(author of the If I Were Built blog)
London wears winter well. Why? London loves darkness is why. This sprawl of space and ideas comes to shuddering go when the sun packs up and heads south. In London the stars don’t come out at night in the sky, they come out down here - in the wonder of possibilities. We’ve given up our view of the heavens to look for them in this City. This city that can give or take a night’s sleep. London loves the night as it desires to extract just a little more from life than Nature intended.
The daylight hive of the capital, The Square Mile, dies a lonely nocturnal death – save a few bankers wasting electricity under motion-sensitive lights contemplating deficits/bonuses and probably China – as vitality courses into the surrounding streets of London. From the gaudy doorways of Soho, the thunder-dome of Camden, the meta-hip of Dalston, the unapologetic trash of Shoreditch to the celebs, paps and wannabe-papped of Mayfair, South Ken and Notting Hill, London is, in Ginsberg’s words, ‘’burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night’’.
Night is a time for pleasure, for friends, pubs, lights, lovers, music, secrets, sin, architecture, cabaret, clubs, gigs, restaurants, football, theatre, film, food, drugs, raves, house parties, convenience stores, markets, strangers, celebrities and snappers, for people. London sits at its desk and sofa on groundhog days waiting to find a story out in the gloom. Does the city ever look as majestic as when it is lit up at night? Cycling over London Bridge at night, Tower Bridge a beacon of belonging, these are the kind of moments that make you realise why we live here. Indeed cycling - another London love - is at its finest when the moon is in the sky. The streets are all but emptied of the foes of pedestrians and traffic and a serene peddle becomes sublime. I can heartily recommend a moonlit cycle from Hackney to Smithfield Market. Should you wish to distract yourself with a trip to Fabric or the superb Jerusalem Tavern when you get there then that is up to you…but the architecture-in-motion of the City, the Barbican, Clerkenwell or whatever route you choose to take is phenomenal. Plus at the end of it you get to wander around one of London’s nocturnal delights, Smithfield Meat Market. Even in darkness the capital is concerned about its pounds of flesh. Pescetarian gadabouts might like to set a course for the pre-dawn marvel of Billingsgate Fish Market.
Much like Huey Lewis didn’t need no credit card to ride the Love Train, you don’t need two wheels to enjoy this ride though. London by-night is the perfect setting for the budding flanêur– be it endless quiet lit nooks and crannies, or centuries of grandeur, innovation, tribute and awe, or just the incremental timeline of the skyline – all of it set to an almost peace made starkly precious by the contrast of the light-induced hubbub. It might be for the brave-hearted, and not for the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, but a walk through the city at night is like a long reviving exhalation as London meditates before the chug and onrush of tomorrow. You might even bump into Will Self. Never before have I experienced such calmness cocktailed with a twist of media-induced fear as when walking home at night in Hackney. And never does tomorrow feel further away as when you see it born. Watch the sunrise here - this City that twinkled long before you, will rise and fall long after you - and time will freeze for you…until the early/late train/bus yawns by anyway.
It’s not all fun and games of course. What of the army of workers permanently defying nature to provide for those who only rebel on a temporary basis. For starters the glorious and undervalued night-bus driver, forever offering a long tunnel home despite having to put up with this racket. Praise be to the N38 and N55, always there when the bicycle isn’t and booze might have been. So we can get home but who will feed us? I recently interviewed one waiter from the 24-hour Turkish eatery, Somine, on Kingsland Road. This chip-on-shoulder-free gent had been happily helping to feed Dalston through the night for five years. Five years of working 7pm to 7am! That the man was happily married with kids should serve as a jolt to all our attempts at finding peace, love and understanding with all these nights to call our own. Then there is the hallowed convenience store. My local? The Turkish-owned shop on the corner of Lower Clapton Road and Clapton Passage, a true godsend, it’s never closed. Every part of London has one as the night can no longer deny us milk, cigarettes, chocolate or beer. Then there are the street cleaners, the bakers, radio hosts and producers, taxi drivers, those bankers looking east, doctors and nurses, paramedics, police, fire-fighters, newspaper deliverers and of course bagel vendors plus many many more besides that make London by daylight tick over.
I’ll leave you with the words of Darren Hayman and Hefner. From the glorious ode to London that is ‘We Love The City’, I still think it’s one of the best opening lines I’ve ever heard and kind of true to this day…
‘This is London not Antarctica so why don’t the tubes run all night?’
Now it’s over to you for your London love, what are your starry London remembrances? Any night-buses of note or secret stargazing vantage points? Or do you know any unsung heroes of the night that make London love the dark?