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On Christmas Eve In The City

December 24, 2015
by the gentle author

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.

33 Responses leave one →
  1. December 24, 2015

    A wonderful night walk. I love walking at night, and always enjoy the feeling of having my world just for myself. Thanks for sharing. Valerie

  2. Maggie permalink
    December 24, 2015

    Thank you. That was a lovely evocative piece. I hope you have a peaceful and contented Christmas, however you choose to spend the day.

  3. Nick Whitsun-Jones permalink
    December 24, 2015

    A very descriptive and interesting piece of writing, thank you. Happy Christmas to you – and your cat!

  4. December 24, 2015

    What a lovely walk.
    Makes me think of ‘Stoneheart’

  5. Rosemarie Leonard permalink
    December 24, 2015

    I’ve experienced London in many manifestations, but your journey was new to me: thank you for sharing its beauty and poignancy.

    The closest I came was at the start of my early morning walk along the river, from Fulham to Tower Bridge on the day of the celebrations for the Queen’s Jubilee. Even then I was not alone, but shared the journey with fellow early risers – mostly workers, preparing the city for an influx of visitors. Watching London stir, wake and burst its seams was a joy.

  6. December 24, 2015

    Happy Christmas, GA.

  7. December 24, 2015

    Thank you, it’s a damp Christmas Eve in New Zealand tonight too.

  8. Wendy permalink
    December 24, 2015

    Thank you and wishing you and your cat a wonderful Christmas and a happy 2016.

  9. December 24, 2015

    I am sorry you’re the last of your line. In the end we are all dust. But it does not do to dwell too long. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas both alone with your thoughts and in the company of warm hearted friends.

  10. December 24, 2015

    Happy Christmas. I’ve enjoyed your posts throughout the year. Thank you.

  11. gioconda permalink
    December 24, 2015

    Thank you for a beautiful evocation of London, where every turn is steeped in history. The transformation of St. Paul’s was especially nice.
    Perhaps its your felicity of expression that makes the love of your city so palpable.
    Merry Christmas and good wishes for the upcoming year to you and that certain cat.

  12. Jean Clements permalink
    December 24, 2015

    Thank you for the photos of Christmas Eve especially as we can’t get up there any more. Thank you also for all the wonderful articles you write, so appreciated!!

  13. Judth Haxton permalink
    December 24, 2015

    Memory all alone in the moonlight …..
    Wishing you a Happy Christmas and New Year .
    Judy

  14. Neville Turner permalink
    December 24, 2015

    This post was exactly as I recall London and the area of your walk during the early morning hours in winter, very good photo’s which are lmprinted into my memory.
    Keep up the good work.

  15. JeanM permalink
    December 24, 2015

    A very interesting piece even though I think you were slightly brave walking about on your
    own at night. The buildings and landmarks look totally different at night.

    My best wishes to you and your cat for a Happy and Peaceful Christmas.

    Jean

  16. Kate Saint permalink
    December 24, 2015

    Thank you for your description of our magical city at night. I wish you a merry Christmas and a wonderful 2016.

  17. December 24, 2015

    Still quite early here in the Hudson River Valley in New York, but it was wonderful to wake up to this account of your late-night rambles. A reminder that we often rush through the holidays, rarely taking a moment for reflection and solitude. As I read this, I felt my blood pressure lower, and my sense of wonder and observation return.

    Happy Holidays to all

  18. December 24, 2015

    *** MERRY CHRISTMAS! ***
    *** FROHE WEIHNACHTEN! ***
    *** JOYEUX NOËL! ***

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  19. Stephen Foster permalink
    December 24, 2015

    It’s amazing how quiet and lonely London can actually be. I found myself crossing Blackfriars bridge at 3 in the morning during my visit in Sept. There was me, and the bells of St. Pauls Cathedral keeping me company as I waited for the N551 to whisk me of to Beckton. There was a fine mist in the air and I thought to myself, “I’m home”. I only lived in London for 4 short years in the 90′s but I’ve visited almost every year since I left and I consider it my spiritual home.
    I always thrill in the experience of the hustle and bustle of the city as a whole, but those quiet moments are spectacular. Whether is getting home as the sun comes up with the birds chirping away, or those areas you find that aren’t as populated by tourists. St. Katharine Docks comes to mind. So close to the Tower of London but can be so quiet. I hope the tourists never find this area. It’s perfect the way it is.
    I’ve always thought of the East End as the real London. Let all the tourist walk around Oxford Street and Hyde Park, and Piccadilly Circus, they can have it. All I want is the East end to myself. I want to glow in the history and the macabre that is true London.
    So my friend, have yourself a wonderful East End Christmas, and I look forward to reading more in 2016.

