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, January 30, 2019


The best photo I can find of Tracey Thorne walking.
Tracey Thorn is OK by me.  She said some nice things about my book The Lost Art of Walking, and now she’s written a second memoir Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia, the title of which says it all, about growing up in Brookmans Park, a place I’d certainly never heard of. Unsurprisingly, as a teenager, she has arguments with her parents

“I told them I wanted to marry a poet and live in London. I wanted to get out. I couldn’t understand why they had ever moved here in the first place. Why would anyone want to? Who would choose suburbia? It’s for squares, for drones, worst of all, for PARENTS, who love it for the quality of life it offers. Young people don’t care about such things as comfort and cleanliness – they want culture, and nightlife, and energy. There are no clubs or pavement cafes in suburbia. You can’t explore it at night, as – say – Dickens walked the streets of London. Who walks around suburbia at night? You can’t be a suburban flâneur.  Suburbia is for those who want a quiet life with no alarms or surprises. It goes to bed early, and after dark, when a teenager comes alive, the streets are silent.
No wonder we looked at suburbia and wanted to burn it down.

I will say only a coupla things, that you can have better arguments with your parents even if you don’t live in suburbia, and even if you don’t want to marry a poet.  I will also say that some of us do in fact enjoy being nocturnal, suburban flâneurs.  And it’s not just me, it’s Jack Kerouac too, apparently, as here in The Dharma Bums

“Everything was fine with the Zen Lunatics, the nut wagon was too far away to hear us. But there was a wisdom in it all, as you'll see if you take a walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the street each with the lamplight of the living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of on wheels. You'll see what I mean, when it begins to appear like everybody in the world is soon going to be thinking the same way and the Zen Lunatics have long joined dust, laughter on their dust lips.”

The best pictures I can find of Jack Kerouac walking.  And yes, I do realize it's not night, and he's not in a suburb.

Kerouac never married a poet but he did date and/or marry a lot of women who subsequently went on to write memoirs detailing what a shit he was.

Sunday, January 27, 2019


Long ago and far away, I moved into a flat in Maida Vale in West London.  Naturally I walked around, explored the area, looked at things, and I came across a curious but intriguing house in Ashworth Road.  I don’t absolutely remember how it looked, and I certainly wish I’d taken a picture, but I didn’t take many photographs back then - few did - but I seem to recall a fairly conventional house made rather wild with wonderful and colourful geometrical addictions.  I’ve been searching for an image online but haven’t been able to find one (perhaps somebody can supply - Hi Terry!), though I did find a couple of pictures of the interior, which obviously I never saw back then.

I soon worked out that the house belonged to the architect Terry Farrell, a name I barely knew at the time, though I did know a couple of his buildings.  The Clifton Nursery in Covent Garden:

And the TV-am building in Camden, with the egg cups, one of which now resides in the John Soane Museum.

While searching for a picture of the outside of the Ashworth Road house I did find these words written by the man himself,
“Reflecting on my own experience at my house in Ashworth Road, Maida Vale – built among the lavender fields in the 1920s and connected with Central London by the Bakerloo line – I realized that the way I occupied it and changed it and turned it around over the years was all about making a city, a world inside my own home. But equally the city reflects in its streets the halls and corridors and circulation of a house.”

I think I know what he means, although given how few Londoners occupy entire houses, and given that you can easily pay 3 or 4 million quid for a house in Ashworth Road, it may not be an experience that many of us can share directly.  And I had never previously heard about the lavender fields.

Farrell, of course, went on to design the MI6 (or SIS) Building in Vauxhall - a building which achieves of the considerable feat of looking both forbidding and playful  at the same time, and also gloriously, defiantly conspicuous – a case of hiding in plain sight if ever there was one.

I happened to walk around the outside of it last week, and I must say it looks a lot less playful when seen up close. Yes, there are a few postmodern touches. like these quasi, or possibly faux, buttresses that are vaguely reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright:

But chiefly you notice there are various kinds of evil looking fences, spikes and barbs to keep you out.  And security cameras too, of course.

These things are certainly a deterrent but I wonder how many miscreants walking past that fortress would feel the urge to break in, even if there were no deterrents at all.

Also, being a skeptic, I couldn’t help thinking these things might just be there just for show, a kind of theater or set dressing, and maybe the place was empty and all the spies were actually in an unmarked building in Billericay or some such place.

And the impending sense that all might not be quite as it appears (which arguably is as it should be with spycraft) was reinforced by these three lads on the adjacent building site by the river, lolling against the security fence and sitting on the steps of perimeter of the MI6 building.  

True, they didn’t look like a threat to national security, but all the same you’d have thought that a polite, anonymous fellow from Intelligence might have popped out and had a quiet but firm word with them.

I gather that Terry Farrell now lives in a former Spitfire factory in Marylebone, and seems to be something of a cactus fancier, so he can’t be all bad. 

Thursday, January 24, 2019


Well, this was a sad and terrible thing.  I had never heard of Gigi Wu while she was alive, but apparently she was well-known in some quarters as the “bikini hiker,” and now she’s dead.

Her “practice” was to walk, or trek, though not actually climb, up mountain peaks and then take a picture of herself wearing a bikini, or in these cases have somebody take it, I assume.  She seems to have been very serious about the walking, but also a social media walker.  The walk was nothing without the photograph and vice versa.  She also, let’s face it, looked pretty good in a bikini.

Gigi Wu, was Taiwanese, and she died on a solo walk, falling into a ravine in Yushan National Park, also in Taiwan.  She seems actually to have died of hypothermia.  She  managed to contact rescue services but they couldn’t get to her because of bad weather.


Her Instagram account which is tagged barefootbikinihiker is currently closed but they say it’ll be reopened as a memorial, once the funeral has taken place.

Incidentally if you type bikinihiker into Instagram or Google you’ll find that scores, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands of women are hiking in bikinis, including Ann Wheeler of Clayton-le-Woods, in Lancashire who is described thus by the Caters news agency: “A mum was inspired by a near-death experience to get ‘body confident’ and go on 20-mile hikes in just a BIKINI and boots – but jealous women have told their walker husbands to KEEP AWAY.”

Ann Wheeler, with a friend

Ah men, ah women, ah news stories.  Ann Wheeler was, and I suppose still is, suffering from Cauda Equina Syndrome, which is a monstrous thing caused by damage to nerves below the spinal column.  Seems that its severity can vary enormously but you still have to admire someone who has that condition, and according to the reports, has done all 214 of Wainwright’s walks in the Lake District.  The bikini only adds to the fun.

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: