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On Christmas Night in the City

December 25, 2010
by the gentle author

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 last 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.

You may expect two more reports of nocturnal escapades from the gentle author this week.

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.

54 Responses leave one →
  1. julie permalink
    December 25, 2010

    Happy Christmas . I have had much enjoyment from you over the last year….I owe you a present.

  2. December 25, 2010

    Me too. Happy Xmas.

  3. December 25, 2010

    I too have loved your messages over the past year and particularly this one. My partner and I had the same idea as you to walk through the empty city last night but a couple of glasses and a warm blanket put paid to that. I am assuming you are enjoying Christmas with your cat out of choice. If however you would like some goose and human conversation, these Rotherhithe residents would be honoured to have your company!

  4. Ashley permalink
    December 25, 2010

    Lovely pics – so the city does sleep once in a while 🙂

  5. December 25, 2010

    I wish I lived closer into town. To have the city to yourself must be truly magical.

  6. December 25, 2010

    what a lovely piece of writing, thankyou so much!
    I really enjoyed it here from the arm chair in front of the fire at home with my family in Norway. I miss the city already, and reading about all the alleys and places I know so well walking myself, made me feel at least a bit connected with the Londony Christmas-atmosphere too this Christmas morning 🙂 I even caught myself with a little tear in the corner of my eye, gosh.

    Merry Christmas to you there!

  7. AKB permalink
    December 25, 2010

    Thank you, Gentle Author, and Merry Christmas! Your thoughts move me so much. I’m grateful that you’re out there documenting daily life in London, and I look forward to reading you for years to come.

  8. December 25, 2010

    Beautiful – Thanks – as above i have also enjoyed reading over the last year.

  9. December 25, 2010

    Beautiful and eerie. Love the image of packed Southwark Cathedral in the midst of the emptiness.

  10. Ros permalink
    December 25, 2010

    Just wonderful! Greatly enjoyed by this Londoner.

  11. Chris F permalink
    December 25, 2010

    I lived on Margaret Street just off Oxford Street for a couple of years and often found myself virtually alone in the West End in the early hours. The city at night can seem like a ghost town, but I never felt threatened during my pre-dawn ramblings. On Sunday mornings, I would strike out in a different direction and try to take in every alleyway and mews. It is amazing what you stumble across. Like many others who post on here, I miss London (or my part of it), but you continue to bring it to life with your stories. After I have devoured my Christmas dinner of sausage & mash and ‘Birds’ Angel Delight (Butterscotch), I shall raise a glass to your (and Mr Pussy’s) continued good health. Merry Christmas, Gentle Author and a Happy New Year.

  12. December 25, 2010

    Beautiful and poignant as ever.

    Merry Christmas to you, Gentle Author.

  13. December 25, 2010

    I have thoroughly enjoyed looking at London on Christmas Eve through these pictures.

  14. December 25, 2010

    Hello from Greenwich Village, NYC.

    I found your post through the Londonist Twitter feed, and glad I did. My profession and passion is public lighting, with a focus on urban nighttime environments. Your “On Christmas Night in the City” is beautifully rambles, observed, written and photographed. I will share it, as a link – fully accredited – on Facebook, etc for many and all to read.

    Thanks so much for the inspiring holiday night’s greeting.

  15. the gentle author permalink*
    December 25, 2010

    Oftentimes, I miss Greenwich Village, the Green Market in the Union Sq, Washington Sq in Summer, the Bowery Bar, the cafes of Bleecker St, the African bead sellers of Greenwich Ave, the City Bakery, and all the delights of Alphabet City.

  16. Rhianwen Guthrie permalink
    December 25, 2010

    Another corker. Thank you so much, what a comfort to know you were out there last night – and so lovely to follow a journey that one can imagine in the mind’s eye, set out so lovingly in beautiful prose.

    Happy Christmas and a peaceful new year to you…

  17. December 25, 2010

    dear gentle author you are as good as a pigeon !
    thank you for this wonderful flight around London ,a real sense of place as always in your writing , I bet you enjoyed your warm bed on your return !
    happy christmas and I eagerly await your next observations

  18. jeannette permalink
    December 25, 2010

    The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face-to-face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.

    this is breath-taking. merry christmas, ga.

  19. Lucy permalink
    December 26, 2010

    Thanks for this wonderful insight into a London Christmas night…
    Happy Christmas !

  20. Susan Lendroth permalink
    December 26, 2010

    Thank you for topping a year of wonderful posts with a Christmas morning walk through London. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, Mr. Pussy, the other residents of Spitalfields and the London that sleeps around all of you right now.

  21. Belinda Harman permalink
    December 26, 2010

    Thank you very much for all the intersting photo’s and items over the year.
    Loved these photo’s its not often us native Londoners have London to our selves.
    Shame on our county and city that in Christmas 2010 we still have people living on the streets.
    I wonder what Charles Dickens would have thought of that.

  22. Janet E Davis permalink
    December 26, 2010

    Thank you very much for going out into the cold and sharing the experience in both photographs and words.
    I am nervous about wandering around cities at night by myself but have been, at various times, around Oxford Street, Bedford Square area and Houses of Parliament when there has been hardly a soul around. It seems so strange that such areas could be so empty at night. The City seems oddly silent and empty early on a Sunday morning too.

  23. December 26, 2010

    Never come across your site before, that was beautiful. I will be popping back. Hope you enjoyed your Christmas with puss.

  24. December 26, 2010

    These are beautiful images. Thank you for posting. The homeless man asleep gives a new meaning to the word venting.

  25. December 26, 2010

    well done Gentle Author. you are one of the top “tweets” today!
    see you in the new year
    all the best
    the farm.

  26. Helen O'Rahilly permalink
    December 26, 2010

    Wonderful writing and such original photographs of a City I know only by day. A whole new City is now revealed in those small hours. A very happy Christmas to you.

  27. Rebecca permalink
    December 26, 2010

    This is an absolutely beautiful post… thank you so much for sharing this. You are a gorgeous writer. I have never been to London but I can appreciate how the absence of people make cities feel altered. You have captured a beautiful scene with words.

    Cheers and happy holidays,

  28. Ken Grayling permalink
    December 26, 2010

    When I was 19 (ahem, only 30-something years ago!), I cycled through the streets behind St. Helens (City of London) some Sunday nights – the only sound the swish of tyre rubber on tarmac!

  29. Nancy permalink
    December 26, 2010

    I found this link on Twitter, so thank you very much for posting it. I absolutely loved the pictures and it made me wish I could go back and visit this wonderful city again. Hope everyone reading had a great holiday.

    -Nancy from Houston, Texas.

  30. December 26, 2010

    Thank you for this wonderful narrative, gentle author. I’m typing through a few tears from Canada, remembering different parts of your walk at different times. Beautifully done.

  31. December 26, 2010

    Your posts and photo have brought much joy and pleasure to this Londoner in exile (only in the South West but in a tiny village) in recent months. My North & East London family roots go back through many generations and for me you capture the true heart of this great city. Wonderful writing that has cheered me up no end while I was being treated for one of those pesky illnesses that force you to confront your own mortality. But am now en route to full recovery and looking forward to another year of magical reading about my dear old home town.

    A hugely happy Christmas and an excellent 2011 to you and Mr Pussy.

  32. melbournegirl permalink
    December 26, 2010

    Christmas greetings from Melbourne. Your beautiful words and images evoke the city I love from the other side of the world. The magic of London, past and present, just shines from your posts. Thank you so much.

  33. December 26, 2010

    Greetings of the Season Gentle Author .. . . . to you and Mr Pussy

  34. December 27, 2010

    Fabulous post gentle Author! I am envious that you had the city to yourself!
    I am forever perambulating London in the daytime but past midnight it looks truly magical.
    I don’t think it would be so deserted on any other night but Christmas Eve. Truly inspiring.

  35. December 27, 2010

    You’ve become a good friend gentle author…………..your words hit the spot everytime you take on a new subject……….Good luck and happy christmas to you my good man.

    Catch up with you in the new year for our book project.

  36. jeannette permalink
    December 28, 2010

    i wanted to alert you to another nocturnalist, walking through the british countryside all night long, recording the sounds.

  37. December 28, 2010

    Thanks. These are gorgeous. (Except the homeless person who is heartbreaking, especially on Christmas and with the historic wealth and power of London displayed in the other images.)

    This set would make a wonderful calendar.

