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, February 19, 2019


I went for a walk from Aeroville to Roe Green.   These places have several things in common: both are in north London, both are small, quirky estates built specifically for aircraft workers, and until recently I’d never heard of either of them. I’ve also yet to meet a Londoner who’s ever heard of them either, though obviously there must be plenty of them.

It wasn’t until World War One that central government got involved with building what we would now call social housing.  Then it was just called “municipal.”  The Ministry of Works supervised the building of homes for workers employed in the war effort, especially in aeroplane and munitions factories.  These were inevitably on the outskirts of London, south and north, because that’s where there was room for airfields and factories. 
Frank Baines, an architect in his own right, later knighted, and after 1920 head of the Office of Works, supervised all this building programme, not least the Well Hall estate in Eltham for the workers at Woolwich Arsenal.

        Aeroville was designed by architect Herbert Matthews for workers from the Grahame-White aircraft factory in Hendon.  It’s more or less in Colindale. Plans were drawn up in 1917, but today nobody seems very certain whether work actually started before the end of the war, and in any case only part of the proposed scheme was ever finished.
These plans were published in the Building News in 1919:

Pevsner says of Aeroville, “A delightful formal square of terraced houses for 300 employees of Hendon Aerodrome” – That number seems a big high given the size of the place – it is just one square - but only a fool would argue with Pevsner, who then adds, more reliably, “Mansard roofs with pedimented dormers.  Doric colonnades to the side flanking the approach and to the centre opposite.” All of which is perfectly true.  I think you could also call it neo-Georgian.
The square must have looked much more grand, and indeed photogenic, before there were cars parked all over it.

It had being snow right before I went there and the geography of the place meant that half the square had been in sunshine, half in shade; so that the snow remained on the ground of the shady side.  

The living accommodation is a combination of houses and flats.  Entrances to the flats are discreetly placed around the back, but for the house dwellers, having all those doors facing each other must mean that everybody knows everybody else’s business. Maybe they like that.

Incidentally Herbert Matthews was quite a guy – as well an architect he was one of the founders of Aerofilms,the first commercial company that took aerial photographs to order.  They also published Air View Postcards. I assume the company must have photographed Aeroville at some time, though I haven’t been able to find an image. And I can’t swear that the photograph below is by Areroflms, although I think it might well be.  It’s of Roe Green Village, the place I walked to, more or less in Kingsbury.

It was built between 1917-19 for workers at AirCo, the Aircraft Manufacturing Company - 250 houses and flats, an inn, six shops and a doctor’s house.  When I was there the pub had been turned into a house and was up for sale: no sign of any shops.

And Frank Baines didn’t just supervise the design of Roe Green, he did it himself.  He was besotted with the location - “one of the most rural and charming within a radius of eight miles of Charing Cross … amidst pastures and noble oaks such as one associates with the west country. To preserve the beauties of the countryside was the architect’s first endeavour, and the plan has been so laid that only one tree was sacrificed.”

He didn’t do badly.   In fact he created an Arts and Crafts garden village, maybe even a garden suburb.  This is the building that everybody photographs because it’s by some way most picturesque building in the place.

Nevertheless the the whole thing is staggeringly elegant for a government-built suburb, or a government-built anything, especially considering it was built in the middle of a war.

And as you may know, I’m working on some sprawling unpublishable masterpiece to be titled Nicholson’s Guide To The Ground, and I found this beauty: 

Aberdine Adamant – just one more thing I’d never previously heard of, and which the internet tells me is a kind faux granite, chips of quarried granite set in a matrix of concrete to make a paving stone.  Very much the same idea as the stars on the Hollywod Walk of Fame.     

We live, we learn, we keep on walking and looking. 

Saturday, February 16, 2019


Its true!  All they need is a map, a good walk and a few heteronormative friends.

Thursday, February 14, 2019


 I went for a walk in Woodford with my friend Sue, who lives there but doesn’t like to be photographed (at least not from the front).

Down at the station there was Popeye, 

and up on the Green there was Winston Churchill 

and in between there was much to fascinate the urban or suburban walker; this kind of thing:

But I had given myself a small mission, to see the house of James Hilton, the author of the novel Lost Horizon.  He was living in Oak Hill Gardens when he wrote that book (now part of Woodford, but part Walthamstow at the time.  He was also there when he wrote his other  greatest hit Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

Now, I suspect few youngsters and even quite a few oldsters are unfamiliar with Lost Horizon although as you see, Hilton was once famous enough that his name was thought powerful enough to sell booze.

But everybody’s surely heard of Shangri-La, the mythical Tibetan kingdom run by lamas, where people can live to an unheard of great age.  It’s still a surprisingly readable book - I just read it - and it seems extremely modern in a lot of respects. The sexual politics are inevitably a bit dodgy, the racial politics less dodgy than you might expect.

There’s a film too, starring Ronald Coleman as the heroic Conway, directed by Frank Capra, which is ruthlessly unfaithful to the original – the missionary from the novel becomes a floozy, Conway suddenly has a brother, and Edward Everett Horton pops up as a paleontologist.