  20. December 24, 2015

    I could hear the quiet as I read this article.

    Many thanks for the story-gifts you give us all year. I have found myself thinking particularly of Rodney Archer in the past two weeks. Thank you for introducing him to us.

    Merry Christmas to you and your lovely cat.

  21. Rebecca permalink
    December 24, 2015

    This is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing your special Christmas Eve walk with us. Happy Christmas!

  22. Alan Christon permalink
    December 24, 2015

    Beautiful, when I lived on the streets of London, during the late 1980s, I would wonder the deserted London alleyways, such beauty in the early morning stillness, I was living rough during 1987 October Great storm , and remember 300 hundred year old fallen trees up to through Marble Arch/Tyburn.i would recommend, take a walk through the Early hours of the morning to see London at it most magestic.
    Thank You Gentle Author

  23. Sally Baldwin permalink
    December 24, 2015

    A lovely ramble, thank you, Gentle Author, and warm thoughts of a happy new year to you and Mr. Pussy.

    Merry Christmas!
    Sally

  24. Leslie permalink
    December 24, 2015

    Merry Christmas and best wishes for a Happy New Year.

  25. Flora permalink
    December 24, 2015

    Thank you, GA, for all of your words and photos. These were perfect. Thank you for following in the footsteps of the great CD. And thank you for the Great Puss Cat. I would like to think that all of your faithful readers are your family. A silly, peaceful, and healthy New Year to you and to all.

  26. Sonia Murray permalink
    December 24, 2015

    Gentle Author, I enjoyed this article so much. But you are mistaken – you do have family – we, your readers, who have come to know and care for you. You have become part of my family over the years. We British, whether at home or ex-pats around the world, are all one people!

    Have a very Happy Christmas and a joyous New Year!

    Love, Sonia

  27. Suzy permalink
    December 24, 2015

    LOVED this. It’s my secret dream to meander through the streets of London (or Paris) all night. Not sure how safe I’d feel though, as a lone female.

    Your heart was no doubt heavy that night but in your usual indomitable spirit you found beauty and wonder instead. Love that.

  28. Pauline Taylor permalink
    December 24, 2015

    My thanks and best wishes too gentle author, may you and Mr Pussy enjoy each others company on Christmas Day and may next year be a good one for you both. I enjoyed this article and the photos, all up to your usual high standard; we, your faithful readers, are very spoilt.

    Pauline, in Colchester, Britain’s First City.

  29. Sarahc permalink
    December 24, 2015

    A Merry Christmas to you and Mr. Pussy.

  30. Sofi permalink
    December 25, 2015

    Thankyou for sharing your love of the city.You made it come alive in a beautiful way.
    Wishing you peace and joy this Christmas and always.The warmth of friends and boundless cheer.Your lovely cat awaits you.

  31. December 25, 2015

    Merry Christmas to you and Mr. Pussy.

  32. Shawdian permalink
    December 25, 2015

    So sorry to learn all of your loved one’s have gone. Thank you for sharing your magnificent generosity. You are unique and we are proud of our Gentle Author. GodBless and here’s wishing you a splended Christmas. With a BIG HUG for Pussy. Merry Christmas !

  33. Clare permalink
    January 3, 2016

    Early New Year’s Day I had a remarkable walk through St James and up to Piccadilly. The whole area had been closed off to cars since the night before, no-one was going to work and perhaps most other people were having a lie in after seeing the New Year in. It was very special to have it have almost to myself but like you, I will glad to see the people back as normal next time I am there.

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