  38. radmila završki permalink
    December 29, 2010

    I visited London in May this year, spent 3 days there(couldn’t afford longer visit), it was my first time in London and I fell in love with it.We left early in the morning and your pics reminded me of that time.My Christmas wish was to visit London again…Merry Crhristmas from Croatia.

  39. January 2, 2011

    what an honour it is to read your stories – i love your blog

  40. January 4, 2011

    This link was posted to me by a friend who stil lives in London luckily. I lived there for twenty years but moved to Winchester when I married. Never a day goes by when I dont miss London, my first love and your midnight/early morning walk was so evocative, I was there with you, walking all those familiar streets, paths and lanes. A tear is in my eye as I write this. My husband wont return but one day I will, I miss you London but thank you Gentle Author for bringing it to me here in Winchester, so near yet so far….

  41. Wendy permalink
    February 16, 2011

    I’ve always wanted to spend Christmas in London and now through this post, feel I have. I’ve just discovered you this week and realize I have the gift of two years worth of archives to wander through. What a treat!

  42. August 23, 2011

    Wonderful photos. I use to live in Clerkenwell/Holborn for 30 years and always feel homesick at xmas these pictures took me back in time lovely. I now live in Ireland.

  43. Paula permalink
    December 8, 2011

    Simply wonderful … Felt I was walking with you … Happy Xmas

  44. Monica Timms permalink
    December 25, 2012

    I, too wish you a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

  45. Warren Yates permalink
    December 25, 2012

    My wife and I walked a similar path last weekend but on the way to The Apollo theatre to watch Stephen Fry in Twelfth Night.Your descriptions and photographs are a lovely reminder of a fabulous city and a memorable evening.I’m a proud Mancunian but I love London,thank you.

  46. December 25, 2012

    Your wonderful photos and comments make Christmas everyday! What A TREAT! Thank you for your many gifts. I may live on the Sonoran Desert, but London is only a few mouse clicks away. Mary

  47. Sonia permalink
    December 25, 2012

    Thank you so much for the many delightful hours this ex-pat has spent visiting your website in the past year! Your midnight visit to London was a gem – please do it again next year, and publish your photos as a book. Have a very Happy Christmas and a joyous New Year!

  48. Miriam Delorie permalink
    December 26, 2012

    Thank you for your wonderful pictures and thoughts. Best wishes to you from far away Cape Town, South Africa – but we never forget our roots which you have brought closer!

  49. isa permalink
    December 26, 2012

    Thank you for the haunting night photos. I love London so much and now since I have moved to Eastbourne I kind of need to remember how wonderful it all is! The only sad thing is seeing the homeless person.I once chatted to some of the people who were sleeping rough in Waterloo,and they were some of the sweetest people I had ever met.There are so many reasons why people sleep rough and I do give some money to who ever needs it as each person has a story to tell be it through breakdowns in their lives or mental issues.They deserve help when ever and not scorn.

  50. Maggie permalink
    December 25, 2014

    Thank you. I live a long way from London now, but always loved the history of the city and the images the street names bring to mind. I always imagine walking through those evocative streets when they are empty, but of course I never have. Reading this was magical. Have a happy Christmas.

  51. Victoria permalink
    December 25, 2014

    I have just read your Christmas night walk, four years on. It was a wonderful journey, and the skill of your writing and vivid imagery made me feel magically transported to the city too.

  52. Su C permalink
    December 28, 2014

    Thank you Gentle Author this intimate portrait of the sleeping city.

    Having walked this or similar walks on my visits to London City and surrounds, I have often wondered what it must be like to not have to wend through the throngs of people much like a fish going upstream. How freeing it must be to hear and see the city without distraction except that of its own offerings.

  53. September 30, 2020

    Extraordinarily beautiful words painting pictures I recognise from a long time ago; wandering youth bounding noisily from late parties I’m afraid. But eerily, while the fog has gone, the empty City vibes resonate with the sights we saw recently with the City in lockdown. Maybe one cyclist, an anonymous van and two people walking past each other. And this was daytime. Thank you. Jane Reed

  54. Heather Cole permalink
    November 5, 2021

    Arrived here via your link that accompanies today’s London at night post.

    This is masterful and of course I’m sending it to my adult daughter, who promises me one last Christmastide in London.


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