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, January 22, 2019


Funny things, obsessions.  Some of them last so much longer than others.  Some wear off and are gone quite quickly.  Some come and then go away for a while and then return. And in some cases it seems that the obsession is  pursuing you, rather than the other way round.

And so I return to my mild, yet ongoing and very possibly expanding, interest in obelisks.  I’ve written about them a couple of times before on this blog but I keep seeing them as a walk through the world, and this seems in some oblique way significant

On the one hand obelisks may be seen light coming down from heaven and being focused rather precisely.  On the other it’s seen a phallic symbol of male power.   I really have no dog in that fight – although as phallic symbols go it seems a bit hard-edged.  And when I see them on my travels I’m not sure I think of them as either.  For me it’s more about  variations within a definite form, as with the martini.

Towards the end of last year I was in Chicago.  I didn’t go there looking for obelisks, I didn’t expect to see them, and yet Chicago seems to be Obelisk Central.  

They’re all over the place. It has a lot to do with Frederick Law Olmsted who designed large chunks of the city, including parts of what’s apparently known as the "emerald necklace.”  But it’s not restricted to that area.

And taphophile that I am, I went to the cemetery named Graceland (no Elvis connection) which I’d read about on Atlas Obscura, and which I think they rather over-sold as featuring  “magnificent opulence.”  I’ve seen opulenter.  But for me it was just the biggest cluster of obelisks I’d ever seen.

And then once I arrived in London I went to Brompton cemetery and there are lots of obelisks there too, though not nearly as many in Chicago:

And then in the deer park in Richmond

And on display in the British museum, which wasn’t really all that surprising

But there are also a couple tucked into corners in the Museum’s Great Court, which doesn’t seem very respectful.

And there were some in a shop window opposite the British Museum – I guess if you can’t sell an obelisk there, you probably can’t sell one anywhere.  That's the image at the top of this post.  I bought one, naturally.

And then in Battersea Park at the weekend I saw a set of them by children’s zoo, unnoticed by the passing afternoon strollers. 

This is by no means a complete list of recent sightings.   But here’s a thing; as I walked in the cemetery in Chicago I saw this:

And as I walked in the Brompton I saw this:

Walkers get everywhere, and most of us know a memento mori when we see one.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


At the moment I’m spending a couple of afternoons a week at the British Library.  I get off at Euston Station tube and then make the shortish walk from there to the library.

It seems that the powers that be at Euston Station want to encourage you to walk, not only to the library but to St. Pancras and King's Cross stations, and there are marked walking routes that supposedly help you to avoid the pollution of the Euston Road.

As a natural subversive this is troubling to me.  Yes, I want to walk, but I don't want to be told to walk, and I certainly don’t want to be told where to walk.

So I’ve been taking short cuts through the Ossulton Estate, a collection of council flats built in the late 1920s and early 30s.  When I first walked walked through, it all seemed very east European and ruined, movie-set-ish, and you know me, I like that sort of thing.

And I was reminded of Karl Marx-Hof in Vienna which is a fine building made much less grim, though no less cinematic, by being painted red.

But now I see that the part of the Ossulton Estate I walked through - Levita House - wasn’t really in ruin.  It was apparently just being stripped down in preparation for a new paint job, so that it now looks like this.

Me, I’d have painted it red.

This being the winter, it’s generally dark when I leave the British Library, and as I walk out I look up at Eduardo Paolozzi’s statue, widely known as “Newton After Blake” which looms over me, without quite making eye contact.

Of that triumverate - Paolozzi, Newton and Blake - I think only the last had much interest in walking.

Sunday, January 13, 2019


Ebenezer Howard, the father of the English garden city, was educated for a time at  a boarding school in Sudbury, Suffolk. It was the kind of school that sent its pupils out walking on Saturday mornings.  On once of these walks Ebenezer picked some wild flowers and carried them back at school, where he went to his room and scattered the petals around the floor.  

I’ll let Ebenezer take it from here, “This being discovered I was ordered to meet my teacher down stairs. The younger one, Miss Emma Foster, set about me pretty severely with a cane, and presently said to her sister, 'Do you think I have given him enough?' Her reply was, 'No, I think he should have some more.'  Shortly afterwards I went to my room in order to discover the localities of my various wounds which were not very severe.” He was about eight years old at the time, as far as I can tell.

