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.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018


The traditional Boxing Day walk; this year in the mean streets of Chelsea.  No great surprise to find a Christmas tree thrown out the day after Christmas.

But more surprising to find this; a heap of Christmas trees that, I assume, had remained unsold, never made it into anybody’s home, and so the Christmas tree dealer had dumped them in a pile on the pavement.  

And I can’t decide if this was a kind of altruism, that he’d left the trees there so that the poor and needy could pick one up for free, or whether it was just an advanced form of littering and dumping, and the dealer just couldn’t be arsed to take them away with him. Maybe he had mixed feelings.  Many do at Christmas.


I went for a walk in Bedford Park, in West London.  As you may have guessed, I’m doing some suburban exploration.

Bedford Park has a good claim to be the first garden suburb.  Work began there in 1875, long before Letchworth Garden City or Hampstead Garden Suburb.  And whereas Letchworth Garden City was built by a visionary, and whereas Hampstead Garden Suburb was built by a social reformer, Bedford Park was built by a slightly dodgy property developer, Jonathan Carr.  

He bought 24 acres of land from his father in law, a ripe plot just north of Turnham Green tube station.  He commissioned EW Godwin and then Norman Shaw to design houses for the suburb, and in the end built 365 houses.  He also had the advantage of having a brother, J. Comyns Carr, who ran the Grosvenor Gallery and was connected with members of the Aesthetic Movement.  He recommended the place to influential and artistic friends, and Bedford Park became something of a Bohemian enclave.  WB Yeats lived there with his father and brother, and it was fashionable enough to have a satirical (and fairly lame) poem written about it, The Ballad of Bedford Park.  One verse runs:
Now he who loves aesthetic cheer
And does not mind the damp
May come and read Rosetti here
By a Japanese-y lamp.

On the map, Bedford Park is now small, triangular, a sort of Christmas tree shape, with The Avenue running up through it like a trunk, and roads off to the sides like branches, though it didn't start out like that.
  A current map shows you the boundaries of the place but these aren’t all that obvious on the ground.  The roads have “good old” English names, Blenheim, Marlborough, Vanbrugh, Fielding, Flanders.

Unlike Hampstead Garden Suburb this did feel like London. Some parts of it were very fancy, some not really that fancy at all, but clearly all of it pretty expensive. And unlike Hampstead Garden suburb it has a pub, The Tabard, a pub – designed by Norma Shaw with William de Morgan tiles in the interior.  There was also a Polish shop and a Buddhist Vihara on the Avenue.

I was walking without any great purpose and it was easy to get lost, but it was hard to staylost.  Just by wandering you can find yourself back where you started.  I occasionally I used some interesting old cars parked in the streets as markers, since the cars were rather more distinctive than many of the houses.

Having said that, I was fascinated by the odd combination in the architecture of diversity and similarity.  The original architects had done a certain amount to make the houses look individual and then the inhabitants had taken it further.  These two porches for instance which had surely started out looking identical.

And this succession of gables, no two of them quite the same; some quite plain, some looking like the insignia of a secret organization.

Bedford Park is now a conservation area which means there are strict rules about what you can do to your house, and about what you can do to your trees.  Under Section 211 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 “all trees in the conservation area are protected by law. It is an offence to deliberately damage or destroy a tree by cutting down, topping, lopping, uprooting or by any other means without permission from the local planning authority. … Six weeks’ notice must be given before any work is started.”

On the other hand I did see some dead trees, and some huge pieces of tree trunk, which were possibly located just outside the conservation area.

As for new buildings, well some of the houses are replicas in the Arts and Craft style, which replaced old ones that didn’t suit the tone of the place, but some of the most interesting buildings were a couple of zesty new houses that had been shoehorned in and looked different from the prevailing style and yet to my urban eye didn’t look at all out of place.

Yes there were gardens, and they were well looked after, nothing very eccentric, nothing kitsch that I could see, but there were some interesting plantings including this, which is one of the biggest olive trees I ever saw in captivity in England:

         Also this tasteful cat statue:

And at one point I became aware of a real cat walking very close to my feet.  It’s a measure of a certain kind of suburb that you see cats wandering freely, even if a few of them have missing ears or shortened tails. Now, I like cats well enough but I don’t like cute cats and there was nothing cute about this one.  He didn’t just look like the cat belonging to the evil genius – he looks like an evil genius in his own right.

 Suburbia is a great place for an evil genius to go into hiding.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018


When exactly did people start talking about “ear worms” as opposed to saying they had a song “stuck in their head.”  Apparently ear worm first appeared in print in a 1978 novel by Desmond Bagley titled Flyaway, but I think it took a very long time to trickle down to general usage.  Maybe it’s got something to do with the increasing use of ear buds.

I still prefer to say that music’s “stuck in my head” because that’s where it is, in the brain; the ears don’t necessarily come into it.   And lately while walking I’ve been stuck on the song “Stripsearch” by Faith No More, and I think it has something to do with the fact that when I sing the song in my head I also see the video in which Mike Patton walks through parts of Berlin.

It’s difficult to commemorate musicians and composers.  A statue doesn’t really convey anything musical, though there are a couple close to where I’m currently living.

There’s Bela Bartok in South Kensington

And Vaughan Williams in Chelsea Embankment Gardens.  You can see the whites of his eyes!

But has there ever been a better musical tribute than this one? The Nicky Hopkins memorial bench, seen while walking in Perivale.

I had a vague hope that the keys on the bench were somehow “real” and you could sit down and music would start to play. Sometimes I want too much.

And I still haven't stopped "hearing" Stripsearch.  The video is here:

Sunday, December 16, 2018


I went for a walk in Hampstead Garden Suburb. I was going to say “somebody has to” but I’m not sure that anybody really does.  

Hampstead Garden Suburb was the product of Henrietta Barnett.  She’s generally described as a social reformer, originally in Whitechapel where her husband was vicar of St Jude’s, and where there was a lot to be reformed. She was the author of Practicable Socialism (1889) and Toward Social Reform (1909).  By the time that second book was published she’d founded the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust and would have been well aware of Ebenezer Howard, and developments in Letchworth Garden City.  Building work started in 1907.

She employed Howard’s planners and architects, plus Sir Edwin Lutyens, who brought a lot of star power with him.  Walking around the Suburb these days, I couldn’t swear which houses were real Lutyens and which were merely “in the style” of Lutyens.  No doubt others can.

My friend Joanna Moriarty who grew up in the Suburb, told me the word on the street was that if you bought a Lutyens house you bought yourself a whole load of trouble. His sweeping tile roofs were considered to be a serious liability.
Joanna also had a story that somebody from the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, came knocking on the family’s front door one weekend afternoon and said to her father, “Your neighbor is laying crazy paving.  What are you going to do about it?”  Crazy paving, I assume, was a horror to the sensibilities of the Hampstead Garden Suburb crowd. Joanna’s dad, being a civil servant of the old school said, “I’m going to continue to mind my own business.” 
That, of course, is what most people in the suburbs say they want – to be left in peace - but of course neighbours can get out of hand, and so various local rules are imposed to keep them in line.   The Trust website says ominously, “It is a criminal offence to undertake unauthorised works to trees on the Suburb (pruning or felling).”

The Suburb was built with no pubs, no shops no cafes, no cinemas  – a situation  that endures - though the supermarket in Finchley Road has a sign on the front that reads, “Welcome to Hampstead Garden Suburb’s Co-op.” You will note the very shiny car coming  in from the left.

The whole area felt moneyed, posh, controlled, and there were some very fancy cars in the driveways. I found it fascinating and by no means objectionable or oppressive, but it didn’t feel at all like London: which may have been the whole point for the people who live there. 

And as I walked around I noted that, unlike in Letchworth Garden City, the inhabitants here were determined to live up to the “garden” part of the name.  A lot of energy had gone into the landscaping and planting, and some of the front gardens were wonderful and extraordinary.  

No doubt some professional help had been employed here and there, as evidences by this van belonging to Urb’s Gardens – I couldn’t tell how many layers of irony Urb had in mind.

And at some point it struck me, and it took me longer than it probably should have, that there were no garden walls here between the houses, or between there houses and the roads.  There were no bricks, no concrete, only hedges, and some people had really gone to town turning them into arches, finishing them off with bits of topiary, although one or two did look a bit the worse for wear.

However, and it’s a biggish however, the south eastern  boundary of the Suburb abuts the Hampstead Heath extension and between them is a structure know as the Great Wall, which some sources will tell you is reminiscent of a medieval town.  You can no doubt pick quite a few metaphors out of that, but the one that struck me was that sometimes a hedge just isn’t enough of a barrier between you and the rest of the world.

Monday, December 10, 2018


I don’t have any hard and fast “rules” for walking but I do have some habits. And one of them is that if I’m walking and I come across a book that’s been left in the street, I pick it up and read at least some of it, and it’s amazing how often this discarded and randomly picked up books seem to have something relevant to say.

Last week I found a copy of Agatha Christie’s They Came to Baghdad, first published in 1952.  It wasn’t any old edition but the Collins English Readers Edition that you see above - “these carefully adapted versions are shorter than the original with the language graded for upper-immediate learners,” which reduces the length to 100 pages, for which I am grateful, and I have read now every one of those pages.

Is there walking in They Came To Baghdad? You bet.  The plot, I think it’s fair to say, makes no sense whatsoever, but it involves archeology, world domination and a plucky heroine named Victoria who meets some bloke on a park bench in London and decides she has to follow him to Baghdad.  And yes, believe it or not, complications ensue.  Hair dying is also involved.