Actually there's a later film, a musical version (OMG), starring Peter Finch and Liv Ullman which is generally said to be cosmically awful.

The book was written in the winter of 1932 when Hilton already knew that things were already looking bleak for the world, even from the suburban outpost in Walthamstow, and he imagined a place where a small pocket of civilization could survive however terrible the approaching cataclysm.

It wasn’t hard to find James Hilton’s house – it has a blue plaque, and whoever lives in the house now isn’t shy about expressing their personality. And if you look closely you can see a skeleton hanging in the front window. and it could be a leftover from Halloween but since my visit was in February they’ve obviously grown fond of having it around.  Their mailbox, if that's what is, is impressive too.

Woodford is about as suburban and respectable a place as you can imagine, and although I haven’t been able to find any comments Hilton made about the place, his description of Shangri-La seems extraordinary sounds very much like Middle England.

Chang explains how things are in Shangri-La: “If I were to put it into a very few words, my dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation. We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excesses of all kinds   -even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself … And I think I can claim that our people are moderately sober, moderately chaste and moderately honest.”  This sounds more Church of England vicar than Tibetan lama.

And Chang describes the lack of crime in Shangri-La, attributing it to the fact that only serious things were considered crimes and “partly because everyone enjoyed a sufficiency of everything he could reasonably desire.”

You think it’s starting to go off the rails a bit when Chang says, “You English inculcate the same feeling in your publics schools,”  but then there’s a wonderful swerve, as he says, “but not I fear for the same things.  The inhabitants of our valley, for instance feel that it is ‘not done’ to be inhospitable to strangers, to dispute acrimoniously, or to strive for priority amongst one another.  The idea of enjoying what your English headmasters call the mimic warfare of the playing field would seem to them entirely barbarous, indeed, a sheer wanton simulation of all the lower instincts.” By which I suppose we can assume Hilton wasn’t good at sports.

Hilton became a very successful Hollywood screen writer and moved to California, where he won an Oscar for the script of Mrs. Miniver but interestingly (to me) he didn’t live in Beverley Hills or the Hollywood Hills where so many successful writers go; for the last ten years of his life (he died youngish, aged 54) he lived in Long Beach, in a bungalow on Argonne Avenue. I haven’t been able to find the number of the house, but part of the street looks like this on Streetview:

I’ve certainly walked around in Long Beach, though not down Argonne Street, and it’s a very different kind of suburbia from Woodford (or Walthamstow), but it’s still a member of the species.

Even at the time it evidently seemed an odd place for an Oscar-winning writer to make his home and Hilton was happy to explain in an interview: “I want to live in America. I want to write about it. You can’t get the feel of the country from Hollywood, so I came to Long Beach.”
Perhaps the same could be said about England and Woodford.  Depending on how you slice it, Hilton either came a long way or not very far at all.  That horizon wasn’t so lost, or distant, after all.

Saturday, February 9, 2019


I went for a walk in Poundbury, in Dorset.  It wasn’t completely awful but it was weird, and in fact bits of it were pretty awful.

Poundbury, you know, is Prince Charles’s utopian stab at urban development, planned by his tame architectural theorist Leon Krier.  Neither of these dudes lives in Poundbury, you’ll be surprised to hear.  Krier does drawings like this:

Poundbury gets compared to Disneyland and Stepford (where the wives comes from) but I kept thinking of The Prisoner - not the actual Portmeirion designed by Clough Williams-Ellis, the location where the tv show was filmed, but the fictional village – a place so calm and tranquil and well-ordered, you just knew something absolutely terrible was about to happen.

There is a town square of sorts in Poundbury, with a statue of the late Queen Mum – Krier designed the base.  

This is Queen Mother Square. Nearby is a pub named after Prince Charles’s wife - The Duchess of Cornwall Inn (what woman doesn’t want to have a pub named after her?), and just over the way, opposite the Waitrose, is a block of luxury flats that looks, deliberately, like a faux Buckingham Place, because you know, the real original Buckingham Place looks so awesome.

Incidentally, as you see, there is no grass in this public square, no benches, no identifiable pavements, nowhere to hang out.  There is also very little separation between pedestrians and cars, though there are some bollards protecting the statue.  They might also protect pedestrians, but that’s obviously not their prime reason for existing. The walker would do well to keep moving.

This lack of pedestrian friendliness comes as something of a surprise.  Poundbury was supposedly built to be a super-pedestrian-friendly place. The Prince would have you believe he’s a great believer in walking.  In 2004, he set down his ten design principles.  Number five asks for:  “The creation of well-designed enclosures. Rather than clusters of separate houses set at jagged angles, spaces that are bounded and enclosed by buildings are not only more visually satisfying, they encourage walking and feel safer.”

In this he’s echoing Leon Krier who posits a city made up of quarters or quadrants, the centers of which can be crossed in the course of a ten-minute walk.  For most of us, that’s no more than a half-mile stroll, which seems a little unambitious, and just pitiful for anybody who enjoys walking in a big city.

