terry meets julie

I’m the only person here on Waterloo Bridge at this hour. A band of rain has just passed through and the city seems fresh and renewed, as if the sins of the night have been washed away. A stiff breeze is gusting from the south-west, chasing a bank of thick cloud over St Paul’s and beyond. That isn’t good. The sun will be rising in a few minutes so it doesn’t look as if the picture-postcard crowd-pleaser is going to be laid on for me today.

I find myself a good position, towards the south side of the bridge, facing Blackfriars, and one of the most recognizable skylines in the world. I had reckoned that the sun should rise somewhere to the left of the cathedral dome but the backdrop of cloud is far too dense. The only hopeful signs are a couple of pockets of brightness being hurried across the scene. I stand and wait. Something will happen. It usually does.

Along this stretch, the river makes a broad sweep as it passes between Charing Cross and Waterloo before turning east again. A dozen or more leisure cruisers are moored up against each other, midstream, in a line that follows the curve of the bank. The water today is like hammered pewter, reflecting the troubled sky.

I have an earworm going this morning. Ever since I left the house, round and round, it won’t leave me alone.

Dirty old river, must you keep rolling
Flowing into the night…

A bright orange lifeboat is approaching, carving a V-shaped wash. I look down on the three helmeted crewmen as they pass directly beneath me. I wonder if they spotted me, a lone still figure, and thought I might be about to jump.

I hear female voices, singing and shouting. In the distance four young ladies are making their way across from the Aldwych. One of them is dancing her way across, shimmying from side to side. ‘Oh-oh oh-oh… We’re going to Africa… Oh-oh oh-oh… Yay yay.’

‘Morning, girls,’ I say brightly and they laugh, glassy-eyed.

Back with the sunrise, the cloud banked up over the City continues to blot out the sun, wherever it may be. But clearer skies are blowing through. Bizarrely, a gauze of pink is blushing faintly in the west, over Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. The sun’s light is angled high and catches a plane descending on the flightpath into Heathrow. So I move over to the other side and take a few shots of another ridiculously iconic skyline. But the composition’s not ideal, with the Festival Pier and the footbridge too much in the foreground. And anyway, apart from the fact that I didn’t plan to shoot Westminster today, that would be the direction of the sunset.

I cross back again to watch over St Paul’s but the view that way is flat and dull and grey, as the ambient light is gradually increasing. The signs continue to be good, though: clouds scudding overhead against a paler blue. Is it all going to blow away and reveal a mystic blaze reminiscent of William Blake or gorgeous colours like a William Turner? I need to be ready. Sometimes it lasts only for a minute.

I wait. And I wait.

Finally I give up and decide to take a walk. Instinct tells me to keep the tripod extended though. Something may happen.

I head to the south bank and down the steps beside the National Theatre. It’s deserted along the riverside where normally people throng, not even any joggers about yet. I’m admiring the sculpted black lamp-posts, fishes open-mouthed and intertwined, when I see it beginning. The sun’s breaking through.

It’s fifty minutes since the official sunrise and I’m sprinting to find a place where I can set up and frame the shot, shouting out, ‘No. No. No…’

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global village

It must be chucking-out time at the Fridge. There’s a sudden spill of exuberance out onto the pavement. Two early-risers waiting for a bus look on blankly as a happy raggle-taggle of black youths disperses down Brixton Hill.

It’s 4.48 as I turn into Electric Avenue, a bustling street crammed with a long line of stalls and shops on either side. Or it was, when I was here last. This morning it’s rather more ghostly; the shutters are down and the market traders yet to arrive. I stroll along the deserted crescent, past colour-coded wheelie-bins and cardboard packaging stacked for collection. Torn polythene flaps in the breeze. There’s a reek of dried fish. A slim black cat skulks along with me, hugging the wall, as I check out the shopfronts: Fazal Stores – Wholesale and Retail, Luggage and Fancy Goods; Aziz – Afro-Caribbean, European, Asian; Sallo Cash and Carry; Wing Tai Supermarket; K.M. Kashmir Halal Quality Butcher; Tina’s Salon – Nails, Human Hair, Retail…

I was expecting to find at least someone setting up but it seems I’m a little early. Then I hear voices. Two girls are approaching in high heels, bare legs, bare backs and not very much in between. They’ve been out clubbing. Talking over each other, their gabble comes vaguely into focus as they draw nearer. ‘… Why would he do that kind of thing? What’s that about?’ says one, while her friend’s going, ‘But he’s still got money, that’s what I’m saying, he’s still got money. He’s got everyone following him. He’s got all his little followers, y’know what I’m saying? …’ And then they’re looking back puzzled as they realise they just passed me, their words trailing away along with any chance of making more sense of it all.

