Mon 27 Apr 20 | Diary

Pilgrim's Diary

Sketching latest

Next Writer’s Workshop

Fri 24 Apr 20 | Diary

Pilgrim's Diary

Taplow to Cookham

This being a virtual pilgrimage, I’m going to come back to Taplow. I have a number of Buddhist friends who must have visited Taplow Court gazillions of times – and I’d like to look around with them.

But I’m writing today’s diary in haste. It’s lunchtime, and I’m hungry!

[Lunch finished.]

I’m pushing ahead, determined not to keep people waiting longer than necessary. It’s Rob’s book launch soon, and I’d really like to be with him on the day.

Next Writer’s Workshop

Thurs 23 Apr 20 | Diary

Pilgrim's Diary

Windsor to Taplow

Finished yesterday saying I felt I was letting everybody down. I know I’m not, really.

But some have been so generous with their own pilgrim’s diaries (you know who you are).

I realise that I’ve been failing to post anything because I’ve been hiding what else I was up to during these days.

So I’m going to take a tip from another great writer-walker, Hilaire Belloc:

Belloc’s most famous pilgrimage book is Path to Rome, but he also walked the South Downs from Winchester to Canterbury, so he’s definitely somebody I should hold in mind.

As it happens, I’ve also been “paying my way” on this pilgrimage by words and drawings.

You may have noticed already the little ads promoting my writer’s workshops at the bottom of these posts. (Most Mondays for the next however long.) The fees go to me (and thank goodness for that, at this time).

I’ve also being drawing people – as part of a fundraiser on behalf of the homeless in Soho, a community in great hazard during the coronavirus pandemic.

I’ve drawn about 20 people so far. Here’s a taster:

At the weekend, this coming Saturday, I’m going to draw somebody quite extraordinarily famous as part of that project. An Oscar-winning actress.

Keep your eyes peeled.

Meanwhile, I’m walking on:

Next Writer’s Workshop

Wed 22 Apr 20 | Diary

Pilgrim's Diary

Some mistake?

To get to Canterbury from my home it would make more sense to walk south-east, but as you may have noticed yesterday, I’m going (a bit) north and (a lot) west.

I have important things to see this way, and there’s still plenty of time to duck down to Winchester (Rob and Jonathan have said they’ll wait).

I’m not exactly in a hurry: lockdown might not end for weeks.

I want to see Windsor Castle, and follow the Thames up to see Cliveden and the Stanley Spencers at Cookham, before I drop down to Caversham and onwards to Winchester.

So today I have walked further than previously planned.

Goodbye, for now, London!

It felt good to leave Heathrow behind me, and feel as I crossed the M25 that I had truly departed from London.

I hadn’t slept particularly well at Sipson. Dawn comes early, at this time of year. And though I hadn’t realised it when I settled down to sleep, the soft earthy hollow I chose had a strong smell of dog wee. I’m afraid it must have got into my hair.

Walking alongside the Queen Mother Reservoir, I was tempted to jump in. But I remembered that this may be serving London with drinking water, and restrained myself.

The early part of my walk was flat, and easy. If a little ugly:

Happily, the road improved a little by the time I approached Datchet:

My old trainers seemed to be managing fine. Still, I took them off in the churchyard, and my thoughts turned again to Daniel Defoe, whom I mentioned yesterday.

Not only because of his trip to Windsor (as a character in my novel) but also because of his book, A Tour Through The Whole Island of Great Britain, much of it invented, so they say.

Windsor itself, unsurprisingly, was deserted:

But I was quite surprised, as I looked for the Thames, to be plunged into night-time, and then back out again:

I didn’t make it to Taplow.

It’s harder than it looks, this Desktop Pilgrimage.

It seems to take an enormous amount of effort to believe in it, and drag myself along Google Streetview, look for pictures of places by #hashtag on social media.

Helps a lot to have the route in mind.

And to have people encouraging me.

But I feel like I’m letting everybody down because I haven’t reached where I said I would be at this point.

Next Writer’s Workshop

Tues 21 Apr 20 | Diary

Pilgrim's Diary

Even further West London

Last night, I slept at Shepherd’s Bush – a surprisingly refreshing kip on the Green – before waking to the dawn chorus.

From there, I set off towards Sipson, a village near Heathrow famous for the campaigns waged against building a new runway.

Altogether, I walked 12.5 miles. It was easy going, because the ground is mostly flat.

In times past, Hounslow Heath was notorious for highwaymen. In fact, I wrote about that in my novel about Queen Anne, because the characters have to travel this way to get to Windsor from London.

As I walked over that once-perilous terrain, I read a little from the book:

On repetition

Posting these videos of Google Streetview, I worry that it might be terribly repetitious. But really, each one is different.

This question came up in yesterday’s writing workshop: novelty for the sake of it is not always a good thing.

Sometimes it can be very effective to repeat something with small variations, because each one shines fresh light on the others.

To demonstrate that, I made a tiny film for the workshop participants, about a book I love by Matt Madden:

I shall be using Streetview again – and again and again – but I shall not be walking this way through Hounslow, and nor shall I read you that passage, from that book, again.

Postscript. Received an encouraging message from Jess, with some reading recommendations. I’ll share those soon.

Next Writer’s Workshop

Mon 20 Apr 20 | Diary

Pilgrim's Diary

Fresh start

Set off with good cheer, back down West End Lane, following the route I planned carefully yesterday.

Heading south: from my current home to my first childhood home

On the way, I received a message on Whatsapp from Jonathan: a fascinating glimpse into what happens to a man’s mind when he starts walking towards a destination, even when the walk is imaginary / or actually round his garden. Do listen:

Childhood precincts

It always feels like a big deal to cross the canal, the railway and the Westway. Leaving north London and returning to West London where I grew up.

