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.