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.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


An apparently simple question: when Elvis Costello sings “I don't want to go to Chelsea” - to which Chelsea is he referring?  The one in London SW3, surely.  The appearance of a character called Elsie rather confirms the point.  But I suppose he was smart enough to know there was also a Chelsea in Manhattan, and he may have used that to give the song wider, if more oblique, appeal.

And when he sings, “Oh no it does not move me/Even though I've seen the movie” to which movie is he referring?  You might well think Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, though that doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the lyrics.

Of course all manner of movies had used Chelsea as a location, long before Costello wrote his song; swinging sixties movies, and even A Clockwork Orange  -  the record store scene was shot in the Chelsea Drugstore, a place I’m old enough to have been in. It’s now a McDonald’s, natch.

I’m also old enough to remember walking up and down the King’s Road (the apostrophe comes and goes) looking at the punks.  We were (pace Simon Reynolds) definitely in the post-punk era but a lot of people hadn’t got the memo. The pic below is dated 1980.

I was too late for Westwood and McLaren’s Sex but I was there for World’s End.  We used to go in and laugh at the clothes, and then laugh even harder at the prices.  It’s still there, kind of.

But there were plenty of other reasons to go to Chelsea: the Royal Court Theater, the Chelsea Physic Garden, the Chelsea Potter (a pub), and for Pete’s sake I got married there at Chelsea Town Hall.  And it’s a pretty decent area to walk, mostly flat, and mostly interesting once you get in the side streets.

So this whole “I don’t want to go to Chelsea” thing doesn’t really apply to me, even though I feel like an imposter as I walk around.  Not a real Chelsea guy.  But now I find myself, for the next 6 months or so, residing in Chelsea, subletting a flat that I can’t really afford – as is the way with flats in London.

But at least the universe is sending me messages to make me feel at home here.  Right across the street is a place called Footopia!  

And around the corner there’s a VW Bus with a customized front end.  I assume it moves from time to time, but it hasn’t so far.

And today I was walking to the Waitrose mini-supermarket and I saw a tall, rangy black man coming from the opposite direction, walking with some difficulty, using a stick, and I looked at him sympathetically, and he looked and me and said, “All right, captain?” Nobody has ever called me captain before.

NB - I know there are some who make great claims for Costello's lyrics - worth pointing out that the rhyme Elsie/Chelsea first appeared in Cabaret.  Maybe it was an homage.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


Last Sunday I walked from Uxbridge to Moor Park, Tube station to Tube station, most of it along the London Loop, much of it along the Grand Union Canal.  That’s not my usual kind of walking territory, which was an attraction in itself, and another attraction was that I was walking with Foster Spragge who is sometimes described as a walking artist, and at the very least is an artist who sometimes uses walking as part of her “practice.”  This is her:

The overall title of the project is "Drawing Dialogues on the London Loop," and it’s connected with an organization named tickbirdandrhino, the brainchild of Mat Clum, who was also on the walk.  It says on the website that Foster’s “current work involves a series of drawings created whilst investigating, walking and/or swimming in real time through specific environments - making marks that resonate within her sense of self and place.”  Sounds about right.

We met at Uxbridge station, which is quite a destination in itself.  Is it the only London tube station that has stained glass?  Surely somebody will tell me.

I was on Walk 9.  There are 15 walks most of them in 2 parts of about 5 miles each, though the last walk is 3 parts.  I’ll be there for at least some of that.

The project is partly about mapping.  We were following maps created by Transport for London and as we walked, Foster held a clipboard which made her look like a council official doing a survey rather than an artist, which in some way seemed a good thing.  It certainly stopped people asking questions.
On the board was a sheet of paper, marked up with a line of marks or holes.  Every 7 minutes as we walked she used a compass embedded in a clear plastic ruler with 2 circular holes in it (of nautical origin I imagine), and centered it on the spot marked by a hole, drew a line marking the east/west axis, and a couple of circles.  This created gorgeously inscrutable images that will, I believe, ultimately be used to inspire a different work of art.

We agreed that it would be possible to use this as a map to, as it were, reverse engineer the route, but why would anybody do that?

And so we walked – just 4 of us as it turned out – and we looked around and observed, and took some photographs. Much of the walk was quite watery;

There was some wild(ish) life – a fake crocodile (alligator?) and a real cat

And suddenly, as we got near to Moor Park, the path took us right into the middle of a very fancy bit of suburbia.  There were security cameras trained on us, so obviously we waved to them.  This part was wildly out of keeping with the rest of the walk and although I’m well aware of the contested evils of suburbia, I am fascinated by that kind neatness, by which I mean other people’s, since I’m quite incapable of living like that.  I am also a sucker for topiary: 

We covered about ten miles.  I could have walked further if I’d had to, but I was glad I didn’t have to.

This is Forster Spragge’s website:

This is tickbirdandrhino

Tuesday, October 23, 2018


As I bounce around from Airbnb to hotel to people’s spare rooms, I have to consider the possibility that this makes me an e-nomad.  If so, it’s a damn exhausting way of life, although it does mean that you’re regularly arriving in some new place with plenty of options for walking, and “the exploration of a fixed spatial field” (as M. Debord would have it), and also of course for disorientation.  I get gently lost pretty much every day.

