Confession time: although I write books about London and take people on walks round London, I’m not a Londoner born and bred. I was born near Durham and I grew up in North Yorkshire. But after living in London for over 30 years, I can surely call myself a Londoner now.
For as long as I can remember history has been my passion, and in particular the history of places. Where does this passion come from? Impossible to say, but at the risk of arguing backwards from the fact, there’s a good chance it had something to do with where I grew up. My father was a surveyor specialising in the management of country estates. For me this meant living in historic landscapes, close to castles and palaces and in the shadow of famous old families like the Grosvenors and the Howards. How can this not have had an effect on someone already predisposed to the past, even if it wasn’t causal?
Education at Oxford University meant another six years in an historic setting. I have to say though that whatever else I learnt at my alma mater, there wasn’t much about the history of places in the Oxford history syllabus, certainly not at the doctoral stage.
Living in London for so long has opened up a whole new world of historical possibilities. So much variety! So many things to discover! So much to learn about! So many rabbit holes to go down! The analogy of the kid in the sweet shop comes to mind. Choice panic has only been averted by discipline. In the first half of my career it was book deadlines that forced me to focus; in the second it’s been the need to get a walk ready by a certain date for my London walking group.
And with LEG (the London Explorers Group) I extended my reach to Italy, regularly taking groups of LEG-ers to explore Italian cities using my own specially-created walks (publishers take note – two books worth ready to go). Bologna, Padua, Siena, Genoa – these are just a few of the cities I’ve created walks in over the years.
Creating walks is now second-nature to me. Whenever I go somewhere new, I start route-planning. Even if I say I’m not thinking about it, I probably am! If I can’t sleep at night I think about that walk in Siena or Hackney that I was never entirely happy with, tinkering with it till I drift off. Sometimes when I’m creating a walk I feel like an archaeologist: the route was already there, I just needed to unearth it. At other times I feel like a craftsman, making something from scratch and endlessly refining it till I’ve got it just right. The result for me is always a joy, but ultimately only my walkers and readers can truly say whether a walk works or not.