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…’