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.