And it so happens that I’ve briefly ended up in a flat in Harcourt Terrace SW10, between Fulham Road and Old Brompton Road, an area which might possiblybe thought of as Chelsea, though the nearest Tube station is Earls Court.  Either way it’s a fairly swanky area, but here’s the thing for a man who sometimes styles himself as a Hollywood Walker: if you walk south down Harcourt Terrace, it suddenly becomes – now wait for it - Hollywood Road.

There’s a Hollywood Lodge:

These people are staring into Hollywood Mews, which has a very nice font:

There’s a salon offering Hollywood Hair and Nails:

There is even the Hollywood Arms, a pub that’s been there since 1865:

None of this, naturally, has much in common with the Californian Hollywood: there’s money there, but there’s also muck. Finding signs of patina and decay is a quite a job in this bit of London – but as I pounded the streets I did feel quite cheered when I saw this ghost sign:

It’s a former showroom for Metcalfe and Mundy who, I discover, were the sole Borgward concessionaires for the whole country.  

Borgward were good looking cars but they went out of business in 1961 (though the brand has recently been revived) so this is one very old surviving sign.  Fortunately Metcalfe and Mundy didn’t have to rely only on the Borgward.  They did a pretty nice line in Aston Martins too.


I’ve been walking in Oxleas Wood, on the top of Shooter’s Hill in Greenwich.  I was with my pal Hugh and his dog Fergus. This is Fergus:

Oxleas Wood is 77 hectares of ancient deciduous forest.  Its initial survival is thought to have been because the land was too hilly to clear for human settlements.  And it was part of the royal estate from the 14thto the 20thcentury which obviously guranteed that no riff raff would mess with it. 

Tucked into Oxleas Wood is Severndroog Castle a great bit of folly architecture built as a memorial to Sir William James by his widow, Lady Jane, after his death in 1783.  

Among other things, Sir William James was commander of the East India Company navy, and in 1755 he attacked and destroyed the island fortress of Suvarnadurg, off the coast of what is now India, what was then part of the Maratha Empire.  Suvarnadurg currently looks like this:

Severndoorg is the Englished version of Suvarnadurg, though it seems that historically other spellings have been used:

As memorials and follies go it’s genuinely impressive, some fine brickwork and possibly a Thomasson:

But on the day we walked there, another memorial was visible.  

It is a certain tree, unremarkable in itself, that Hugh tells me for a long time had a blue rope attached to one of the high branches, and local kids used to swing on the rope.

The rope has now gone and it’s not a place where children play because a young man, a single dad with a history of what we now call “mental health issues”  hanged himself from that very rope.  His name was Garry Guest.  He was, inevitably, found by a dog walker.

The lower part of the tree has now been turned into a rough, makeshift memorial that is gradually being worn away by the elements.  It’s strangely moving in its roughness and decay, not least the photograph and the empty Strongbow can.

No doubt it will not last as long as Severndroog Castle but in its way it's far more moving. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018


It was a warm afternoon in early September when I first met the Illustrated Man. Walking along an asphalt road, I was on the final leg of a two weeks’ walking tour of Wisconsin. Late in the afternoon I stopped, ate some pork, beans, and a doughnut, and was preparing to stretch out and read when the Illustrated Man walked over the hill and stood for a moment against the sky.” 

Those are the opening lines of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, a collection of linked short stories posing as a novel. I can’t say I’d forgotten the lines because I’ve never actually read the book from beginning to end, though I have read at least one of the stories it contains – ‘The Veldt.’   

But I have seen the movie and I have never forgotten the sight of Rod Steiger, all naked and tatted up. The book describes him as “a walking treasure gallery.”

Gotta say I didn’t know that people went to Wisconsin on walking tours, but it seems they very definitely do.  The state seems to be dense with walkers and walking trails.

         When I first lived in Los Angeles, Ray Bradbury was alive and well and doing a lot of public appearances around town, many of them in Glendale.  I don’t know how much of a walker he was but sometimes apparently he walked while wearing a suit, like this:

And I think he must have been rather proud of his legs, perhaps honed and toned by walking, because he was always showing them off in shorts; like this:

Tangentially I have been reading Museum Without Walls,some collected essays by another writer who also walks while wearing a suit, at least when the cameras are on him; Jonathan Meades, a man I can’t quite imagine in shorts.

In a piece on Ian Nairn, Meades writes of “the ever-increasing battalions of soi-disant psychogeographers - who are distinguished from plain geographers by neglecting to take their Largactil before they release themselves into the edgelands of Sharpness or the boondocks of Sheppey.”  

What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd.

Largactil, as some of you will know, and some may not, is one of the trade names for Chloropromazine, an anti-psychotic.  Looks like good stuff:

Saturday, October 13, 2018


If you’re going to walk all the way around a city, it helps (in once sense) if that city is small.  On the other hand, all the great cities are big, and all the great walks are long. So perhaps some miniaturization is what’s required.

This is a model of Chicago I saw last month, in the Chicago Architecture Center, in a Mies van de Rohe building on upper Wacker Drive.

And this a model of London which is in the Building Center, in Store Street, “a bud for the built environment” since 1932.

The Chicago one even changes color:

I love miniaturization; model buildings, model railways, miniature golf courses.  
It makes me feel a bit like Gulliver and a bit like Godzilla.  I know I could destroy large areas of the tiny city long before any security could get there.  But I don’t do any destroying.  I just walk around.

Here's a picture of Mies van Der Rohe walking with Le Corbusier.  Oh the laughs there must have been.  

And here's another bloke who liked a bit of miniaturization: