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.

13 comments on “On A Dawn Journey Across London”

  1. SimonB says:

    Beautiful words, and the top photo is positively Turneresque.

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    Top photo is wonderful, real Turner subject. It makes me wish I had the time to get my paints out… and make a terrible mess of a pastiche.

  3. Roger says:

    Ah! The early morning scent of London: urine, vomit and stale kebabs.

  4. Virginia says:

    Might you be available to sign HALL OF MIRRORS for us when it releases?

  5. Jan says:

    Urban “countryside” aromas see Roger – marvellous! That ammonia is good for the sinuses. Maybe.

    Very few more beautiful sights than London in Early morning light. When we used to go to put petrol in the car at about 0445 on a summers morning the whole city used to look amazing no matter how shitty it had proved itself to be in the hours preceding our topping the vehicle up.

    I remember early morning conversations with a bloke I used to work with at Kensington we used to take a turn round the Mall along the Embankment stop on the bridges just gaping at the beauty of the place. Long time ago BenDy. Long time gone.

    I won’t bore you all silly with my snapshot recollections of so many London sights. Always be part of my memories of the place I’ve left behind.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, it’s Turner for sure, but what is creating that orange light, the sun behind some steam/smoke? It’s a wonderful shot, anyway.
    Just watched Ian Rankin on the subject of Edinburgh (again). This description of London makes a nice pair.

  7. SteveB says:

    Ha ha that’s the Thameslink to Gatwick, for me it’s the Piccadilly to Heathrow, much less romantic!!

  8. Jan says:


    Very early on in the morning the river does have a mist, most pronounced in the east specially when you head out toward Barking. The sewage works at Beckton probably adds its own particular miasma. (Joking)

    I reckon the new Embankment extensions could be smashing things you know.

    One just 1 (promise) snapshot of a very early London morning scene.

    Years ago I was over at St Ann’s Road in the E end in the yard of a very old building there and just happened to look over E towards the New Canary Wharf development. This was AGES ago – after the trouble the two Canadian brothers had with the Canary Wharf building finances.

    Well watching those towers reflect the sunrise above the largely Victorian( and probably 1960s building line but i’ve edited that out. )

    Well that view was so striking wonderful juxtaposition of building styles in light and shadow.

    I wish moby cameras were about back then – but I don’t think mobys were even that portable! 0lden days. Certainly got to see some memorable stuff.

  9. Denise Treadwell says:

    Thank you .I thought London was always beautiful at night!

  10. Wayne Mook says:

    I’ve always enjoyed cities at different times, I used to work a shift in Manchester that finished at 4 in the morning, some of the sights were interesting. Plus I’ve been one of the people who started at 6 in the morning, watching the bin men kick a large dumpster and seeing all the rats come scurrying out.


  11. Jan says:

    One good thing about shifts Wayne when you see everyone miserably tottering into work for about 9a.m. you think for I looked like that a few hours back.

    My days practically half over now! Tubes and roads not crowded,. .

  12. Diane Englot says:

    You are a poet.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    That’s some beautiful evocative writing, Chris – as I read it, it made me think of those beautiful little travelogues made by Sir John Betjeman. Details of a place, intersperced with fascinating, often humorous asides, underlaid with an absolute love and respect for the subject in question. The same goes for Peter Ackroyd, who loves London, and knows it’s dark corners and places where the tenuous fabric of ‘now’ is wearing very thin indeed. Your words would make a nice preface for a Bryant and May novel, possibly being read out loud by Arthur – only for him to dismiss them with a disparaging remark like: “How would you know? You weren’t around in 1948.” Too meta? Anyhow, my favourite London photograph isn’t very glamourous, but I love it greatly. It’s a shot, across the river, of Lots Road Power Station. The river is swathed in mist, and the building rises up out of it. I think it’s wonderful. It was taken possibly in the 1930’s.

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