On A Dawn Journey Across London
As my next mystery novel is partly about nightwalking, that peculiar habit which evolved over centuries in London, I’ve been seizing opportunities to see the city at unusual times. The other morning I rose before dawn and headed for the airport. London to Barcelona covers just 32% of my daily steps, thanks to my habit of living near stations, and the journey across London is the best part.
Early risers know that London has a surprising number of clear dawn skies that vanish by 10:00am as aircraft contrails cross-hatch to form cloud cover. At the time I leave (5:20am) it’s the end of a typical light-polluted night. Large stores are leaving their buildings ablaze overnight, with Nike, one of the chief LED polluters, lit up like a circus. The only people I see around me at this time are largely of BAME origins, heading to their daily jobs before the rush hour starts. This is the best part of the day, full of possibilities.
My train takes me through Blackfriars, the city’s stunning glass-sided platform that’s strapped right across the Thames and anchored on either shore by a pair of matching stations. The sky blurs into the water, the light is orange and pale blue. The Thames is devoid of river traffic at this hour, as becalmed as the city. There’s little traffic on the roads, either. The mighty engine has yet to start turning over. We approach my favourite part of the trip; Borough Market to London Bridge, silver-grey and brick-brown.
Here I’m always reminded of a unchanging London feature; its meandering road patterns force buildings old and new into contortions that leave them facing each other at impossible angles. In the foreground lie the last Victorian alleyways, and slate-roofed houses with dark soot-stained brickwork, narrow sash windows and tall red chimneypots. Behind them stand modern office buildings, their cheap-looking designs ordered like so many off-the-peg suits, available in two or three styles only, all of which must make their employees’ hearts sink as they approach for another day in a swipe-card cage.
Beyond this, lightly misted, the great steel and glass skyscrapers of New Wealth, confirming London’s status as a financial services sector that manufactures nothing and is disconnected from anything tangible. Everyone here is an entrepreneur or marketeer, holding down a job with an invisible product. The idea that these lanes were once crowded with watchmakers, butchers, fishmongers and tailors seems almost unimaginable now. When I first visited the area it smelled of tallow, iron, smoke and spice. No it has no smell at all. Who, I wonder, had more job satisfaction, the lanyard-wearing Powerpoint manipulator or the silversmith?
Even here the buildings are squeezed into angular sites, and therefore bear less relation to one another than to the land itself, making them appropriate to the landscape. Further along, from Battersea to Chelsea, the palisade of monstrous ‘luxury’ properties are less sympathetic and appear to have been dropped beside the Thames without thought, wrecking age-old views; who cares about views now when there’s money to be made?
At London Bridge the views are atmospheric, if not particularly attractive. At one turn in the elevated track you find yourself in a Gustav Doré etching, layers of buildings tumbling away across switchback streets and cables, bridges, signage. Down on the ground there’s a rough and ready air of independence that’s a more grown-up version of the hipsterism of Norf London.
I’m told that coming next are nine new embankment outcrops, the first public spaces to thrust out into the Thames, created by the need to place sewage pipes beneath them in London’s new ring-main, Bazalgette 2.0. Naturally, the designs for these public sites are all completely different, and could add nicely to London’s piecemeal appearance. South London has always been more fragmented, and benefits from the odd scraps of space left behind.
This is my countryside. Writing this from a vineyard in Priorat, Spain, it still looks Victorian.