I couldn’t resist popping back to my first home on Cornwall Crescent, via Portobello Road, scooting up Blenheim Crescent to the spot where we used to wait for a certain top footballer to sign autographs at the basement betting shop, then up and over the hill on Ladbroke Grove.

Turned towards Notting Hill, then ignored the traffic signs – we’re on foot, after all – and to see my old primary school, Fox.

No footstep sound effects this time. Just the authentic sound of mouse on desktop.

Workshop as I walk

On my way, I stopped to run a writer’s workshop for an hour in the morning and another hour in the afternoon.

(Details of the next workshop are at the bottom of this page.)

In that workshop, I asked participants to find one central episode or thought, and build that up by the afternoon into something to share with the others.

I mentioned a few of the books on my desk.

In the late afternoon, my writer companions read to me the stories they had produced.

One captured how strange it is, in lockdown, to have informal bantering conversations with his grandson while playing a computer game together online – then how formal and distant they became when the grandson rang at the front door.

Another wrote of being told by her sons to observe government advice scrupulously, by staying apart – and of not telling her sons that this made her weep.

Another wrote about the peculiar reversal of expectations when the immigrant family she phoned to offer help sounded cheerful and untroubled.

The stories were terrific, because they were so honest.

Onwards, to Sloane Square

Before leaving London, I wanted to pop to a church I only fairly recently discovered – but which means a lot to me.

Holy Trinity Sloane Square is very close to somewhere I went to a lot, two years ago, following a spell of illness. After my appointments, I would often pop inside the church.

Don’t know what drew me to do that.

I was delighted and quite stunned by the interior. Towards the end of this video, you can see the back of the massive stained glass windows at the back of the church, designed by William Morris and (temporarily forgot his first name, Edward?) Burne-Jones:

Sometimes, though I had no idea what I was doing, I would sit in front of this Madonna and Child:

It was tremendously restful, and I’m sure that these stops helped my recovery.

Don’t miss: Writer’s Workshop

Final stretch

From Sloane Square, I wandered through South Kensington, up towards the Albert Hall and cut through to Holland Park, on the way to Shepherds Bush.

On Shepherd’s Bush Green, I looked for a quiet spot to rest for the night:

Fri 17 Apr 20 | Diary

Pilgrim's Diary


I have a most peculiar sensation. I’m not sure where I am.

In reality, I’m still at home in north London. In my head, I’m not sure if I’ve actually “walked” any further than Marylebone Road, because that’s the last place I passed on Google Streetview.

I’m getting in a muddle.

I’m supposed to be in Shepherd’s Bush, recording a convivial chat with Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler, in a virtual tavern.

But I don’t want to be there yet because I still want to go on a spin around parts of West London where I grew up – perhaps “walk” through them with school-friends and/or my brother.

I haven’t got a clear plan.

I’m drifting in the internet’s nowhere.

I realise this may sound like a rather insignificant and wholly artificial problem. But it’s not.

At my desk, in north London, I’m starting to feel genuinely sick of staring at the same bloody computer all day. I’m feeling hemmed in by the same four walls of my top-floor office and its relatively low ceiling.

I’m feeling terribly disconnected from reality.

I need to get away from everything digital.

But at the same time, I need it to sustain a sense of connection with friends, and the wider world.

I wonder if it might help to listen again to the psalm Justin read to me before I set off? Yes, I’ll do that, then I’ll turn off all my devices for 24 hours.

Feel free to eavesdrop. If you missed it, it’s a treat:

A psalm for the road

Thank you Justin.

Workshops etc

Thurs 16 Apr 20 | Diary

Pilgrim's Diary

Slow start

I confess, I hadn’t expected northwest London to be so sticky. I’m not moving very fast at all. Too many friends in this area – not that I’m complaining.

Is it terrible spoiler to say that on a virtual pilgrimage I could walk much faster in other parts that I know less well…?

I don’t know. Who’s in charge?

Fast Deb

One of the people I’m looking forward to seeing is Deb, a terrific writer who hasn’t set off yet, and she lives a bit to the east of me so she has further to go.

Deb will have to hoof it if she’s to catch up.

Get your boots on, Deb!

Faster Jess

This afternoon I spoke to Jess Dandy, who is plotting for later in the year a Song Path – a walk that stretches creative muscles as well as the legs, with the aim of achieving better mental health.

She’s done Song Paths before, in Real Life, but the next one may need to be virtual, like this Desktop Pilgrimage.

When we spoke, Jess promised she could walk fast and join me before I reach Winchester.

She must be a jolly fast walker, because she’s in Cumbria at the moment – or “atm” as you might type in the olden days, when everybody was too busy to type words in full (me incl).

Afterwards, Jess emailed a picture of her route. Only four days and 11 hours of marching, without sleep:

In the subject line, she wrote: “A mere potter”. Fighting talk!

What kept me?

Like I said, the area near my home is thickly encrusted with significance (to me). Yours must be the same (to you).

But one thing that delayed me, surprisingly considering that I never left my desk, was getting lost on Google Streetview:

South Downs Way Ranger Anni

Karen introduced me to her friend Anni. I’m hoping to meet Anni on the South Downs Way – after Guildford and before Canterbury.

I gave Anni a call, and during that call I gave her a couple of challenges.

Here’s one: come up with a contribution for my updated Canterbury Tales. She took it surprisingly well.

Can I just say, I’m very pleased to have outed myself as the Chaucer of this whole thing.

Big boots to fill!

But I have big feet:

Desktop Pilgrim At Work

Workshops etc