Standing at the junction with Atlantic Road, I watch mesmerized as a goods train rumbles by overhead. A man wheeling a bicycle stops to urinate under the arches beside the steps that lead up to the railway. Under the bridge I can see a stallholder on Pope’s Road hanging out clothes for sale on racks. He’s positioned opposite the public toilets, which aren’t open yet. Shyly, he tells me he’s there early every day. It takes a long time to lay out all his wares.

I track round up Coldharbour Lane, to the Ritzy cinema and start again. The commuter traffic is building on Brixton Road now. The Greggs bakers’ lorry is backing into Electric Avenue to make a delivery. At the same time, the wheelie-bin collector is reversing from the far end, a high-sided metal truck stencilled: ‘Cat. 3 – Not for human consumption’.

The sun is lighting the red brickwork high on the facade of Electric Mansions (such a cool address). Buddleia is growing up its drainpipes. A parasol stands ready on the narrow balcony in anticipation of another day of heat. Windows are open here and there on all four floors, but the only sign of life is someone’s underwear hanging out to dry.

A white van arrives, leaving a delivery of bread outside Nour Cash and Carry, red plastic trays of pitta bread and khobez. It’s costing Mr Nour £93.80, according to the invoice taped to the top.

There’s a woman round the corner shouting obscenities at the few people now passing by on their way to work. As I come to take a look, I see that an entrance to Brixton Village, the covered market, has been opened up by a maintenance man. So I sneak in and find I’m in there on my own.

Built in the 1930s and originally known as Granville Arcade, Brixton Village has recently been saved from being flattened for redevelopment and awarded listed building status. Arranged in six short avenues – four down, two across – it’s now home to an eclectic and thriving mix of food stores, restaurants and boutiques. Each avenue is decorated in a different colour: sea blue, lilac, yellow, pale blues and greens – sometimes with a two-tone effect whereby the ironwork holding the glass roof above each arcade is darker than the walls. In places the paint is peeling, but this merely adds to the charm. In front of closed shutters, the wooden stalls lay bare, three steps down. Paper lanterns hang and bunting is strung across the alleyways.

I’ve been here during the day when the vibe is relaxed and friendly but, empty and silent, with the soft light of the morning sun filtering through the skylights, I’m entranced by its beauty. The colours remind me strongly of Central and South America, which isn’t surprising. We have Etta’s Caribbean seafood restaurant, another that promises Comida Tipica Colombiana, then the butcher’s shop – Carnisseria Los Andes. And there are African textiles, Chinese herbal medicines, Sierra Leone groceries, coffee from the Kiwi entrepreneurs at Federation, specialist ice-creams from Laboratorio Artigianale del Buon Gelato, local designers, fabrics, home-made foods…

So it’s 6.20 and I’m drifting up and down the avenues, taking it all in – almost greedily. In an hour or so, it’ll be business as usual. Right now, it’s mine.

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I’m waiting for the sun, here on the Royal Steps. They’re slippery and fringed with weed. Behind me stands the Royal Naval College, its twin domes overlooking a grassy quadrangle. A pair of ornamental gates front on to the river and are decorated in gold with flags, full sails, anchors, shells and braided rope. A narrow pavement runs along the riverbank between the spiked black palings of the college and the simpler rails designed to prevent you and me falling in the water. At low tide, as now, there’s a ten foot drop to a narrow strip of beach. The wall is laced with curtains of the same bright green weed. Next to the sign announcing the Royal Steps, there’s another: a yellow triangle warning what happens to a silhouette man in black who doesn’t notice the weed. While the stone steps drop down to the right, I notice it’s possible to unlock and swing open a couple of sections of rail so that, at high tide, one could pull up alongside and disembark, presumably from some kind of royal craft.

It’s 4.44, the time of the sunrise today. All I can see so far is a fiery gilt-edge to a flat pillow of cloud just above the horizon over Woolwich way. Otherwise, the sky is more or less clear. High above the Observatory on the hill, the waning moon looks small and insignificant.

In reality, of course, the time is actually 3.44 – Greenwich Mean Time. Because we drag the hour forwards artificially in March, the sun rises before 5.00 in the GMT dimension for a much longer period. I guess that means I could justifiably be up and about doing 5 o’clock shadow between April 18th and August 24th. (That’s if I need to justify what I’m doing, which I don’t.) We’ll see, anyhow.

So I’m south of the river, the Cutty Sark nearby still sectioned off behind blue site boards for restoration work after the fire. Greenwich Pier is to my left, flags flapping on the pontoons. A couple of old iron barges are moored midstream. On the opposite bank lies the Isle of Dogs: apartments with river views, trees on the edge of Millwall Park with the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in the background, then a church spire and more flats. Tracking round towards the rising sun, the skyline shifts across to the other side as the river bends to the north. There’s the O2, an old gasometer like an empty cage, a couple of cranes and some aerials, then, a few hundred yards from where I’m standing, the huge stanchion piles of what’s left of Lovell’s Wharf.

It’s very peaceful here. The only sound is the gentle lapping of water, interrupted briefly by the distant buzz of a helicopter hanging like a gnat over by City Airport. I did come across a couple of revellers on a bench who offered me a drink of something red and lurid in a large bottle, but they’ve gone to bed.

Here she comes… the sunlight’s beginning to break through. Using the compass on the iPhone, I see that the sun’s rising almost in the north-east: at around 60º, which is 30º removed from where we tend to think it rises. For the past few days, around the solstice, I’ve been watching the crimson flushes of the sunset in the north-western sky. Due to the Earth’s tilt as it rotates, the imagined conventional points of east and west only apply at the spring and autumn equinoxes. The other thing this is helping me remember is that it isn’t the sun that’s on the move. We are.

Sunrise is an illusion. Except when it happens all of a sudden and the senses take over. Almost in a rush there’s a burst of orange backlighting the pillow cloud. I have spots in front of my eyes, as I watch it grow strong, then soften as it diffuses for a minute or two. Before long, there’s a full sun blazing, straw-coloured, and it’s moving, or so it seems, at an angle – creeping up and across to the right. I’m dazzled and have to look away. I can feel the warmth. The day has begun.

I climb down the steps to the grey sand dotted with pebbles and worn fragments of brick and glass. I find an oyster shell and slip it in my pocket. I stay for a while, wondering who else in this city of millions stood and watched the full length of the sunrise on this bright midsummer morning.

And I feel blessed.

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fish on friday

The Billingsgate clock that hangs above the central aisle says it’s 4.40. Or because it’s an old-fashioned clock perhaps it should say twenty to five. A white round face with black roman numerals is repeated on four sides of a large cube, painted green, gilded and crenellated for effect. It tells the time to all points around the market.

I’ve found some pre-dawn action today. I’m strolling round this purpose-built shed the size of a football pitch where the main concern is the buying and selling of fish. They’re not open for business, in theory, until 5.00, but the place is humming. The merchants and their teams will have been awake since the really early hours, getting set up, stocked and organised.

‘Watch your legs, please! Watch your legs…’ comes the cry as the porters wheel in palette-trolleys loaded with boxes from the warehousing bays and chilled Portakabins outside. They all wear long white jackets and trousers; some with white caps, rubber boots squelching.

I do a quick circuit to get the feel of things. Of course there’s every kind of fish on the menu: sardines to salmon, mackerel to monkfish; from the lowly herring to crates of exotic ponyfish caught in the Indian Ocean only yesterday.

I stand to one side and check out the practicalities. The roof-space is sectioned by heavy yellow girders from which hang nine rectangular gantries, in the same bright yellow theme. They carry the power points, telephone and lighting strips for five or six stalls that are arranged underneath each one. These are composed generally of little more than palettes laid on the floor stacked with white polystyrene boxes. Some have a metal counter or a freezer compartment. Each hangs out a sign: nothing fancy, the company name and phone details, universally blue on a plain white background, sometimes with a simple fishy logo. A few England supporters have the cross of St George draped overhead. At the back, the boss or the partners control operations beside a stainless-steel lectern, punching calculators, scribbling in invoice books, pulling out the sheets and calling orders.

‘Here we go now. Mind your legs!’

The fish gets hauled in, stacked, sold and shipped out. None of it stays for long. The freshest seems to go first.

There’s a constant hubbub of bartering and banter, spiked with the squeak of polystyrene and the slapping of palettes. The crunch of ice, shovelled by the bucket-load over glistening sea bream, punctuates the rasp of trolley wheels on the slippery floor. Water trickles away down the sluices. A telephone rings but they’re too busy to answer. Deals are being done, haggling over weights, quantities and prices. Some customers are doing the rounds, winding up the competition.

‘He may be offering you fifteen quid a box, but look at these. Beautiful. Picked ‘em myself…’

‘I’ll give you sixteen…’

‘Seventeen fifty I can do…’

‘Mind your legs!’

I wander around taking photos. I always ask but no one seems to mind. They’re a cheery bunch. I find a mountain of crabs – a mass of armour with lively claws, a huge pink turbot, barracuda and barramundi, a slab of maybe twenty conger eel – ugly, grey and slimy, matt black lobsters imprisoned by tough green bands.

As I’m taking the shot of the day, I hear one wag in a white coat shout: ‘Oy-oy! … Snapper!’

It’ll be sea bass for supper tonight. Four for a tenner.

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popping out to the bank

Today I’m walking towards the rising sun. After daybreak, I’ll keep going. I’m crossing the city from where I live in Chiswick, heading east.

The hour before 5.00 always seems to possess its own special magic. Everyone’s asleep in their beds. The only sounds are the birdsong and my boots clomping as I walk down the middle of the street – because I can. A pair of tabby cats eye me furtively from the pavement, crouching, as if they’ve just been caught doing something they shouldn’t.

Towards Stamford Brook, a recycling box and its disgorged contents lie strewn over the road. More pieces of rubbish have been dragged along the pathway, presumably by the foxes. A runaway hubcap has rolled to the curb. It used to belong to a Citroën. The first human I see rides a motor-bike – jet black helmet, visor down, fluorescent green jacket.

I was hoping to watch the sun rise ahead of me but the sky is overcast. It’s hard to tell but there looks to be a layer of cloud high up and then other formations at lower altitude. A bank of marbled grey is moving gently with the wind, drifting eastwards with me. It’s disconcerting. If I stop, it slows; when I walk, it seems to speed up. I’m on the Goldhawk Road by 4.30 and I notice the faintest wash of pink in an otherwise dull sky between two tv aerials on a rooftop.

There are a few people out and about now: a bloke in shorts following the back-end of his dog with a plastic bag, a mini-cab driver climbing into a wrecked Toyota, a couple of noisy Poles who sound drunk, and an old man standing by his front gate pulling on a first cigarette. He’s in his dressing-gown and slippers. He waves his fag in the air and coughs as I wish him ‘Good morning’.

In the road leading to the bus garage, six double-deckers are parked in a line waiting to head out. Opposite, the market-stalls are still boarded up. I inhale the acrid smell of engine oil.

Along by Shepherd’s Bush green, a pale orange flush warms the sky briefly over Notting Hill; only for a minute as I walk and then it’s gone. I cross the roundabout in all the places you’d be mad to otherwise and head up Holland Park Avenue. Under the tunnel of trees, the atmosphere is gloomy as I pace on up the hill, past Daunts bookshop and the exclusive foodie stores. It’s somehow fitting that the next thing I see is a peacock tip-toeing along the pavement’s edge. In fact, it’s a peahen. She must have come from the park, which means she’s already crossed the road. I’m concerned for her safe return but what can I do?

Traffic is beginning to build now, coming in waves of rackety interference. There are moments, now and then, when the peace returns.

I pass through Notting Hill Gate without really noticing and I’m soon making my way along the Bayswater Road with its mansion blocks and hotels. A lady in a white apron is laying up the breakfast bar in the empty restaurant of the Ramada Jarvis. Queensway is deserted. The clock on the corner says 4.10 when it’s really 5.20. Up the slope past Lancaster Gate, an electric road-sign flashes – 30 – SLOW DOWN – as a 148 bus roars by, its driver making the most of the open road. Along by Hyde  Park to Tyburn, I hear police sirens wail and see blue lights flashing around Marble Arch.

I’m not relishing the prospect of Oxford Street. I imagine it’s going to be grim somehow. I cross the Edgware Road and catch a whiff of croissant. I could be hungry by the time I’ve finished. The underground is open and from the entrance a scratchy voice is making announcements over the tannoy. It’ll be busy on the street soon. I follow a couple of tourists wheeling suitcases as a cabbie crawls alongside touting for a fare. Then I’m over the brow and, apart from a chicane of roadworks, Oxford Street looks empty.

It’s actually a pleasure. With hardly anyone around, I alternate between swooping along the pavement and hopping up and over the islands down the middle. It’s a joy not to be struggling against the crowds or being wary of traffic. The only disturbance is the occasional bus. I catch sight of South Molton Street, deliciously quiet, so I play there with my camera for a while. Then I carry on up to Regent Street, its elegant lines accentuated by the sense of desolation curving down towards Piccadilly Circus.

Another effect is to make everything smaller. I don’t know why, but a deserted street seems to make the buildings beside it shrink. Maybe it’s because my attention isn’t limited to the immediate surroundings. Because the walking is easy, the distance seems shorter too. I cover the bottom half of Oxford Street in about five minutes. As I reach Tottenham Court Road, I realise I haven’t bothered to look in any of the shop windows.

More people are on their way to work now, but this is still the early shift. It’s not yet 6.30 and, as usual, I share my world with delivery men, maintenance workers, security guards, office cleaners… Spare them a thought. They’ve been up long before most of us. I’m surprised at the number of window-cleaners about. There’s a man inside Pret A Manger wiping a soapy streak across the glass with a rectangular mop on a pole. He smiles at me and nods as I pass.

Moving down New Oxford Street to High Holborn, I’m struck by how grey everything is. It could be because of the weather today. But the pavement’s grey, the concrete, the tarmac, the buildings, the sky… Then I reach the top of Chancery Lane and my view changes. I see the Nat West Tower and the Gherkin. They seem to promise invention and prosperity – even now in these times of austerity. It isn’t far. Down to Holborn Circus, across the viaduct, with Smithfield on my left and I’m in the City. A rare glance of sunlight catches the gold-leaf on the Lady of Justice statue on top of the Old Bailey.

They wear suits now. The streets are filling with men and women pressing to work. I see the strain in their faces, some of them. They’re calculating, planning, worrying. One guy is even talking to himself out loud. There are two revolving doors at Bank of America – Merrill Lynch, so called these days. Both are whirling round as I pass by.

The bells of St Paul’s chime the hour of seven, echoed by two other nearby churches. Within five minutes, I reach the Bank of England. It has taken me two and three-quarter hours to cover 7.7 miles. That may sound a long way, but it felt easy. And again, walking it at dawn made the distance seem much smaller than if I’d pictured making that journey in my head.

Now what I need is a good breakfast. I’m ushered to my table in a domed room where men in jackets and ties, or with the more casual blue-shirted look, sit talking in murmured voices. I drain a large glass of fresh orange juice and order the full English. They’re of an age in here: mid-thirties to fifty. A few women do join their meetings but it’s predominantly male. I overhear the words: ‘operational’, ‘trading’, ‘regulators’, ‘year-one…’

I spend an hour over breakfast, and mighty fine it is too. When I emerge, it’s 8.30 and the streets around the Bank are transformed, swarming with workers hurrying to their desks carrying bags and briefcases. I head for home, on the underground. There’s work being done upgrading the escalators so I’m led a dance to reach the Central line. I descend an iron staircase, spiralling down so far so deep it makes me giddy. I’m shuffling along these crowded tunnels, jostled from behind, as a stream of blank faces passes me going the other way.

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Hyde Park opens at 5.00 but the padlocks are already off and I’m through the gate at 4.40 this morning. There’s a chill in the air today. What was a clear sky looks to be clouding over. I cross the bridle-path and begin to wander through an area of long grass populated by maturing trees and bushes. Apart from the traffic I can still hear back on the Bayswater Road, I could almost be in the country. The birds are trilling merrily all around. Within a few minutes, I’ve seen a song thrush, some chuckling magpies, a very tame robin that bobbed down in front of me, a pair of flitting chaffinches and a woodpecker searching for grubs. There’s no one else around, apart from the squirrels.

The idyll doesn’t last. Around a bench lies yesterday’s debris: two William Hill branded cardboard coffee cups, a crushed can of Carling Black Label, a plastic bag and a pair of discarded cinema tickets. They’d been to the Odeon to see The Hangover 2.

I pass by the park nursery, an enclosure fenced with solid black railings, and soon find myself in a glade of tall plane trees. They look old and wise, their limbs stretching out to make a lush green canopy up above. I stop for a moment, in my own enchanted forest. The air smells rich with loam.

I can see the Serpentine down the slope, but decide to bear left along by the Ranger’s Lodge. I’m wondering idly who it is that I’m going to meet first today, when I spy a figure in the distance. He’s heading in my direction, up from the boating lake. We’re both on paths that cross some way ahead and I soon sense that we’re on a collision course. He’s moving quite fast, with some purpose, yet seems to drop his left hip giving him a shambling gait. He’s wearing a blue checked shirt, black trousers and trainers. He looks maybe forty, with a shock of greying hair.

I keep walking at my own pace but continue to gauge the distance between us. I’m watching as we reach the crossroads and hold back ever so slightly so that we don’t crash. I’m waiting, too, for some sign of recognition before I offer him a cheery greeting. There is none. The man stares straight ahead as he passes right in front of me.

Let’s hold that there. It’s not yet five o’clock in the morning and we’re about as far away as one could possibly be from another human being in the whole of central London. Literally. There isn’t anyone else within a radius of about half a mile. We’re three feet from each other. I could have touched him. And this guy totally ignores me. Which is fine. I just want to say that I do find it a little odd.

Anyway, moving on… here’s something useful. If you’re ever in that part of Hyde Park and need to post a letter, fear not. Unless I’m hallucinating, right beside the Ranger’s Lodge stands a shiny red post box. It even has separate slots for First and Second class. There is a kind of Alice in Wonderland quality about its being there. I must confess – I do look twice, just to be sure.

I continue tracking round until I reach the spot where the Reformers’ Tree used to be.
A mosaic of smooth pebbles marks the spot: a black tree on a pale background. I have to walk round it twice to read the inscription. A venerable tree, it’s been called. Or so it was. Burnt down during the Reform League riots of 1866, the stump became a notice-board for political demonstrations and a gathering point for the Reformers. It’s where I meet my first jogger of the day anyhow. He stops for a breather and I wish him ‘Good morning’. He gives me a nervous laugh and goes ‘Allright?’, before setting off again.

From here, I can see the traffic moving on Park Lane across the grassy open space. A watery sun is breaking through at last, coming into view above the penthouse roofs. To the south, planes are droning in on the flightpath to Heathrow and I can make out the chimneys of Battersea power station above the treeline. I wander up towards Speakers’ Corner and notice someone wrapped in a bag, asleep under a tree. There’s another man in the long grass, sitting motionless, surrounded by his bundles and a kids’ buggy, lying on its side. It’s very quiet, but there are a few more people walking or running across the park now.

I’m still looking for today’s photo opportunity and decide to check out the Serpentine. On my way, I see two more sleeping bodies: one under a tree, the other out in the open. If I was homeless, I guess I’d rather kip here on a midsummer’s night than in some doorway.

More wildlife is happening down by the lake. A gaggle of some thirty Canada geese see me coming and start waddling towards the water. Ducks, ducklings, a pair of elegant swans and their fluffy cygnets are scooping for food. A grebe dives out of sight and a cormorant is resting on a post. Then I see the heron. He’s perched on the top slat of a park bench keeping an eye on the water’s edge. So I creep up on him. I inch slowly round the end of the bench, keeping my distance once I know he’s seen me. By the time I’ve finished, keeping very still, moving half a step at a time, my lens is about six feet from his scrawny beak. We look at each other for a while. In the end, he gets bored with me and flaps off.

It’s now past 6.00 so the joggers are out in numbers. They aren’t the superfit, on today’s evidence. They stomp and puff and grimace, moving at whatever pace they can. And good for them.

A woman in a black tracksuit approaches through the trees. She’s out with her dog, a dark Alsatian with a long shaggy tail. He sees the ducks, runs over and starts stalking them.

‘Don’t you dare think about it,’ she shouts, then whistles. ‘Come on. Rolfie! … Rolfie!’

Rolfie’s not listening. He’s splashing about as the ducks fan out across the water.

‘Rolfie! Come here. Come on. I’m gone…’

She carries on walking until she’s a hundred yards away, still calling and whistling. Rolfie realises the game’s up with the ducks but then notices me. All this time I’ve been standing, cradling my camera on the tripod. I’m not too fond of dogs, especially when they’re some cross between a wolf and a rabid fox.

Rolfie decides to show who’s boss. He runs up, barking angrily, lunging at me, paws outstretched. I don’t know what it is, but he’s clearly threatened. I find that I tend to keep more still for Alsatians than I do even for herons. But Rolfie’s not for giving in. He moves closer, growling and snarling.

She now calls back, as if it’s all a bit of a joke. ‘Rolfie! Come on! Oy! Here… Rolfie! This is dog training…’

I’m not sure which of us she’s addressing with the last bit.

Rolfie turns to go, then changes his mind and bounds back for more. He’s cunning. He comes up behind me this time, does it all again. I don’t move except to look round. All I can see are Rolfie’s finely sharpened teeth.

So much for wildlife.

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wood and clay will wash away

I make it to London Bridge just in time. Sunrise today is at 4.46, creeping earlier still. I was away last week so I haven’t been out for a few days and the change is noticeable. The sky is perfectly clear this morning and the backlight in the east is luminous.

I round the corner from the Monument, so I’m on the left-hand side of the bridge as you cross from north to south. I’m cooing to myself as I see the river and take in the view. My eye tells me to stop about a third of the way across. I’m looking down river at Tower Bridge in silhouette. The water has turned silvery-blue, reflecting the sky, and the deep shadows of the two towers reach out across the eddying currents. The tide is coming in so the river seems to be drifting upstream towards me, stretching my perspective, while a soothing motion of sweeps and swirls ripples across its surface.

Looking straight through, under Tower Bridge – with its stoplights fixed at red – I can see as far as Rotherhithe, hazy in the distance. The sun is rising somewhere behind the buildings of the City, to my left.

One or two people are already on their way to work, walking over from the Southwark side – no suits yet, though. Trucks and buses grind the traffic lanes behind me and I try to shut out the din, as I watched the light shift imperceptibly over the river. A gull floats impassively by. A cormorant takes off from an oily pontoon, clattering low across the water.

As the bell of St Magnus the Martyr strikes the hour of five, a thread of golden sun begins to be reflected by a window on one of the old warehouses on the south bank. Slowly it grows to a tight blaze. Something catches down Rotherhithe way and sends a pinpoint of light back to me. After another minute or so, another shaft of light begins to stream across the broken surface of the water, again to my right, reflecting this time on a glass panel somewhere down on the river-boat pier. Then I see it gilding the sharp edge of one of the tall Canada Square towers over at Canary Wharf. But I still can’t see the sun itself. As I stand here, sunlight is being bounced at me from all angles.

Of course, this is the site of the first bridge that was built across the Thames, by the Romans, when the river was much wider than it is today. The ugly concrete version I’m standing on is probably about the sixth or seventh incarnation. Wood and clay will wash away… My fair lady. And looking around, I can see examples of other re-builds, old and new. On the north shore stands an art deco office block, then a recent construct that looks to be made of sugar cubes of deep blue glass. Next comes graceful Old Billingsgate, once the fish market, built in the 1870s and topped with a couple of ostentatious weather vanes decorated with those thick-lipped fish you see in the far-flung corners of seafarers’ maps. On the south side, there are the old wharf buildings, now smartly converted, more glass squares then the bulbous snail of City Hall. At the southern end of the bridge the latest concept called The Shard is making its dizzying ascent into the skyline it shares with the ancient tower of Southwark Cathedral. All is progress. Nothing much is permanent, least of all you and me, and those souls who’ve been crossing over here for the last couple of thousand years.

It’s always worth remembering. Pull yourself up short. This is my brief moment. And this particular moment is worth savouring. On this beautiful bright summer’s morning, I lean over and watch the river as it slides by. I’m finding there’s something delicious in being up and about at this hour. Even the familiar is fresh and different. This is a parallel London, with its own exquisite light and shade. It’s like wandering through a foreign land.

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like piccadilly circus

So I’m hoping to sit on the steps beneath Eros and experience a rare treat. I want to be able to say that I am the only person in Piccadilly Circus this morning.

Approaching up Piccadilly itself, I’m beginning to wonder. It’s 4.38 and things are lively. There are some folk about. Silver-haired businessmen emerge from the Mayfair Club and climb into shiny black cars. Two Polish labourers are waiting for a bus, gabbling excitedly to one another. A Chinese girl pedals by on a bicycle with some kind of instrument case strapped to her back. Then a man who looks like he’s from north Africa stops me and asks if this is Regent Street, so I direct him round the corner.

And Piccadilly Circus? It’s noisy. A team of men is dismantling the skin of scaffolding on the front of the Lillywhite’s building. Clangs of metal and raucous shouting compete with the revving of the crane on the flatbed lorry as they move the pieces, hand to hand. There’s a rubbish truck grinding its contents over by Shaftesbury Avenue. Buses, black cabs or delivery vans lurch forward to race the empty lanes each time the lights change.

This is the hour when those who are ‘coming from’ cross paths with those who are ‘going to’. You can spot them. They’re either listing unsteadily, not knowing quite how they’re supposed to get home any more, or they’re walking purposefully across the paving, having seen all this before, most days probably.

A group of young men stands about, chatting and smoking, on the top of the steps by the fountain. They’re dressed as if they’ve just come from the office, slightly dishevelled now. One of them still carries the umbrella he used against yesterday’s rain. At the back of the news-stand a girl in high heels and a short skirt is tottering dangerously, shrieking to her male friend about how funny it was, whatever it was. Then a pair of German guys in their thirties sway past, say something lewd to her and wave drunkenly into the headlights as they hail a cab. And still, every five minutes or so, someone will wander up, hold out a pocket digital camera and take a snap of the famous scene.

Today’s forecast said white cloud. The sky is growing lighter now, but there’ll be no sunrise to watch, no chasing shadows this morning.

I can’t sit down on the steps because the place is so scuzzy – butt ends, spilled drink, chewing gum.

I walk up Great Windmill Street into Soho. On the corner of Brewer Street, I almost bump into a young black guy with a girl who looks like she’s just finished her shift. She stares at me, uncomprehending.

‘Y’allright darlin’?’

‘Fine, thanks,’ I say without stopping.

Soho has emptied. Brewer Street’s dead, the bright neon lights switched off, sex no longer for sale. Wardour Street is deserted except for the man with his bucket and rubber blade washing the Ann Summers’ shop window. In Old Compton Street the only action is a man delivering a large bag of onions. I head on to Frith Street for a cup of coffee to sharpen me up, but even the Bar Italia is closed. Bar Italia never closes – only between the very late and the very early, when the guy in the white jacket has the door locked while he mops the floor.

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the fool on the hill

I’m climbing the path up Parliament Hill. I haven’t been here for years. The sky is mostly clear and a cool breeze tugs at my shirt. The shape of a pale half moon makes a perfect inverted D. It is 4.40 in the morning.

The path levels out and on top of the mound, I remember, benches have been placed to take in the views. Most of them face south, where the city lies beneath a veil of pinkish cloud, red lights winking in the haze. Although the eastern sky is brightening, I’m not sure quite where the sun will rise: somewhere along the slope of Highgate Hill towards Archway.

A black crow struts about, resenting my intrusion. His mates are calling from the trees on the heath down behind me.

