walk a pencil mark is made. Each time the path turns the paper is turned the same way.”

Well this all seemed pleasantly obsessive, especially the part about making one mark for each footstep.  It also wasn’t clear to me just how big these pieces of folded paper were.  I imagined she might be strolling around with a piece of paper six feet square.  I wanted too much – they’re just 59 centimeters square.

Even so, as she explained in an email, “Walking though town folding and unfolding is a challenge. What is quite amusing is people often ask me for directions.”  Then when she was doing the Square Mile Walks, a series of drawings made while walking within the square mile of the City of London, never venturing outside the city boundary, “some bikers spied me walking around the edge of Smithfields market while avoiding the rain. They asked me what I was doing, on showing them the Drawing they said I should buy myself a map.”

Well, this is interesting isn’t it?  Obviously some of these drawings don’t resemble maps in any conventional way, but some definitely do.

Above are two drawings, a diptych I suppose, titled South to North, North to South.  They record a series of London walks.  In case the caption comes out too small on the blog, I’ll repeat what Foster writes, “One day I would walk from South to North, then on another piece of paper I repeated the walk, starting where the previous walk ended and retracing my footsteps … The two drawings are therefore the same but in reverse, but not a mirror image of each other.”  

I suppose you might conclude that you can never walk in the same street twice, in the same Zen way that you can never jump into the same river twice.  The street is different from moment to moment.

Now obviously you’d be hard pressed to find your way around London with these drawings, but when you look at them you somehow know that they represent a walk in London.  A walk made in Manhattan or Paris or Colchester simply wouldn’t look like that.

These days we all feel that maps printed, or drawn, on paper are a dying form, as GPS and cell phone technology takes over.  At the same time, if you’re lost in a big city and you see someone carrying a map (or in this case what only appears to be a map) you’re far more likely to approach them for directions than you are to approach someone who’s simply carrying a cell phone.

Foster Spragge’s drawings are on show for a short time at the Westminster Reference Library in London, behind the National Gallery, Orange Street, 28th May to 2nd June.

Her website is here:   http://www.fosterspragge.com/ 

It so happens that I too sometimes walk around Smithfield market, though in a rather less rigorous way that Foster Spragge, and I’ve never been troubled by bikers.  Here’s a picture I took on one of my walks there, a much-photographed tripe dresser wedged between a classical column and a men’s lavatory.  Ah, London.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Regular readers will remember the entry a few weeks back about HG Wells saying, “I write as I walk because I want to get somewhere and I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.”

Well, life being like that, I just came across an anecdote about Frank Lloyd Wright, which suggests he took a very different view. That’s a picture of him below, with his wife Oglivanna, walking along the esplanade at Florida Southern College.

The anecdote is as follows: Wright was nine years old, there was snow on the ground, and he went walking with a no-nonsense uncle.  After they’d crossed a snow-covered field the uncle stopped and looked back at their footsteps.  Then the uncle said, "Notice how your tracks wander aimlessly from the fence to the cattle to the woods and back again.  And see how my tracks aim directly to my goal. There is an important lesson in that."

Wright reckoned there was a quite different lesson from the one his uncle intended, one that changed his outlook on life. "I determined right then, not to miss most things in life, as my uncle had."

I think Wright never walked around the finished Ennis House – he fell out with his clients and his son took over.  There’s evidence however of some quite spectacular walking around the place, organized by Helmut Newton.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


On Sunday afternoon the Loved One and I walked over to stare at the outside of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House, the one that used to be know as the Ennis-Brown House, the one that looks like a Mayan temple, or (depending on its state or repair, which fluctuates alarmingly) like Mayan ruins.  Lord knows how many millions of dollars have been spent on restoring it, and it still looks a bit crumbly at the edges, (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but it's certainly been much, much worse.

To get there we walked along Los Feliz Boulevard, and boy, the street was full of Sunday afternoon walkers, couples, singles families, some with dogs, some with strollers, various ages and ethnicities.  Heck, it felt like a real boulevard, a real promenade, although of course it lacked the charming cafes and bars that would have been on a French boulevard, and it lacked the fish and chips and “kiss me quick” hats there’d have been on an English promenade, but for supposedly pedestrian-hostile Los Angeles, it looked pretty friendly.

I’d printed off a yahoo map showing me the route to the Ennis House, but I got confused and I misread it.  We should have walked up the Berendo Street Stairs, but like a fool I missed them, and I took us up the steep curves of Glendower Avenue instead.  It was no problem but I’d have preferred to use the stairs.

There is something great about LA’s flights of stairs, they’re not like stairs anywhere else.  And when I first moved here I bought the book Stairway Walks in Los Angeles  by Adah Bakalinsky and Larry Gordon, not least because I lived at the top of a flight of stairs in Silver Lake.  I used the book to do a few of the walks in that neighborhood, including the Vendome Steps, which are the ones Laurel and Hardy have such trouble with in the movie The Music Box.   

And I did the stairs of Whitley Heights and some in Castlemmarre (below), which were fictionalized by Raymond Chandler in Farewell My Lovely.

In the introduction to the book the authors say, “Los Angeles has more than 200 stairways; they qualify Los Angeles as a walking city.”  Well, as Ernst Hemingway might say, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”  The authors also describe the Ennis Brown house as being made of “cinder blocks of grayish color.” Frank Lloyd Wright, and his fans (and I’m one of them) would much prefer the term “textile block,” and I think in general they're more sand-colored, though admittedly some of the more beat-up ones do have a grubby tinge.

One of the great features of the walk is that right before you get to the Ennis you pass a fairy tale house, complete with a witch for a weather vane. 

You walk a little further and you see the Ennis House rising above and behind the curvy, gingerbread tile roof: a couple of competing Hollywood fairy tales.

So we went and looked at the house, walked around it, took a few photographs, wondered if the restoration would ever be finished and what “finished” even meant in this context.  There were some lights on inside, but the place didn’t look inhabited and we wondered if it was even habitable, and it certainly it was hard to imagine how anyone ever would or could ever live comfortably there.

As is the way of these things, the incidentals were at least as enjoyable as journey's end.  We came across an extraordinary tree, much of it leaning out across the sidewalk, evidently leaning too far, and so somebody had put a metal strut under the main bough to keep it up, but then the weight of the tree had bent the strut and so they’d added another. 

But then the struts had penetrated the branch itself, which had continued to grow around them, so that the ends were now incorporated into the wood.  The Loved One, who has a mind like a sewer, decided to call it “the DP tree.”

There was also this plane-shaped weather vane which made a nice contrast with the witch version. Small pleasures to be sure, but any pleasure is worth holding on to.

On the way back we walked past the top of St Michael’s Stairs (discussed elsewhere in this blog) and passed a young woman walking by herself, holding a copy of a guide book – not the same staircase book that I have, but the other one, Secret Stairs by Charles Fleming.  Who’d have thought there’d be two?  We exchanged a few words with the girl about the joy of staircases, L.A. and pedestrianism.  We Hollywood walkers like to do that kind of thing.