Midnight Ramblers: A Walk Across London From The Witching Hour To Sunrise

Honor Oak
Honor Oak. Not far from the beginning

‘Look at the lucky cat. Over there. The lucky cat.’

Given she looked high as a kite it wasn’t the most unusual thing she could have said. She had pink powder dusting her hair and her face. Her fella didn’t look the healthy side of sober either.

The cat in question was snow white and sitting at the archway entrance to a gothic looking cluster of mini-castles, all gargoyles, turrets and spires. An old convent perhaps, or black magic quadrangle, whatever one of those is.

As it was, the cat didn’t seem particularly lucky one way or another, it was just sitting staring at us.

But we looked at it all the same. And it carried on looking at us.

‘Anyway,’ said the fella, grinning, holding loosely on to a glass of something and coke. ‘What the fuck are you two doing hiking around here at this time in the morning?’

It was a reasonable question, given round here was Highgate Cemetery and this time of the morning was a little after 5am.

‘We’ve walked here from south London,’ said Terry, the first to respond. ‘To get to Parliament Hill to watch the sun rise.’

‘High five, said pink hair. ‘High five.’

‘What the fuck for?’ said something and coke.

Ah, yes. What the fuck for. Another good question.

There’s a bit in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row where Doc, one of the lead characters of a bunch of Californian vagabonds, misfits, chancers, dreamers and losers, remembers a walking trip through the south when he was at college.

Asked along the way why he’s doing it, he learns to answer that it’s for a bet because he gets treated better than when he tells them the truth.

We’re big fans of the book, me and Terry, so back in Highgate, it probably occurs to both of us to give the same answer. We neither of us do, though. Maybe we’re too tired. We just shrug.

‘High five,’ she says for the third time. And then repeats it again like a spell. ‘High five.’

We had set out around five hours ago from a very fine pub halfway between Forest Hill and Catford that we called The Irish and everyone else The Blythe Hill Tavern. It wins awards, this pub, for its beer and has just about the best staff of any London boozer. It’s forever busy, doesn’t sell food and the landlord always asks how you’re at. I think his name’s Cornelius or something equally good and old-fashioned.

The plan had been to leave at midnight having followed a late-evening nap with a couple of fortifying pints of Guinness. The aim was to reach Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath 12 miles away by 4.46am, which was when the sun was due to rise. We hoped the reason for doing so would become clear along the way or at least by the time we got there.

As is often the case, the plan had fallen by the wayside and the nap replaced by half-a-dozen pints but we had brewed some strong, milky, sugary coffee for the Thermos. And we had a route. And a pocket-sized copy of the A-Z. Fools, perhaps, but not foolhardy.

The first stop out of The Irish was Blythe Hill itself, a bare hilltop dotted with clusters of trees that during the day brushed green but at midnight sat hunched in shadow. No birds sing at midnight, no families push wheelchairs, no kids play football nor dogs bark at the big sky. There may have been bats but we didn’t see them, maybe they’d come later.

The view down into town was dominated by the diamante towers of Canary Wharf to our right and its nouveau City sisters further west. Drawing in, the eye fanned over Victorian terraced rooftops shrinking back from the orange glow of the street lights. We could see for miles but not far enough to where we were headed.

We walked on, heading west at first, to head north then west again, through south-east London – Honor Oak Road, Forest Hill Hill, Rye Lane into Peckham and its high street piled with the boxes and cartons of a million fruit and veg shops.

A queue had gathered outside the Bussey Building, night buses rolled past, chicken and kebab shops were lit harshly against the night by strip lights, manned by sweaty men and boys, serving sweaty boys and girls – the pub kicking out crowd, the first phase before the clubbers reeled home in a couple of hours or so.

Cutting north up Peckham Hill Street we picked up the mighty, resolutely ungentrified rumble of the Old Kent Road and turned west towards the Bricklayers Arms.

We walked past the Thomas A Beckett pub, two bouncers standing sentinel at its Victorian brickwork as dance music blimped and slooshed from within.

As we did, a throng of victorious Colombian football fans grinned and cheered their hellos, flags drawn on outstretched arms behind their shoulders. Uruguay had been sent home from Brazil and the red, yellow and blue were jubilant.

Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge, as seen from Tower Bridge Road, around 2am

Navigating the gloomy underpass at Bricklayers Arms, we surfaced on to Tower Bridge Road – where is all this traffic toing and going? – to the bridge itself, all lit up and over-sized, incongruous here, incongruous anywhere, a show-off of a bridge, cheap-looking and grand, cocky, over-dressed in fancy dress from an apocryphal past. A wonderful site.

Tower Bridge, from the south bank
Tower Bridge, from the south bank. Coffee break

We stopped here for coffee before heading west along the South Bank, where everything was clean and the Thames danced its dance of the veils to the lights of the city, blushed orange here, then coy pink, always shimmering.

A couple made out on a bench, she straddling him in a skirt that looked as if it was making things easy or hard. A lone drunk staggered, bumped then coaxed a piss against a wall near City Hall. A security guard looked the other way. A gay couple – one fat, one thin, matching bleach-top haircuts – held hands as moored boats bobbed midstream. London Bridge was lit up orange, the BFI ruby red and a fox stared from the base of a bin. We reached Waterloo Bridge.

London Bridge, in orange
London Bridge, in orange

We were two hours in and starting to get tired. The kind of tired that works against stopping for fear you won’t be able to start again and leaves your mind empty of anything to say. One foot, the other foot, feel the swing of the hip, how the toes open up and spread after the turn of the ankle on pavement, lower back pulling down on your shoulders which need to be reminded to swing your arms, the kind of tired that is glad to see the river because the river means halfway there.

Across the bridge and up to Aldwych. Posher now, clothes smarter, black cab punters, fine wine and dinner punters, cocktail and blazer punters and no less drunk punters than the Old Kent Road punters.

Peeling off the Aldwych crescent on to Kingsway that leads north, taking us step by step through Bloomsbury and Russell Square and the King’s College students, to Euston and hotels and a 24-hour off licence where we buy Lucozade and chocolate.

Two Aussie mates in hooded sweatshirts, shorts and flip-flops debate through mumbles whether they’re going to stay leaning supported against a wall or go home. A rickshaw creaks by, three girls in the back – ‘This is like being in India’.

The beginning of the end of the dark night comes as we hit Camden, past Mornington Crescent Tube and the Koko club kicking out to the sound of drunken terrace singing as couples and mates do the drunken cha-cha-cha through the street confetti of kebab cartons and flyers advertising nights they’ll never go to coming back from nights they’ll never forget.

One man, then another, then another is curled up against a newspaper billboard, a guitar-playing busker sings sitting down with a tambourine on his foot and a voice like the last can of beer in the fridge. Overheard conversations about finding a cab, whether the fare is too much, ‘I just want to spend more time with you’, two lads cat call two girls crossing the canal who break into a trot, grinning at the adventure, as they flee. He said, she said, I said, laughing at just-past reminisces.

Camden is drunk and it wants to get home and it doesn’t want the night to end.

The heavens turn indigo as we leave, kicking off Chalk Farm Road up Ferdinand Street to Malden Road. We are on the same page now as Parliament Hill.

The blackbirds are starting to sing in anticipation of the coming sun. We scan the sky for clouds with tired eyes, cross the railway line running into Belsize Park and feel like we’re doubling back in order to get to Hampstead Heath station and set up, up, up Parliament Hill to the heath itself.

Parliament Hill
Parliament Hill

We can’t be more than 15 minutes away and we’ve 20 minutes until 4.46am. Looks like we’re going to make it. Will it be worth it? Will the sunrise give all this a reason?

We’re neither of us talking except to make the unnecessary observation that this hill is steep. Maybe neither of us cares what we’ll see when we get there, just that we will have got there and then we can go home.

Up we plod. The houses are grand, art deco windows above doorways reached by well-preserved stone parquet tiling with window boxes and awnings and high-pitched roofs.

Up we plod. It can’t be far now. Past front gardens set back from well-kept hedges, the occasional front room lit from within but no sign of life anywhere. A slight turn in the road ahead and the indistinct rising bank of what must be the heath.

Into the heath, grass damp from dew, birds winging through the bushes and trees, sky lighter but still a kind of blue and yet, there, to the left, a tangerine haze over a hilltop breached by a church spire and a domed roof.

We plod on. There’s a bench, a second, a third… four, five, six of them all set to face down into the city and the diamante towers.

‘Well,’ says Terry, smiling and I know what he’s going to say next. ‘It’s a great view but I’m not entirely sure if it was worth it. I’m fucked.’

But it’s to the left that things are happening. The tangerine has shaded into rose pink, shot through with varnished apricot and wild geranium purple, burning at its heart with a wild mustard that ripples each wilder colour into the next. It grows in intensity as we stand and watch alone, sipping whisky brought along for this occasion as the sky turns tricks and spreads its conjuring like a quiet carnival. All else stops. The birds stop their dawn chorus. All thoughts stop. Tiredness stops. It is like a great full stop has been placed on the day, a paragraph break, a pause before the turn of the page.

Sun, she rise
Sun, she rise

And then, like a flame turning to ember, it softens and has passed and the wheels start again.

We finish the last of the scotch. It had lasted ten minutes.

‘Now,’ says Terry. ‘That was worth it.’ Emphasis on the was.

We make our way out of the heath past one of the ponds and meet our friends with the pink hair and something and coke. Having said our goodbyes to them and accepted their suggestion of a shortcut to the bus stop home we need, we walk on past the cemetery, to

The Whittington Hospital and an outlying estate where we encounter the last person we shall meet before getting our heads down.

He appears to be the estate’s vigilante marshal and looms out from one of its rabbit warren alleys to plant himself feet shoulder-width apart on the pavement as we approach. He’s a big man, extraordinarily big, it seems, grey-bearded, wearing sunglasses and a hat half cowboy, half Aussie bushman.

As we draw level and he grows larger still, we are plodding very slowly now. We shoot him a good morning, the way you say good evening to a bouncer. We get nothing back until we are a few paces past.

Then: ‘You got any business round here?’

Should we explain? In the time it takes to make two more steps we decide no. ‘You’re all right, mate,’ I say, neither of us looking back. ‘We’re on our way home.’

‘Just stay off the estate,’ he calls out to our backs. ‘Just stay off.’

And we do. We’re heading home. We’ve been lucky. Maybe it was the cat.

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Midnight Ramblers: A Walk Across London From The Witching Hour To Sunrise

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