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.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


While I was in England I read Simon Armitage’s book Walking Home subtitled “Travels with A Troubadour on the Pennine Way.”  It’s a terrific account of walking the 250 plus miles of the Pennine Way in the “wrong” direction, north to south, the trip made a good deal more arduous (in my estimation) because each night our author gives a poetry reading.  Blimey. I’d have been on my hands and knees by the end of that.

(Photo: Jonty Wilde)

I do maybe half a dozen readings a year (not poetry admittedly), and although I enjoy them well enough, I do find them surprisingly knackering.  The idea of doing one more or less every night for three weeks after a hard day’s walk, sounds like it would become absolute torture.  Or maybe it works another way.  Maybe you’d just go into a fugue state: walking, reading, sleeping; walking reading, sleeping, for as long as it takes.  Although to be fair, Armitage keeps his wits about him throughout the book. Not so much in this picture, perhaps:

There were two things that really surprised me (in a good way) in Walking Home.  One, that Simon Armitage used to have ambitions to be a cartographer.  How often do you hear somebody say that?  Although in his case he did have the benefit of a geography degree.  I too, in idle moments, have thought it might be very cool to be cartographer, although without ever really knowing what that entails, and certainly without having a geography degree.

The second surprising thing is his description of getting lost while walking.  He writes, “I have noticed a very alarming and rapid change in my psychology, as if the claustrophobia and disorientation brings about a particular condition, the symptoms of which include fear, panic, and loss of logical thought, but also less expected and harder-to-define sensations akin to melancholy, including something like hopelessness but also close to grief.”

What interests me about this description is the extent to which I recognize all these symptoms except the very last one. The fear, panic, and loss of logical thought are, I assume, what everybody feels when they’re lost, and that naturally enough leads to hopelessness.  But I pretty much thought I was the only one who experienced melancholy, that sense of “I’m lost and alone in the world, and what else could you expect, and why does it even matter?”  But I’ve never made that final leap to grief.  Perhaps I haven’t been sufficiently lost.

I did, however, get thoroughly lost last month while I was in London, not in any life-threatening way, but because London is a place that I flatter myself I know pretty well, and because I even had a map, it was unusually humiliating. I’ve written elsewhere about being lost (mercifully, briefly) in the Australian desert, and that was certainly scary, but being lost in a place you think you know is actually even more disorienting. 

My plan in London was to do a short walk to see two ruined city churches, St. Dunstan-in-the-East (above) and Christ Church Greyfriars (below) – both more or less destroyed by German bombs in the Blitz, but the ruins preserved as deconsecrated war memorials. The route from one to the other inevitably takes you past St Paul’s Cathedral which miraculously survived the Blitz, though it does have shrapnel scars.

I decided to start at St Dunstan’s, and Monument looked like the nearest tube, so off and I went, came up out of the station – which had the exits marked with street names - and I stepped into the city and I had absolutely no idea where I was.  I couldn’t tell which street was which, which was north or south, east or west, and I set off along Gracechurch Street, and found myself approaching London Bridge which I knew was wrong.  I stopped, turned back, walked for a bit, and felt more lost than ever.

I decided there’d be no shame in consulting the map, which I thought I’d have no need of, but I got it out, and you know as a sometime wannabe cartographer, I reckon I’m pretty good with a map, but this time I couldn’t make any sense of it whatsoever.  I’d look at, think I’d worked it out, start walking in one direction, and a couple of minutes later realize I was obviously heading in the wrong direction again.  This happened time after time.  It became frustrating; it became absurd, though it never quite became comical.

It was infuriating but also, per Armitage, a deeply melancholy experience.  I was lost in some deeper, non-geographical sense. It wasn’t simply that I didn’t know where I was, where I was going, or how I was going to get there to get, but rather that, after a while, I no longer understood why I wanted to go there at all, and in some odd way I felt like I didn’t even know exactly who I was.  Was I losing my mind?  Was the Alzheimer’s kicking in?  It really didn’t seem to matter.

Well inevitably I got over it before very long, found my way, found the churches, had a good (modest) walk.  And I know you could make too much of this, but there was something salutary in the experience of being lost.  As a psychological, existential, maybe even cosmic dilemma, it's actually far more interesting than knowing exactly where you are all the time.  But to appreciate it, it does have to come to an end.  Being lost only makes sense if, in the end, you find yourself again.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


 One of the things I did while in England was go to Sheffield and the Peak District to go walking over the Monsal Dale Viaduct, which is officially the Headstone Viaduct but I never heard anybody call it that.  I was with my oldest pal Steve, a Sheffield resident, and one of my regular, if increasingly less frequent, walking partners.  My living in Hollywood and Steve having a bad back are the two primary causes.

         The viaduct once formed part of the Derby to Manchester railway line, and is most famous for having been railed against by John Ruskin. He wrote, “That valley where you might expect to catch sight of Pan, Apollo and the muses, is now devastated.  Now every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton.”  Growing up in Sheffield, I never heard of John Ruskin, but I did know Monsal Dale as a place the family sometimes went on Sunday afternoons.  We never did much of anything there except walk about, which I suppose was the whole point.

         Ruskin might be somewhat cheered by the current state of things in Monsal Dale.  The railway has gone, and although the viaduct remains, no trains run across it.  It’s a reminder, a relic, and now it’s the preserve of pedestrians, cyclists, and the occasional horse rider.  Our plan was to join them.

         It was in fact rather harder than we imagined.  We started at the car park outside the Monsal Head Hotel, and we took what seemed the obvious path, that looked like it would lead us down to the viaduct, but before long it was clear we were heading in completely the wrong direction. The viaduct was behind us and to the right, and we were walking away from it, alongside an increasingly broad stretch of water with no crossing place.

         Reluctant to turn back, or admit our mistake, we kept going till we met another walker, a large, jolly young woman, and we asked her if we could get to the viaduct this way.  She assured us we could, so we pressed on.   After a while we wished we’d asked her exactly how we could get to the viaduct this way, since we could see it very definitely wasn’t getting any closer, and a little after that we began to wonder if perhaps the woman didn’t know what a viaduct was, especially when we came to a weir, which made the water get broader still, and cascade fiercely over its edge.  Maybe the woman had thought “viaduct” was another name for weir.
         Fortunately Steve knew his history and wasn’t afraid to repeat it.  He recalled the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Assaye, in the Second Maratha War, in central India, in 1803.  Wellington, he explained, who was still Arthur Wellesley at that time, was leading British and East India Company forces against two Maratha chiefs.  Unexpectedly, and after he’d split his forces, he spotted the Marathas across the other side of the Kaitna river, at the village of Assaye. 

 Outnumbered and outgunned, he nevertheless decided to attack.  There was a ford at that point in the river, and although it would have been possible to cross there, it would also have been suicidal.  The local guides assured him there was no other crossing, but Wellington wisely didn’t believe them.  He reasoned that there must be another crossing somewhere else, and sure enough one of his men scouted out another ford not so far away.  Wellington took his troops there, crossed, and launched an unexpected, thoroughly bloody, but successful attack on the Maratha.  We, Steve suggested, should do something similar.

         Like Wellington, he reasoned there must be a crossing somewhere nearby, and sure enough we eventually found a small footbridge.  Once across we could go back along the other side of the river and come to the viaduct. And we did.  After a longish walk, an encounter with a herd of ominously insolent cream-coloured cattle, and a scrabble up a steep bank, we got to the top, and set foot on the place where the rails had once been, where the trains once ferried fools from Buxton to Bakewell.  As we walked across, Steve told me this was the site of the worst and, he insisted, the only, dirty trick he ever played on his two sons. 

         Some years back, when the boys were aged six and eight, he’d brought them to walk across the viaduct, much as we were doing now.  The tracks were already gone, but at that time the mouth of the Headstone Tunnel, at the far end of the viaduct, was boarded up, with a couple of solid wooden doors.  It must have looked somewhat like the image above, though in fact that's the other end of the tunnel. Steve went ahead of his boys, walked up to the doors and peered through a crack into the darkness of the tunnel.  Then he suddenly feigned exaggerated panic, turned  to his kids and yelled something like, “Oh no, there’s a train coming. Run for it!” and began to run back across the viaduct the way they’d come.

         The kids panicked for real, were absolutely terrified, and ran desperately after their dad, until at some point Steve stopped running and turned, laughing just a little guiltily.  He hadn’t really meant to terrify his boys.  He’d thought they were old enough and smart enough to have noticed that since there were no tracks along the viaduct there would be no trains either, but they were young and na├»ve, and above all they’d made the mistake of trusting their father. 
         Steve decided to make this a teachable moment, and pointed out to his lads that even if there had been trains and tracks it would certainly have made no sense to try to outrun the train.  The sensible thing would have been to clamber up the embankment at one or other side of the tunnel mouth; although looking at it now he noted now that there wasn’t really much embankment in evidence.
         He said to me later, “I thought it was a useful lesson in observation and the ways of the world. And I also told them that that would be the last time I would ever play a trick on them.  Others might in the future but from that moment they could trust me implicitly.”  He says he has stuck to his bargain.  Next time he and his sons are out walking and he says they’re about to get run down by a train, they can absolutely believe him.

         These days the Headstone tunnel is open to walkers, though rather overburdened with health and safety notices, and in we went.  Below is Steve disappearing into the distance of the tunnel, creating an image suitable for the cover of his next, or in fact his first, doom drone album.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


I’ve been in England for a bit, doing some walking, among other things.  I arrived in London at the tail end of the Olympics, which was followed by the Paralympics, an event that stirred British hearts even more than the real thing.

And as part of this, Transport for London (the latest incarnation of what most of us still think of as London Transport) published some rather nifty and stylish maps to help non-Londoners get around.  That’s one of them above at the top.  I like that faux-3D effect (I imagine there may be a proper cartographic word for it), but here’s the cover of one of them, which I like less.

It raises two observations.  One: of course variations of the phrase “Why not walk it?” pass my lips all the time.  All else being equal, and I know it seldom is, I’d much rather walk than take a tube or bus.  On the other hand, coming from Transport for London, doesn’t it seem a bit defeatist?  Like a restaurant with a sign in the window saying, “Why not eat at home?”

And two, I know the rest of the world thinks of British men as epicene fops, but we don’t have to reinforce that stereotype, do we?  Couldn’t they have found a walker to put on the front of the maps who looked a little more butch, and for that matter a little more British?  No, no, I don’t have anyone particular in mind.