London Myths No.1 – The 24 Hour City


In the next Bryant & May novel, ‘The Lonely Hour’, the Peculiar Crimes Unit switches to night shifts for a week, and utter chaos ensues. To write the novel I stayed up until dawn and watched what goes on around town. Answer; nothing pretty. But there are a lot of people working very hard to ensure that the next day starts according to plan. When you have nearly nine million living in one rowdy town, there’s always clearing up to be done.

‘I want to be there…in the city that never sleeps!’ Oh, sorry, that’s New York. Why are the songs about London all so rubbish? ‘London Calling’? ‘Baker Street’? Oh, ‘Waterloo Sunset’, I’ll give you that. It’s the same with this All Night London thing. The night tubes have been running for two years and according to the Mayor’s office they’re bringing in bags of swag. So, if it’s working that well why is nothing open after twelve? It’s great having an all-night tube but not if the waiter is putting his coat on at 11:30pm.

When I lived in Knightsbridge (incredibly, dear reader, it once offered affordable accommodation) there was just one ordinary shop in the entire area. It was called the Midnight Shop, and we all thought it was such a novelty to have a shop that stayed open until Cinderella’s bedtime.

That was in the 1970s. Now things should be different. But, being a theoretic democracy, London prevaricates and never adopts a new idea completely. So it looks sort of open late and isn’t, unless you know where to look.

On the train last week two Americans asked for a list of restaurants they could go to just as they were (they were wearing football shirts and shorts). It was 12:15am, and I had no idea, apart from the bagel joint on Brick Lane.

So, how many all night restaurants could the Evening Standard drag up for a special feature this week?


Two were overpriced joints in those tall glass penises, the Shard and the Walkie-Talkie. The third was a café and the last was a sandwich bar.

Stay to the tourist routes through the West End and you might find some haunted-looking bloke selling Fanta and rolling papers after the pubs shut, but that’s about it. When licensing hours were extended, very few pubs took up the offer because they didn’t want to pay staff extra time.

Clubs were mostly wiped out in the great property purge. The only places near me are junk food joints like McDonald’s. The internet has made us 24-hour-live, but the shops are still shut.

Weirdest of all are Sunday Opening Hours. Due to a peculiar mantra that decrees we should ‘Keep Sunday Special’ large shops aren’t allowed to open until midday, but they can open for browsing an hour earlier. Which leads to the peculiar sight of Waitrose shoppers standing around with full trolleys unable to pay for anything.

The time limitation problem began prior to the First World War, with the fear that munitions factories would not function unless pub hours were radically reduced. But the habit lingered on to the end of the 20th century. I always got the Sunday papers on a Saturday night from King’s Cross Station because they were being loaded on trains to the North, and I thought that was excitingly novel.

The one 24 hour place every Londoner once knew about was the Boots chemist in Piccadilly Circus, through which passed a steady stream of injured drunks and junkies. Hours are generally less draconian now but all-night clubs now feel as rare and secret as anarchist meetings. In Berlin they’re hopping trains between clubs with beers in their hands, no problem. In Barcelona they don’t go out until 1:00am. In London the dustmen have finished hosing down the street-pizzas by then and everyone else is fast asleep.

Or are they all out having fun? Somebody please tell me they are, for I fear the Youngs are all glued to their laptops now, financing startups instead of drinking cheap vodka and peeing in front gardens.

17 comments on “London Myths No.1 – The 24 Hour City”

  1. Anne Billson says:

    Great post!

    When I worked (unpaid of course) as stills photographer on Bernard Rose’s National Film School film in the early 80s, we did a night shoot, after which cast and crew adjourned to Smithfield, where pubs were open early in the morning. Attempts to sit on the barstools were stymied by the bar staff, who said, ‘You can’t sit there – those are reserved for the… MEAT PORTERS.’

    We never did see any meat porters, but I would have been VERY disappointed if they hadn’t been wearing bloody aprons.

  2. SimonB says:

    Couldn’t tell you the last time I wanted to go shopping or eating late at night, but out here in the sticks it is Tesco or McDonalds or nothing. But that “want” bit is part of the problem. A local 24 hour bus service now stops at 1130 because people just stopped using it. Even the clubbers prefer to spend ten times the fare in a taxi as it feels safer, even though actual incidents on the bus were basically zero.

  3. Philip A. says:

    As someone who lived most of their adult life in New Orleans, I was really surprised the first time I went to London and everything seemed to close early (or at least early by New Orleans standards). The older I get, though, the less I mind because now I’m just as happy to have an “excuse” to head back to the hotel and get to sleep at a relatively decent hour.

  4. Trace Turner says:

    In the late 80’s when I lived in London, my boyfriend lived in Whitechapel with a supermarket located a 5 minute walk away. It was shut on Sunday, but his neighbor had her front window filled with a display of tinned baked beans, HP sauce, and other such items. If you needed something, all you had to do was ring the bell and tell her what you wanted and she would sell it to you at a not unreasonable price. That has always struck me as a charming and suitable response Sunday closing.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    I’ve worked at night for over 25 years now, and it’s only comparitively recently that some shops stayed open 24 hours. Hurrah! Being able to get milk at 2 in the morning was great. And then, for a lot of people, decided to stay away from the shops, and so, with equal rapidity, they stopped being 24 hour, and shut at ten instead. Not a lot of use to me, now. You can still get a Muck Donald’s 24 hours – but I refuse to eat that garbage, I’m afraid.

  6. RDaggle says:

    “Why are the songs about London all so rubbish?”

    …hmm — London Pride?

    London Pride has been handed down to us.
    London Pride is a flower that’s free.
    London Pride means our own dear town to us,
    And our pride it for ever will be….

    No? Too sappy? …

  7. Brooke says:

    Technology may have reduced the Youngs’ need to publicly disgrace themselves. Why pay to go clubbing when you can watch sports or whatever you want on a humongous screen at home, with a refrigerator, microwave oven, bathroom and bed nearby. And with a food delivery app, you can have a curry delivered rather quickly. Besides clubs don’t open until midnight (in my city).

    In my city, a lot of GDP is produced betw midnight and 4AM–principally by working class folks. E.g.Everything seems to be under construction- residential development, new infrastructure (roads, bridges), freight trains moving up from the port, road freight traffic (we are distribution center for postal service and others), overnight inter-city passenger rail serving the east coast, emergency healthcare in 4 major hospital systems. It may not be pretty but it makes money..

  8. Jo W says:

    # RDaggle,
    No,indeed,not too sappy. Ever had a pint of London Pride? 😉

  9. Jan says:

    It’s just a question of moving along from one venue to the next to achieve 24 hours drinking in town or lots of places. Was just the same in 1970s. Choose your bar or pub venue and keep.moving along.

  10. Denise Treadwell says:

    A problem – I have encountered going to the theater ; a problem with dinning in London – difficult to go to a restaurant before and nothing available after. Many times. I like hotel that gives 24hr service even if its just a sandwich. Probably a plus for Las Vegas ; where I had a delicious dinner at the café in the Bellagio after theater.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    What about the joyous ‘London Is The Place For Me’, by Lord Kitchener? Or ‘Primrose Hill’, by Madness? ‘Sightsee M.C.’, by Big Audio Dynamite? ‘London’, by The Smiths? ‘Brompton Oratory’, by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds? ‘Circle’, by Siouxsie And The Banshees? (It’s explicitly about the Circle Line on the LU). Almost anything by early Squeeze – their first record, the ‘Packet Of Three E.P.’, produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, was released on their own ‘Deptford Fun City’ label…

  12. Helen Martin says:

    So how about them apples, eh Ian? I like the London Pride song because it seems to invoke the WWII mood.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    It’s a good song that I can distinctly remember from when I was a child. I should have titled my list: ‘London, Songs About (Non Crap)’ I could have included dozens of songs about London by Madness – they made a superb album a few years ago, called ‘The Liberty Of Norton Folgate’. This was an area in the east of London, around Spitalfields. A ‘Liberty’ was an area of a city where malefactors, vagrants, hobbldehoys, mendicants, etc., were allowed to live outside the judicial bounds of the city proper. Every song on the album was about London, and damned good it is, too.

  14. Emma Hartley says:

    Hi Christopher,

    I got an alert about your blogpost because my startup is called 24hourlondon and it provides exactly the information you’re looking for about what’s open late this town.

    There are nearly 500 late-opening venues on the app, which is available on iTunes, Android or as a web app through any browser and our information is regularly updated and 30% more accurate than Google in this niche.

    So no more moaning that London’s not a 24-hour city, eh? You just need better local knowledge and that’s what 24hourlondon is: local knowledge about late-opening bars, restaurants, pubs and clubs in an app.

    Kind regards
    Emma Hartley
    Cofounder, 24hourlondon

  15. admin says:

    Thanks for the heads-up, Emma – I’ll do some checking on this.

  16. Emma Hartley says:

    Great. Let me know if I can help?

  17. Emma Hartley says:

    Out of curiosity, how much research did you do, Christopher? If you Google 24 hour London, we are one of the first things that pops up…

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