Now, I can’t speak for conditions in Sudbury in the mid 19th century but if any eight year old lad at my school. some hundred years later, had picked flowers while walking, much less strewed the petals around when he got back, he’d have received various wounds from his fellow pupils long before any teacher could get to him.  It was a different age.

I went for a walk in Welwyn Garden City last weekend, Ebenezer Howard’s second attempt at a garden suburb, much less ambitious and impressive than Letchworth.  I did see the occasional flower in wintery bloom, but I didn’t pick any. I was more tempted by these mushrooms but I didn't pick them either, since my mycological identification still isn’t up to snuff.

I went to see the house Howard had lived – 5 Guessens Road, it's the one on the left and yep, it’s a semi:

And nearby was a house that one of city’s architects – Louis de Soissons - built for himself, detached, and somewhat grander than Howard’s, though still comparatively modest given the kind of houses architects tend to build for themselves.

Perhaps it was crass of me to see something phallic in the arrangement of the city’s central streets but I did:

Actually my pal Matthew Licht said it looks more like a bong, and he's right). 
          There was also a certain amount of public nude statuary here and there.  This one is titled “Ad Astra” and yes, it was a cold day:

This one is “Dawn,” a fleshier specimen:

The best thing that happened in Welwyn Garden City was this: I was walking around, mooching you’d probably say, looking at things, occasionally taking pictures, and I spotted a house that was having its roof worked on, but the existing tiles were being replaced with new tiles that were of a wildly unmatching colour.  

Knowing that most conservation areas are beset with rules and regulations about the most minor changes people can do to their houses, this seemed surprising and well worth a photograph or two.   

And as I was taking a picture, the front door of the house next door opened and a neighbour came running out – a formidable, chunky middle-aged woman, obviously somebody not to be trifled with, although I did intend to stand my ground if, as I expected, she started telling me I wasn’t allowed to take pictures.  But that wasn’t what she had in mind at all.

She said, “I saw you taking a picture of that roof.  Isn’t it awful?   It’s completely the wrong colour.  Even when they were starting I kept saying those tiles are all wrong but they just carried on, and they said they’d blend in once they’d weathered.  But I knew that couldn’t be right,  And anyway finally the builder admitted that he’d ordered the wrong colour tiles and now he's going to have to take them all down and start again with the right coloured tiles. And in the meantime it just looks absolutely dreadful.”

The suburbanite in me stirred.  I agreed with her completely.

Monday, January 7, 2019


Between Christmas and the New Year I went with Foster Spragge on the final walk of her As the Crow Flies project.  Mat Clum of Tickbird&Rhino was there too.  He’s the one on the left in the picture below (taken by Foster) in the Woolwich tunnel.

By the time you read this, an exhibition of drawings done during these walks (along with others), will be on display at the Westminster Reference Library, 35 St Martin's St, London, WC2H 7HP.  Hurry along, why don't you?

I joined Mat and Foster in Hackney Wick (above) – they’d started further upstream, and we walked to Woolwich, like this:

And then this:

We were more or less following the Capital Ring, though for one reason and another we strayed from that route occasionally.  For most of the time I really didn’t know where I was, which was great, since usually when I walk I’m the one holding the map, plotting the route, making the decisions.

But I do know that at one point we were walking along the Greenway - Plaistow, East Ham sort of way - which is built on the embankment of a sewer.

Frankly, it was a bit bleak up there, and seeing and this sign didn’t add to our sense of well-being.

I mean, we weren't cyclists, so we were presumably not being "targeted" but that still left a lot of possibilities.
   There was a great deal of flotsam and jetsam strewn around atop the sewer embankment, and the most intriguing by far was this safe.  

There must be a good story about where it came from, who carried it up there, how they got it open and what they found inside, but not all stories reveal themselves entirely.

And towards the end of the walk, things all turned a bit JG Ballard – high rises, low flying aircraft (from London City Airport), even a kind of terminal beach, which is by no means the worst way for a walk to turn.

Actually there are times when any walk can turn Ballardian, and it happened to me again just the other day walking in a Battersea Park.  

And likewise here when I was walking in Chicago not so long back.

Do all drained pools invoke Ballard? I suppose for many of us at this point in history, they do.  I wonder what or who they invoked before he wrote about them?

Some details of the exhibition are here: