Stories from stones

Borrowing a phrase from Talking Walking interviewee, Leo Hollis, who said ‘where stones turn into stories‘ while talking about how the City of London, and the fabric of its built environment conjures up a myriad of stories.  Leo had just written a book about Sir Christopher Wren and the re-building of St Paul’s Cathedral, but I had approached him about an earlier book which described the history of the City of London through ten walks.  I accompanied him on one such walk when I recorded the interview.  He is a great advocate of both Wren and Sir Robert Hooke, as he feels that they were the first to ask ‘modern questions’ about how cities should function and how their form could influence how people lived within them.  Leo is also supporter of preserving views of St Paul’s and feels that they should be protected, more so than individual buildings being listed.  In this digital age, where our every move can be tracked, Leo recommends switching everything off and getting lost, allowing yourself to experience the stones of the City of London, to create your own stories. Listen to Leo here

At the other extreme, in terms of digital tracking, I accompanied Tim Wright, a digital author, who keeps track of not only where he is, at what altitude, but also his velocity at any time.  His GPS provides hims this detail, from which he determines the time it takes him to walk from one point to another, providing him the score on which to write the script for an ‘audio walking piece’.  It is actually fascinating stuff, and like Leo, he is only too happy to let stories emerge.  We walked from Waterloo station to Hercules Road, where William Blake once lived, and Tim recounted how he had ‘stumbled’ upon an idea for a ‘bibliomancy‘ – what if you stepped from a Blake walk, into a Dickens‘ walk and from here ended up in Joseph Conrad‘s ‘Heart of Darkness’?  He too came out with memorable turn of phrase, in which he said ‘walking liberates the writer from the solitariness of the room‘.  This interview was very much an inspiration for my own efforts of devising geo-located audio walks, for which the software and smartphone technology, makes it easy and affordable to have a go yourself. Listen to Tim here

Tom Bolton is also a walking historian, with similar enthusiasms to Leo, but he has broadened his territory to include the Lost rivers of London and Vanished neighbourhoods.  On our Talking Walking jaunt, we went in search of the River Effra, which along its whole course leaves tantalising traces in street names – Brixton Water Lane, Effra Road – but never appears.  We supposedly heard it rushing beneath our feet as we stood on a manhole cover in Norwood – but after a couple of hours following its course, you are prepared to believe anything.  Since then, Tom and I have gone out with groups of people and walked several lost river courses and explored forgotten neighbourhoods.  Tom is an engaging speaker and brings hidden rivers and streets to life. Listen to Tom here

Len Banister is a writer of walking guides.  He is also not averse to using the latest technology to help him devise an engaging route, flying through Google Earth, before he sets out on foot. Len showed me little known alleyways in the historic village of Waltham Forest, but he has been a contributor to Country Walking magazine and various  newspapers, so has walked all over the UK.  However, Len has volunteered for the Ramblers for many years, and has founded and chaired the Greater London Ramblers Walking Forum, as he realised how valuable the work of the Ramblers has been in maintaining, preserving and creating new rights of way, and for them to continue such work they must be involved in strategic policy in London.  So Len has been a lobbyist for walkers, and in our interview explains the inconsistencies of rights of way in London.  Len has a keen interest in nearby Essex, its inland villages and the coast, which he sees as an almost indefinable border between sea and land.  (It’s also of interest to Tom Bolton too whose latest book is all about Brexit and the Essex coast…). Listen to Len here

Moving up the coast to Suffolk, I met Fran Crowe for a walk along the shingle beach at Thorpeness, and area of continuous erosion from the North Sea.  She too is drawn to the coast but for a very different reason.  Many years before Sir David Attenborough‘s Blue Planet, Fran was inspired to take action having discovered the extent of plastic pollution in the North Sea from attending a talk by the Friends of the Earth.  She learnt there that at the time a square mile of ocean was host to as much was 46,000 pieces of plastic.  Taking this number to heart, Fran determined to collect plastic from the beach at Thorpeness and use what she found for installation art to raise awareness and campaign for a reduction in plastic use.  She kept bobbing up and down as we walked along the beach to pick up yet more plastic – shingle makes a terrific ambient backdrop and one is immediately taken to the beach just listening to the recording. Listen to Fran here.

Danielle Wilson is a labyrinth facilitator – which means she is there to support you as you walk through a labyrinth, journeying to find an inner calm.  It was about this time that I was working on Amazing London – an unrealised Olympic legacy project in which were going to create a maze in all 2012 square kilometres that London covers.  I was walking down Hampstead High Street, and spotted a banner of Danielle’s hanging on the railings of Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel inviting people to walk a labyrinth.  This turned out to be printed on a vast canvas sheet that Danielle rolled out to which she added a circle of candles.  The space itself was contemplative and she merely invited us in our own time, and at our own pace to walk the labyrinth route.  Now unlike a maze, which offers several routes, to trick you, and make it hard to find the centre of the pattern, a labyrinth offers only on route to the centre.  Hence you can trust that the path will lead you in and lead you out.  This Danielle tells us is a key to finding inner peace and each participants will discover something different.  It was a remarkable experience and subsequently chatting to Danielle and discovering both her journey to become a labyrinth facilitator and the history of labyrinths, make this a lovely recording. Listen to Danielle here

A frosty walk across London on chilly winter’s day, in the company of Ben Rossiter one-time Essex boy, and now full blown Australian was challenging for both of us.  I recall that my gloved hand holding the recorder got cold very quickly, and Ben, unused to the cold was fairly quickly shivering.  One needs to consider how much colder it is when you take to a bridge to cross the river Thames on foot – it is a big river, and takes awhile to cross! Ben runs Victoria Walks which acts both as a government lobbyist as well as promoting walking and in devising routes, across the state of Victoria in south Australia.  Melbourne is its biggest city, sprawling out into age tracts of suburbs, so finding ways of encouraging people and routes they can walk is challenging to say the least, but the Internet has provided a means by which people can contribute their own suggestions to a growing route map of the state. We may see Australians as fit athletes but the sorry fact is that they too have succumbed to obesity with almost 2/3rds of Australian adults overweight and 1 in 4 children.  Ben is a realist. His enthusiasms though come clearly through in our conversation and he values the chance encounters and excitement of urban walks. Listen to Ben here

Plotting buildings and streets of Peckham in the 1950s

We have been out walking and talking this week, not least in discovering as much as we can about Peckham, in south east London, plotting buildings, some of which still persist, all part of our homework for our celebration of Muriel Spark’s 100th anniversary – why not come and join us on Sunday 4 November as we explore and read her  novel “A Ballad of Peckham Rye“. Read more and book here

All about walking blog posting is unpredictable – if it’s raining biblical downpours then a blog post is more likely to appear, in most other weather conditions we are out walking and not blogging on a keyboard…..