On Christmas Eve In The City
Several years ago, when my last last relative died and I no longer had any family left alive, I decided to walk all night through the deserted streets of London on Christmas Eve – and this is my account
Fortified by a late supper of lamb cutlets, I set out after eleven through the streets of Spitalfields just as some of the residents were making their way to Christ Church for the midnight service, but I did not join them, instead I walked out into the City on Christmas Eve. As I passed through Brick Lane, the ever-optimistic curry touts were touting to an empty street and in Commercial St a few stragglers who had been out for the night loitered, but I left them all behind as I entered the streets of the City of London where there was no-one. Passing through the deserted Leadenhall Market, illuminated like a fairground, I slipped into the web of narrow alleys to emerge at the Bank of England. Here where the Bank, the Mansion House and the Royal Exchange face each other at this famous crossroads, the place was empty save a lonely policeman patrolling outside the Bank of England.
I headed down to the river and as I crossed the footbridge above the dark water with powerful currents churning in the depths below, I could enjoy the panorama of the vast city of empty rooms around me. Tonight, I was the sole rambler through its passages and byways, an explorer in the unknown territory of the familiar city, transformed by the complete absence of inhabitants. The sound of the gulls’ cry registered as it had not before and birdsong followed me throughout my journey into the dark streets, in which for the first time ever I heard the echo of my own footsteps in the centre of London.
Yet just as I had befriended the emptiness, I came round a corner in Southwark to see the cathedral glowing with light and the tune of a carol blowing on the breeze. I stepped down to the cathedral door and discovered a candlelit service in progress. An usher saw me through the glass door, and although I kept a respectful distance – imbued with the generosity of the season, he could not resist coming outside to lead me in. Before I knew it, I was in the midst of the service and it was overwhelming in contrast to the cold dark streets to which I had acclimatised. But once the bishop had led the choir in a procession through a haze of incense as the congregation sang “O Come all Ye Faithful,” the service was over. So as quickly as I arrived, I was able to return to my wandering.
Hastening Eastward along the Thames, I came to Tower Bridge where I crossed and skirted around the Tower of London. In the absence of floodlighting, its grim austerity came to the fore, yet even though all the gates were shut for the night I could see a few of the residents’ individual lights still burning within. From here I set out Westward, along Cheapside and Cannon St, where I came upon the fabled London Stone, built into an illuminated box in the wall, as I was passing on my way to St Pauls. Here also, the floodlighting was off, allowing Wren’s great cathedral to loom magnificently among the trees like some natural excrescence, a towering cliff of rock, eroded into pinnacles.
Winding my way onwards along the Strand through the courtyards and alleys, I found myself in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and I had it to myself. And in homage to the writer most famous for his walks by night through London, I visited the Old Curiosity Shop. Already, the night was drawing on and I discovered a sense of urgency, walking on purposefully even though I did not where I was going. At the Savoy, I turned down Carting Lane where I came upon one of just three people that I saw suffering the misfortune of sleeping out that night, though equally I was also aware of many bundled up in dark clothing with backpacks walking slowly and keeping to the shadows. I could only presume these people were walking all night in preference to sleeping in the frost.
I followed the Embankment along to Parliament Sq where there was no-one, apart from the antiwar protesters sleeping peacefully in their tents and statues of dead men standing around on plinths. Big Ben struck three in the morning and, without any traffic, I could sense the sound travelling around me, bouncing and reverberating off the stone buildings as I made my way up Whitehall. Coming to the end of Downing St, two policemen with machine guns on duty behind the fortifications spotted me, the lone figure in the street, and I realised they were focusing on me. Then, to my surprise, one waved, and so I returned the wave automatically and the atmosphere of unease was broken.
There were plenty of taxis for hire circling Trafalgar Square – they were the only traffic on the road by this time – but absurdly there were no customers to rent them. Looking through Admiralty Arch, I espied Buckingham Palace tempting me, and I wanted to go walking around St James’ Palace too, but weariness was also coming upon me. It was time to return home. I walked doggedly across Covent Garden, along Holborn and over Smithfield, then through the Barbican and so I found myself in Spitalfields again.
The city was as still as the grave and there was a keen edge to the wind, yet I had kept warm by walking continuously. It was as though I had travelled through a dream – a dream of an empty city. Although I delighted in the privilege of having London to myself, it is an alien place with nobody in it, so I was eager to renounce my monopoly and give the city back to everyone else again, because I longed for the reassurance of my warm bed. Already children were waking to unwrap parcels that appeared mysteriously in the night, although I must confess I saw no evidence of nocturnal deliveries upon my walk. It was now 4:30am on Christmas Morning and as I approached my front door, even before I took out the key to place it in the lock, a cry of a certain cat was heard from just inside, where he had been waiting upon my return for all this time.
Leadenhall Market at 11:50pm on Christmas Eve.
At the Bank at Midnight.
In Southwark Cathedral, 1:00am Christmas Morning.
Leaving Southwark Cathedral.
The London Stone in Cannon St.
At St Pauls, 2:00am Christmas Morning.
The Old Curiosity Shop, 2:30am.
At the Savoy, 2:45am.
In Carting Lane, next to the Savoy.
A lonely photographer at the London Eye, 2:55am
The Nativity scene in Trafalgar Square, 3:15am.
In Covent Garden, 3:30am.
At High Holborn, 3:45am.
At the Barbican, 4:00am on Christmas Morning.