I do a 360 degree turn – not a soul: just me and the Hampstead crow and old London town. I can see the Telecom Tower, of course, Centre Point… Any further west is obscured by the trees. In the far distance, I can just make out Crystal Palace, the tv mast. Then there’s the roof of St Pancras, the dome of St Paul’s, with the Heron Tower looking like a giant cheese grater beside it. The City proper with its monied skyscrapers probably qualifies as the nearest thing to an iconic section of skyline, and then beyond, to the ghostly towers of Canary Wharf. Tracking round, I’m looking out across Camden Town, Finsbury and Islington, to Hackney and Stratford, where four red cranes stand ready to marshal the construction of the new Olympic Park.

Even at this hour I can hear the distant roar of the city rising as it hauls itself awake. I keep expecting to see someone climbing one of the paths to join me. It’s cold up here in the wind. I should have worn another layer. The crow paces about, edging closer, eyes me jiggling about as I try to keep warm.

Sunrise today is at 4.57, but the sun doesn’t appear just yet. Two jet planes slice across the sky: one a silver needle directly above me; the other heading north, scoring a trail of vapour rising above the Highgate woods. It’s twelve minutes past when the light breaks through some low cloud and begins to dazzle me. After the long wait, the change quickens suddenly. Within three or four minutes, there is full sun and I can’t look any more. Almost immediately I feel a touch of warmth. My shadow stretches out across the grass. And the moon is turning milky.

At 5.28, a girl runs up from the direction of the old bathing ponds. She’s all black lycra, stocky calves pounding. We say ‘Good morning’ and smile. Then for a while, it’s just me among the benches. I’m counting, fifteen of them altogether, when I see another head bobbing up the hillside. In full view, it becomes a lady of middling years – on crutches. I stare as she forces through the pain, walking doggedly up the bank at speed.

‘Are you exercising?’ I ask as she reaches me.

‘Trying to get some life back into it at least.’

‘What have you done?’

‘Torn a hamstring,’ she says with a resigned smile and heads on past and over the hill.

‘Wow. Good luck!’ I call after her.

Now that is impressive.

Then a man appears. He’s wearing a yellow fleece and matching hat pulled over his ears. He puts his hands together, breathes deeply. He places two fingers on each nostril in turn, leans over and blows.

I decide to pack up and go. When I turn round, the man is doing press-ups with his feet up on a bench. As I walk by, we greet each other and stop to talk. He could be fifty, maybe older. He comes up here every other day, he says, all year round. He lives in Kentish Town. He’s Indian, originally from Trinidad. He tells me that in the middle of winter the sun rises all the way down by Canary Wharf.

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down my way

I’m out of my front door by 4.35. There are chaffinches trilling in the bushes to greet the coming dawn. Down the empty street, the porch lights flare. The sky is clouded and grey. I guess today’s sunrise will be muted.

Near the tube station, I’m struck by how much electric light is commanding the scene: streetlamps, bollards, roadsigns, beacons blinking aimlessly by the zebra crossing. There are even lights on in the church hall.

I’m a lone figure until on the Terrace – our local parade of shops – I see a man come to unlock the security grille at the newsagent’s. There’s a youth at the greengrocer’s dumping empty boxes on the pavement. The door of the butcher’s shop across the street is open, a white van parked outside.

‘Hallo Bill,’ calls the boy at the greengrocer’s.

‘Hallo Tom,’ replies Bill, the butcher’s man.

As I pass, I say ‘Good morning’ to Tom cheerily, as if we have some common purpose. To be up and about at this hour means you can say ‘Good morning’ and really mean it.
I turn right along the High Road and I’m shaking my head again at the energy being pumped to illuminate all these shopfronts. A cleaner is sweeping the floor of an estate agent’s office. A bakery van pulls up to deliver fresh bread next door.

I take my first picture – of an empty street. There’s so much shadow it requires the tripod and a two second exposure. Then I spy a funfair set up on the green. But it’s dead – no lights here, no flashing proscenium bulbs, no noise or swirling music, no grinding generators. The stalls are shuttered, carts covered over with tarpaulins. And I’m walking around completely alone. For once, the ghost train with its menacing skulls actually does give me the creeps.

By 5.10 the marbled clouds begin to be tinged with a pale yellow light. I head back eastwards and eventually turn down towards the river. I cross the A4, though not by the underpass. It’s easy to pick a gap in the traffic already rushing out of town, and I stroll over to the far side. Past sleeping houses, I find the Thames path. The river is up, wide and swirling; the tide must be going out. The water is the colour of mud, or where it reflects the trees on the opposite bank, khaki. Plastic debris and small tangled rafts of rubbish are being carried away downstream. A squadron of swifts is feeding overhead.

I wander along feeling how small we are beside this permanent force, for all the city we’ve built beside it. I hear a church bell ringing six o’clock and at last the sun shows through weakly, still diffused by cloud. The morning runners begin to appear, jogging to the rhythm inside their heads. I turn away from the river when I reach Hammersmith Bridge. And it’s 6.24 when I catch a shaft of light strong enough to cast a shadow from a thin sapling planted by the slip-road under the elevated section.

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