Skip to content

My Winter Walks In the City

December 17, 2023
by the gentle author

Many years ago, when my last relative died, for the first time in my life I had no longer any obligations at Christmas so, in recognition of this, I decided to walk all night through London on Christmas Eve alone, when the rest of the city was sleeping, and savour my strange moment of liberation. You can read my account below.


This year, as a the result of a commission by Barbican Arts Centre, you can join me for a two hour storytelling ramble across the empty square mile, from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral through the narrow alleys and lanes to the Bank of England, in search of the wonders and the wickedness of the City of London. These walks take place on 28th & 30th December and are conceived to elevate and uplift that curious moment of hiatus between Christmas and New Year.

Click here to book for The Gentle Author’s Winter Walks Through the City of London


On New Year’s Day, you are invited to join my walk around Spitalfields to blow away the cobwebs of 2023 and step forward with me into 2024. We shall ramble through two thousand years of culture in the heart of London and encounter some of the people and places that make this ancient neighbourhood distinctive. We will follow in the footsteps of all who came before, with a keen eye and an open heart, to experience the manifold wonders of Spitalfields.

Click here to book for The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields on January 1st


Click here if you would like to send gift vouchers for my walks that can redeemed any time in the next year.




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.


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.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Sally Bernard permalink
    December 17, 2023

    Walked it all with you , knew every step of the way.
    Thank you
    Merry Christmas.

  2. Lisbeth permalink
    December 17, 2023

    Very evocative! And you’re lucky to be spared snow… Greetings from Norway

  3. Sally permalink
    December 17, 2023

    That was unreal. I loved it. I escape in a similar way, sometimes. But instead I walk and sit on a headland looking up at the stars. It is also a nice way to think about the Christmas story and how special it is. Thanks again. I wish I was as talented as you at writing.

  4. December 17, 2023

    Those solitary walks are also my favourite — they make Christmas really contemplative.

    *** MERRY CHRISTMAS! ***
    *** JOYEUX NOËL! ***

    Love & Peace

  5. Marcia Howard permalink
    December 17, 2023

    A beautiful and moving post around the London I love. Thank you Gentle Author. Last night I was singing with my local Choral Society performing Vivaldi’s Gloria – which of course is glorious! Programme also including some good rousing Christmas Carols for participation by our audience. Suddenly it feels like Christmas.

  6. Eve permalink
    December 17, 2023

    How reassuring these familiar London landmarks must appear to be when recognised along a lone traveller’s way, and equally so for readers enjoying your favoured Christmas Eve path! Thank you & long may such exhilarating walks abide..

  7. December 17, 2023

    As a fellow urban rambler, I can see the appeal in undertaking such a walk in the middle of the night. I am also a night owl, which also helps. I have read this story of your Christmas walk previously and I wonder about your thoughts on your long, solo walk. There is a difference between being alone and lonely and you hope that it wasn’t the latter. I’ve done an awful lot of walking myself this year – I wrote about some in my own blog. I wish you happy, reflective walks dear GA, and a very Merry Christmas.

  8. Jeremy permalink
    December 17, 2023

    I enjoyed your descriptions of our wonderful city and was reminded of H.V. Morton’s book “In Search of London’ which I really must read again.

  9. Cherub permalink
    December 17, 2023

    The Nativity figures are beautiful, very touching.

    I recently took a photo of a shop window in Basel that has a life size Nativity. The Three Wise Men are all dressed in dungarees and hats like poor farm workers and one has a cigarette in his mouth. They are looking over baby Jesus in the straw. It’s a depiction I really like, the Three Wise Men being ordinary mortals and not Kings.

  10. Tones permalink
    December 17, 2023

    A night time walk is good for the soul. Charles Dickens did it all the time and look how well he turned out!

  11. Erminia permalink
    December 18, 2023

    This post made me cry, firstly because it is so beautiful and secondly because this is my London, the one I miss, quite terribly.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS