Before dawn on Christmas Day, I experienced London in way I had never previously done. I have lived in this great city for 30 years, not least because I enjoy its vibrancy and bustle. For just a few hours, though, just once a year, even the busiest places are almost totally abandoned. So, before dawn on Christmas Day, I took my camera and went for a walk through London.
As a child I used to take a bus down the length of Oxford Street one December evening each year to look at the Christmas lights. I saw the shoppers thronging around the entrances to the department stores. I smelled the wafts rising from the chestnut-sellers on the street corners. I gazed up at the lights slung between the grand buildings on either side of the road. It all seemed so exciting. It never occurred to me then that I might one day live in this part of London and call this my neighbourhood.
When you live and work in a place that other people come to as a tourist destination, you stop noticing the things that they are coming to see. When Oxford Street is your local high street, you stop noticing the lights and the displays that attract the attention of hundreds of thousands of visitors at this time of year. It takes deliberate effort to see what they have come to see.
At 7am on Christmas morning, I found only a handful of people on the streets. A couple of solitary refuse collectors cleaned up the debris from last-minute shoppers the night before. An occasional taxi tore down an otherwise empty road, earning a bonus fare for lack of any public transport. A small group of people on cycle hire bikes passed by once in a while. And then there were the photographers: those, like me, who had come out to see London’s architecture and street furniture without the usual milieu of city life mixing around them.
On Christmas morning, it felt like London was having a lie-in. The usual early-morning traffic of workers returning from their night shifts and revellers returning from nights out had given way to an eerie absence of activity. Places that are normally bustling with busyness resembled almost apocalyptic scenes of sparseness. What surprised me about my walk through the city was how intimate it felt, as if I was privileged to see a private side to the place so many people see publicly. London was having a lie-in; I caught it in its pyjamas with a mug of tea.
I made it to the Thames just after sunrise. As the early rays of morning stretched over the tops of the buildings, a warm glow fell across the river. Landmarks reflected in the stillness of the water. It was a final moment of calm. Within a few minutes there was some chattering around me; some footsteps. One man was vlogging with a riverside backdrop. A family were debating where they were going to get breakfast. People began emerging from Pret a Manger with coffee cups in one hand and selfie sticks in the other. Things were beginning to get back to normal. London had woken up again.
People have been asking me what my resolutions are for the new year. I haven’t made a list and I don’t expect I’d keep them if I did make any firm commitments. But in light of my walk on Christmas morning I do have this on my mind: to see this city that I know and love surprise me more often. I want to find its intimate moments and its hidden spaces, available to everyone but only experienced by those who make the effort to seek them out. And as I do, I wonder if I might find something of why I have such a strong affinity for the place I call home.