On the way to Baghdad, Victoria stops in Cairo, “She decided to go for a walk.  Walking, at least, needed no money.”  True that.

And when she gets to Baghdad there’s a somewhat detailed account of a walk she does there, “Baghdad was completely different from her idea of it – people shouting and a main road filled with cars, sounding their horns angrily … Most people wore poor quality Western clothes, bits of old army uniforms; and there were a few figures with long black clothes, their faces covered, who went almost unnoticed … The road was in poor condition with the occasional large hole.”

Agatha Christie was married to an archeologist, Max Mallowan, so she must have known something of what she was writing about, but even so the novel contains what strikes me as one of the strangest sentences I have ever read, “Richard jumped down into the long hole and the two archeologists enjoyed themselves in a highly technical manner for a quarter of an hour.”  Perhaps it was a more innocent age.

Above, I believe, is Agatha Christie at the Nimrud Dig in Syria the 1950s; that was the place where Mallowan made his reputation. 
          The whole city was destroyed by Isis in 2015 on the grounds that the ancient artefacts there were blasphemous. UNESCO declared the distruction to be a war crime.  I look forward to the trial.

Friday, December 7, 2018


I know it’s probably bad and wrong of me to be walking down the street, see this, and be royally amused.

Of course if this had been in a sitcom, the whole row of bikes would have fallen over like dominos, and I suppose there’s something about the stands holding the bikes that prevents that.  
          In general I don’t want my life to be more like a sitcom.  But in this case I’m not so sure.

Saturday, December 1, 2018


I went for a walk in Letchworth Garden City – I had my reasons.  When you get off the train there’s a sign in the station reminding you, if you need reminding, that you’re in the world’s first garden city, though I’d have thought Babylon with its hanging gardens might have been in with a shout.

And if you walk down to the southeastern end of things there’s another signpost hammering home the message. This is the front: 

And this is the back: 

That’s a low relief image of Ebenezer Howard (and not a great likeness, if you ask me), the founder of Letchworth Garden City, and of the garden cities movement in general. 

Now, Howard’s notion of a “garden city” was not as we might imagine it today.  Like so many other people before and since he was worried about urbanization, about people leaving the land and moving to big cities, especially in this case London. 

So he conceived of a much smaller city, adjacent to fields, where people would work the land and then go back to their pleasant, nearby, arts and crafts style homes; which of course did have gardens.

It’s not clear to me how many, if any, agricultural labourers actually moved into Letchworth; the received wisdom was that it was far more a haven for socialists, vegetarians, nudists, teetotalers; New Agers before the term was current.  I’m not sure how many of those are now in Letchworth either.

This picture above taken in 1912 suggests it wasn’t entirely a rural idyll – and those front gardens look extremely perfunctory.  The picture below looks far more as though the inhabitants might, at least, be trying to feed themselves from their own gardens.

 I set myself the task of walking around Letchworth looking at gardens.  I was, for sure, in search of individuality, eccentricity and, OK, a certain kitschness, but all of that was surprisingly hard to find. And yes it was end of November, when few English gardens look their best, even so I really had to search hard to find much of anything out of the ordinary.  But I didn’t fail completely

There were some curious plantings:

Some curious topiary, if that’s the right word in this case:

A decaying chair in the shape of a hand:

And yes, one garden that looked like the householder might be aiming for self-sufficiency:

But the majority were tidy and unexciting – nobody seemed to be expressing themselves through their gardens.  And I wondered if this was a class thing.  Perhaps the upper and lower classes do indeed express themselves through their gardens, either on a large scale or a small,  but the middle classes just keep them neat and tidy, and above all they keep them to themselves.  They don’t want passersby (like me) to know their tastes and their business.  And of course, I was mostly looking at front gardens. It was possible perhaps that there were untold follies and grottos, and for all know hanging gardens, in the back , but somehow I doubted it.

Naturally enough there are public gardens in Letchworth.  There are the Broadway Gardens, a name they got at the time of the Letchworth centenary. For while before that were the John F Kennedy Gardens – a fact memorialized by this block of (I think) granite:

There are also Howard Park and Gardens – which contain an adventure playground, water features, a bowling green and statue of Sappho – not every public garden has one of those.  And for a good while Howard Park and Gardens didn’t have one either.

The statue was presented to the city in 1907 and moved around, ending up in 1939 in the Ball Memorial Gardens. But the statue was stolen in 1998, so what’s there now is a replica, and its been moved round the back of the International Gardens Cities Exhibition, away from prying and criminal eyes.  

Clearly Letchworth contains elements that would have appalled Ebenezer Howard, and I can’t even imagine how he’d feel about some of the businesses on the main drag such as No Morals Tattoos. 

I guess this is known as reaction.