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.