In fact one of the first things this walker noticed was just how car-friendly Poundbury seemed, perhaps because, at the moment there’s a great deal of free parking.  However, since the population is scheduled to double in size in the next few years, a parking spot adjacent to the Duchess of Cornwall Inn may be increasingly hard to come by. 

Along with this, I noticed just how many garages there are in Poundbury – huge numbers, most of them not attached to the dwelling of the car owner.  In fact there were quite a few examples of flats built on top of one or more garages belonging to other people, the disadvantage of which seem utterly obvious.

There are a few exceptions, but the vast majority of the garage doors are painted plain black.  Now, I’m not suggesting than selecting the paint color for your garage door is an inalienable freedom or a great mark of self-expression, but my own feeling is that I’d prefer any color so long as it’s not plain black.  I also thought those plain black “canvases” might represent a challenge and a provocation to the youth of Poundbury, but apparently not, and that may be because Poundbury the youth is in such short supply.

Of course I saw other people walking, some with dogs.

One woman with a Highgrove bag 

I also saw a couple of cats, of which this is one

The place was clean, it was safe, it was nice, and I’m not an idiot, I’m not against any of those things, 

but oh boy did my heart leap up when I eventually found the council estate.

The only graffiti I saw were there or thereabouts, and I’m no snowflake when It comes to graffiti, and these was pretty rubbish in themselves but they came as a kind of relief.  

These acts of self-expression were on one side of this classical temple type thing, which was actually an electricity substation.

The graffiti were on the side that looked towards the sports ground and away from the council estate, which I suppose was basicalily a good thing.  And this “social housing” had so much that Poundbury houses didn’t have: life, an unruliness, a genuine if sometimes naff urge for eccentricity and self-expression.  There were front gardens for instance – there were very few of those in Poundbury proper.

Here, some of them had been paved over to accommodate a car, some were carefully tended with topiary, some had am ugly heap of rubbish on the grass but at least the residents had made their own choice of paint color for the garage doors.

But the thing that made the whole Poundbury walking expedition worthwhile for me, was this sign in the front garden of a house evidently belonging to a small local businessman.  

Just possibly Poundbury is more diverse than many people think, or want it to be.


Well they certainly do look like they're having fun.

And Britishness is invoked, since the British certainly do know how to have fun.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019


I’ve been reading a rather good book titled A Spy’s London, by Roy Berkeley.  It’s a sort of travel book and walking guide, complete with maps, that allows you to wander around London and see where various spies lived, and where various acts of espionage were planned or committed.  Chelsea is full of them, it seems.

There’s 111, Old Church Street where the SIS trained refugees from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and turned them into secret agents. There’s the flat in Drayton Gardens where Kim Philby lived with his mother.  And there’s the home of Ian Fleming in Carlyle Mansions, Cheyne Walk. 

Authors just love to pose as though they're reading their own books.

Berkeley, like many before him, is skeptical about the extent of Fleming’s work as a spy, and calls him an intelligence wannabe. Fleming moved into Carlyle Mansions in 1952, taking his gold typewriter with him, bought specially to finish Casino Royale

Fleming’s flat was some floors above TS Eliot who, as I understand it, was living there at the time, at number 19, in an austere room, its walls bare except for a crucifix, and Eliot himself was living immediately beneath a flat where Henry James had lived. 

If the internet is to be believed, number 19 was subsequently the place where the serial killer Patrick Mackay murdered an elderly widow named Isabella Griffiths in 1974. ("There will be time to murder and create")

A more optimistic confluence has it that in 1958 Raymond Chandler was living very close to Cheyne Walk, in Swan Walk.  He was in desperate straits, grieving for his late wife, drinking too much, and working on his last, unfinished, and doomed Marlowe novel, Poodle Springs.  It seems that Fleming lived in a considerably better building, but Chandler was only staying for one summer.

I think it’s unlikely that Chandler and Fleming ever walked to each other’s flat.  I did, of course, and then back again.  On the way I passed a door to The London Sketch Club,

and I walked by Clover Mews, “This is a PRIVATE Mews” 

Frankly, it didn’t feel much like Bond territory, and understandably it felt even less like Marlowe territory. 

But Chandler and Fleming did have at least one encounter, not in the street while walking, but in a broadcast they did together on BBC radio in 1958 – Chandler was 70, Fleming 50 - and Fleming adopts the position of the junior partner, very wise given than Chandler (who of course I love more than life itself) sounds in the broadcast to be a bit of cantankerous old know it all, and very possibly drunk.  Thus:

Fleming: I see they had another killing last week in New York. One of these men connected with that dock union man—what’s his name?
Chandler: Albert Anastasia?
Fleming: Anastasia, yes. How’s a killing like that arranged?
Chandler: Very simply. You want me to describe how it’s done?
Fleming: Yes, yes.
Chandler: ... So they go to where the man lives, and they get an apartment or a room across the street from him.  They study him for days and days and days until they know exactly when he goes out, and when he comes home, what he does.  And when they’re ready, they simply walk up to him and shoot him.

Walking, it’s not for wimps.