London by Night: In the Footsteps of Dickens

The city’s great chronicler hit the streets to cure his insomnia. His writing cast a spell on me and now I go for nocturnal walks of my own

Stand on the pavement of St James’s Street in London after dark and look across the road to Brooks’s Club. There, on the walls of the first-floor drawing room, hang two British masterpieces rarely loaned to galleries. In the morning, the sun coming up over the East End and the City glares off the club’s sash windows. In the afternoon, as the sun sets over London’s western suburbs, the drawing room is gloomy, the lights not yet lit. But in the evening, illuminated by chandeliers and candles, Joshua Reynolds’s two great group portraits of The Society of Dilettanti — the 18th-century pleasure-seekers who came back from their Grand Tours with Greek marbles, Etruscan vases and Roman busts — seem to glow. 

At night, London gives up its secrets. Once the tourists have gone back to their B&Bs and the last Tubes to the suburbs, you see what is hidden or overlooked in the daylight. Although I had walked below those windows a hundred times by day, it was only when I started walking through London at night that I first saw the two Reynolds. 

I came to night walking through that great chronicler of the city, Charles Dickens. Last year, the bicentenary of his birth, I set myself the challenge of reading all 16 of his novels, and as much of his journalism as I could manage in between. One essay in particular struck a chord. “Night Walks”, written in 1860, explains how Dickens came to walk the city obsessively in the cold, unfriendly small hours. After witnessing an event which left a “distressing impression”, he found himself unable to sleep. “The disorder might have taken a long time to conquer,” he wrote, “if it had been experimented on in bed; but, it was soon defeated by the brisk treatment of getting up directly after lying down, and going out, and coming home tired at sunrise.”

He describes the city’s changing states of sleeplessness. First, there is the “tumbling and tossing” as it settles to sleep: the public houses turn their lamps out and the potmen thrust brawling drunkards into the street. After that, the last stray walkers, carters and cabmen expire in fits and starts and the late pieman and hot-potato man pack up their braziers. Anyone awake after the last pieman has gone home begins to yearn for company, a lighted place, the comfort of finding that anyone else is still up. 

The homeless men and ragged spectral youths left out after this hour suffer a condition Dickens calls Dry Rot: “a certain slovenliness and deterioration, which is not poverty, not dirt, nor intoxication, nor ill-health, but simply Dry Rot . . . a trembling of the limbs, somnolency, misery, and crumbling to pieces.” It is a relief when Covent Garden begins to stir. Hot early coffee can be got  and toast. At the railway stations, the morning mails come in and the gas lamps grow pale. “And so by faster and faster degrees, until the last degrees were very fast, the day came, and I was tired and could sleep.” 

Although Dickens does not tell the reader of “Night Walks” what distressing impression had prompted this period of sleeplessness, an earlier essay gives the cause. In “Lying Awake” he recalls being haunted by a “dismal spectacle”. Trying, and failing, to fall asleep, he thinks of the hanging of a husband and wife at Horsemonger Lane jail. The memory of their loose, limp bodies can only be suppressed by getting up and going out for a night walk. According to his friend and biographer John Forster, it was not unusual for Dickens to walk seven or eight miles, sometimes as many as 12, before dawn.

I began night walking not as a cure for sleeplessness, but because a year of reading nothing but Dickens had given me the idea that I wanted to see London as he had seen it. No visions of Horsemonger Lane haunt me and I rarely go out once in bed, but I have got into the habit of walking home at night from wherever I happen to be. If it is King’s Cross, I dodge down Warren Street to escape the Euston Road and then through the streets of Harley Street and Marylebone with their townhouse doctors’ surgeries and French boutiques. Beyond that are the garden squares  Manchester, Portman, Connaught and Norfolk — and home to Bayswater. 

Or up from Bermondsey after dinner, with a cup of weak milky tea in a Styrofoam cup from a hole-in-the-wall café at London Bridge to keep out the cold on the river. At Borough Market, late in the evening, the stallholders man great oiled hotplates of paella, risotto or pilaff, scraping and turning the last of the rice to stop it sticking. Around the replica of the Golden Hinde and Tate Modern, along the South Bank, over Waterloo Bridge and up the Strand. At Charing Cross, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus there are dog-legs and detours to avoid the crowds. Leicester Square on a Saturday night is a purgatory of short skirts, fake tan and hair gel. Then up Bond Street, crossing the road back and forth to get the best of the shop windows.

Oxford Street, intolerable by day, is a pleasure with its broad pavements to yourself. The rickshaw drivers sweat up and down the main drag, playing at Ben Hur and blaring Bangla music from their speakers while the miniskirts whoop encouragement from the back seat. The hot pie and potato men of Dickens’s walks have been replaced by the man offering Belgian waffles with aerosol cream and the £1-a-slice pizza man. At Marble Arch, home is within reach, just the last stretch along the top of the park. A passageway cut through the wall of Hyde Park Gardens Mews — too narrow for two people to pass comfortably — takes me almost to the doorstep.

The walk I do most often is the one from work. My office hours are late enough that except for a few glorious weeks in the summer when the days are at their longest, I walk back in the dark. 

Turning off Kensington High Street, the temperature drops by several degrees. Without the heat of the buses and shops — and in the shade of an avenue of plane trees all day — Kensington Palace Gardens is cool even on the hottest, stuffiest nights.

It is poorly lit. The street lamps, among the last Victorian gaslights in London, are often out. You don’t notice the Eastern Europeans guarding their respective embassies until you are near enough to hear the chatter of their earpieces. The presence of these heavies and the armed police around the Israeli embassy has done little to discourage the foxes. There are dozens of them to be seen each night, tripping in and out of the railings of Kensington Palace and crossing the borders between ambassadors’ residences. 

There are less welcome creatures to be found when you reach Bayswater Road. After lessons finish at the language schools of Moscow Road, homesick Chinese students buy slimy pots of duck, rice and beansprouts from the takeaways on Queensway. They eat them leaning against the Bayswater Road railings and drop the remains through into the park where fat, indulged rats run along the gully between the railings and flowerbeds. You never see them in daylight. 

Each night as I leave the office, a colleague asks, “Have you got your hat pin?”, but I’ve never yet felt threatened walking in London at night. Even in the smallest hours, it is hard to find a corner of the city in total darkness. Only once have nerves got the better of me. Leaving a party in Clerkenwell, I lost my way in deserted backstreets. With a flat phone battery and without an A-Z, I felt the beginnings of panic. It was January, damp and foggy and the cold was coming up through my soles. When, through a gap between brick warehouse conversions, I saw the dome of St Paul’s against the moon, I almost wept with relief. 

Dickens’s most distressing account of being out late without shelter is in Little Dorrit. Our heroine is locked out of the Marshalsea debtors’ prison and she and the child-like Maggy are condemned to wander the streets until the gates open again at dawn. “In only five hours and a half,” says Little Dorrit to Maggy, “we shall be able to go home.” When dawn does come, her heart has been broken by exposure to the wet and cold, to shame, desertion and wretchedness.

Never allow yourself to get cold on a night walk. In “Down With the Tide”, Dickens admires the pea coats worn by the night toll-takers on Southwark Bridge and the man from Waterloo Bridge “muffled up to the eyes in a thick shawl, and amply great-coated and fur-capped”. However cold it is, there is always the promise of the kettle and a hot cup of tea back at my flat. 

Not so for everyone. In his journalism, Dickens returns again and again to the question of homelessness. In “A Nightly Scene in London” he describes a miserable evening, dark, muddy and raining. Outside the workhouse in Whitechapel he finds five slumped figures, shut out because there is no room: “Five great beehives, covered with rags  five dead bodies taken out of graves, tied neck and heels, and covered with rags  would have looked like those five bundles upon which the rain rained down in the public street.” What, he asks, is to become of a society that leaves such desperate people there?

The most visible example of homelessness in London today is that of the Roma Gypsies on Park Lane. Is there anything that baits the tabloids as much as this conspicuous encampment in the West End? They have been moved on several times, but they return. Park Lane after midnight is a tale of two Londons. From the revolving doors of the grand hotels the Dorchester, the Grosvenor House — men and women stumble out in hired black tie and long dresses. After too much free champagne at the company’s annual beano, they hail taxis and put the receipts on expenses. Yards away, beneath the windows of estate agents advertising £12 million houses in Mayfair and Jaguar car dealerships, families of Roma Gypsies sleep on the pavement on mats of cardboard and old newspapers. Their possessions, piled into shopping trolleys, make wretched windbreaks. 

If you continue north of Park Lane onto the Edgware Road, the Roma are replaced by Albanians. Dressed in long skirts and headscarves, they beg for change along the strip of all-night shisha-pipe bars and kebab shops that gives this area the nickname “Little Beirut”.

Of course, I am not Dickens. My night walks do not inspire debates in the House of Commons about the workhouse, the ragged schools or housing provision for the poor. I walk because I enjoy the independence. Because I do not want to wait for a night bus. Because I do not like the smell of fried chicken on the Tube. For a rare sight of Reynolds’s Dilettanti by candlelight. I walk because Dickens walked and in that year of reading Boz, his accounts of London by night and on foot cast a spell. 

The streets of Bayswater were built during Dickens’s lifetime. When he was born, Sussex Gardens, where I live, was only a proposal on a developer’s map. It wasn’t in London at all, but open fields. But by the 1850s, when Dickens suffered his first bout of sleeplessness, the white stucco houses around the new Paddington station had been built. I like to think that Dickens’s night walks sometimes took him past my stretch of terrace with its tall ash trees. They would have been just saplings then. 

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