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Nights Of Old London

September 30, 2020
by the gentle author

The nights are drawing in and I can feel the velvet darkness falling upon London. As dusk gathers in the ancient churches and the dusty old museums in the late afternoon, the distinction between past and present becomes almost permeable at this time of year. Then, once the daylight fades and the streetlights flicker into life, I feel the desire to go walking out into the dark in search of the nights of old London.

Examining hundreds of glass plates – many more than a century old – once used by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society for magic lantern shows at the Bishopsgate Institute, I am in thrall to these images of night long ago in London. They set my imagination racing with nocturnal visions of the gloom and the glamour of our city in darkness, where mist hangs in the air eternally, casting an aura round each lamp, where the full moon is always breaking through the clouds and where the recent downpour glistens upon every pavement – where old London has become an apparition that coalesced out of the fog.

Somewhere out there, they are loading the mail onto trains, and the presses are rolling in Fleet St, and the lorries are setting out with the early editions, and the barrows are rolling into Spitalfields and Covent Garden, and the Billingsgate porters are running helter-skelter down St Mary at Hill with crates of fish on their heads, and the horns are blaring along the river as Tower Bridge opens in the moonlight to admit another cargo vessel into the crowded pool of London. Meanwhile, across the empty city, Londoners slumber and dream while footsteps of lonely policemen on the beat echo in the dark deserted streets.

 

Glass slides courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

Read my other nocturnal stories

Night at the Beigel Bakery

On Christmas Night in the City

On the Rounds With the Spitalfields Milkman

Other stories of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

The Dogs of Old London

The Signs of Old London

The Markets of Old London

The Pubs of Old London

23 Responses leave one →
  1. Jeff Spires permalink
    September 30, 2020

    Mystical!

  2. September 30, 2020

    Thank You for for theDark Nights of London!!😊😘🥰💖🌞🌈💐

  3. September 30, 2020

    How my father would have loved this: he used to talk about his dawn walks across London to work on the railways at Marylebone station before the war. Thank you for a beautiful piece of writing which transports us to old London at night.

  4. September 30, 2020

    One of your best, Gentle Author

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 30, 2020

    I love these photos – very atmospheric – you can almost smell the smoke in the air.

    Does anyone know what the photo of Selfridges is depicting? Obviously some major occasion where they have gone overboard with the exterior decorations – the coronation of King George VI perhaps?

  6. Sharon permalink
    September 30, 2020

    Love this, so atmospheric. The writing and photographs are absolutely wonderful. Thank you GA.

  7. September 30, 2020

    The L0ndon I imagined when I was ten. Magical.

  8. September 30, 2020

    Ghostly Pictures!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  9. Linda Granfield permalink
    September 30, 2020

    Dear GA,

    I think you’ve outdone yourself with this particular piece of writing. The language is so evocative and so superb that the photographs become superfluous. We ‘know’ what we are going to see in the photos because we’ve read the opening paragraphs.

    Writer to writer, I nod to the Gentle Author who attains the name of Genius Author on occasions like this. If I were teaching a writing class, I’d be using today’s column as a great example of tight and ‘photographic’ prose.

    A lovely gift in these days of lack-lustre email-writing.

  10. September 30, 2020

    What wonderful photos of London, thank you for sharing them.

  11. Malcolm permalink
    September 30, 2020

    Beautiful and magical was London at night. It was once a city wrapped in mysterious mists and foggy darkness, bathed in limpid gas light and lustrous moonlight, the dark, shimmering river bringing ships and trade, sparking and glittering as it passed beneath the glowing lights of the wharves and warehouse, the life-blood and soul of the city and its people. The streets were silent and empty at night, except for the great markets that once supplied the city with food, bustling and roaring before dawn as business was done and finished before the day’s labour began in office and shop. All gone now, except for mediaevil Smithfield, once a place of execution, fairs and jousts. Soon to be banished to the distant lands of Essex, the last of its kind, to be replaced by grotesque modern monuments to greed and avarice, carbuncles of glass and concrete, allowed by the ancient civic body. The Court of Common Council of the City of London.
    London at night today may have lost the mists and the mystery but it is still the most beautiful city on earth.
    The pictures of Trafalgar Square show the statue of General Charles Gordon still in position before it was removed to Victoria Embankment in 1943.

  12. paul loften permalink
    September 30, 2020

    Just add some fog and you have an Alfred Hitchcock film . The mystery and suspense rivets your eyes to the scenes, searching for something but not quite knowing what will appear

  13. September 30, 2020

    What a beautiful city! it once was.
    A different era entirely.
    Thank you

  14. September 30, 2020

    You’ve reminded all of us of how magnificent a CITY looks, wearing her evening clothes.
    Yes, “velvet” covers all, with an occasional shimmer of silk/satin…..and her jewels
    (even the ones made of paste) glisten and sparkle. And if that lady ventures out in the SNOW?
    There’s nothing as beautiful as a great city during a snowfall.

    Thank you for a beautiful suite of photographs. Wouldn’t it be fun to come up with a
    soundtrack for this array of images?

    GA, you always shine a light. ( Maybe a vintage lantern will be more appropriate today? )

  15. Alexandra Rook permalink
    September 30, 2020

    Welcome back, I’ve missed your prose. If only Piccadilly could be returned to
    such a human scale; perhaps it will post-pandemic. It certainly has been as empty.
    And London was full of smoke-darkened buildings and really was always raining.

  16. Akkers permalink
    September 30, 2020

    I love these old photos. Thanks for sharing them with us.

  17. Lizebeth permalink
    September 30, 2020

    Fantastic photos — thank you so much. Most of these are on my doorstep. Let’s hope the greed and lack of ethics and aesthetics today don’t remove or ruin any more of these magical places. It gets harder and harder to stop the juggernaut of “progress”… The best time to walk around London is when it seems empty, although it never really is.

  18. Sonia Murray permalink
    September 30, 2020

    “… Meanwhile, across the empty city, Londoners slumber and dream while footsteps of lonely policemen on the beat echo in the dark deserted streets…”

    Gloriously written, GA. Thank you for this beautiful and evocative portrait of the rain washed city as it used to be at night. I only wish my grandmother were alive to see these pictures of her world.

    All the best, and stay safe,
    Sonia

  19. September 30, 2020

    I do love your words and those wonderful old photos. My memories of London are from the late fifties and early sixties, yes fog, wet streets and that nighttime loneliness. Christine

  20. September 30, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, I am late in opening my email today. I agree with all responders above about how beautiful your prose is and how evocative these photos are for all who love London.

    Peace…

  21. September 30, 2020

    And I just have to add one of my favorite poems…

    COMPOSED UPON WESTMINSTER BRIDGE

    Earth has not anything to show more fair:
    Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
    A sight so touching in its majesty:
    This City now doth, like a garment, wear
    The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
    Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
    Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
    All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
    Never did sun more beautifully steep
    In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
    Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
    The river glideth at his own sweet will:
    Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
    And all that mighty heart is lying still!

    William Wordsworth: Poems, in Two Volumes: Sonnet 14

  22. October 2, 2020

    Beautiful writing and pictures. Made me feel quite emotional.

  23. Eddie H permalink
    October 4, 2020

    Brilliant set of pictures, thanks for sharing

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