One of the things I love the most about living in central London is how I can walk home from wherever the day takes me. I have always been inspired by the way Dickens and Woolf wrote of their night ramblings through the streets of London, using the cover of darkness to see the city that was so familiar to them, in an unfamiliar light. In the nineteenth century, the advent of gaslight made walking at night a possibility, while also shedding a romantic, hazy glow onto formerly inky, shadowy streets. Artists such as John Atkinson Grimshaw depict how wonderfully atmospheric gaslit streets were, and when I look at his paintings of London at night, I feel a sense of magic in the softly shimmering orbs of gas lamps he shows to be floating above the pavements. While gas lamps are now largely a thing of the past, there are parts of London that still look exactly as they would have done when Grimshaw was painting them; the streets of Bloomsbury that the restless feet of Woolf and Dickens once tramped during sleepless nights are certainly nearly identical to what these illustrious night walkers would have known.
Living close to Bloomsbury myself, and walking through it every evening to make my way home, I am becoming very familiar with the ways Dickens and Woolf would once have wended, and often find myself stopping and wondering whether they once stood here too, or looked up at that window, or noticed that spire poking between two buildings. I wonder which paths and routes they took; whether they preferred Grays Inn Road or Theobalds Road, whether they would have walked through Bedford Square and down Charing Cross Road to the river, or down Farringdon Road to St Paul’s and the City. I walk all these streets myself, taking in how the blanket of darkness that covers the streets once the clock strikes five transforms the experience of walking within them. Cobbled alleyways that charm in daylight become sinister, almost frightening, when they are cloaked in shadows. Main roads that offer little to delight the eye in the bustle and rush of the day become beautiful in the absence of crowds, their buildings more majestic, their proportions more grand. Strings of sparkling streetlights give even the ugliest roads a festive air, and I love nothing more than looking at the shifting lights on the deep, surging blackness of the Thames by night.
As I night walk, I experience the city afresh. Streets that are filled with people and traffic and noise all day become empty and silent, my footsteps echoing against the buildings I never normally have the chance to properly look at. Lights come on in people’s homes, and peering through their windows, I see glimpses of lives I would never otherwise encounter. As I move from the centre, where the streets are filled with rowdy crowds being ejected from bars and clubs, their neon flashing doorways pulsing with the beat of the music within, I gradually find the city starting to settle and sleep. The shops on Regent and Oxford Streets stare blankly back at me as I pass, their windows dark, their products sleeping. The British Museum looms proudly out of the shadows, its columns lit up so that it seems to float, gracefully, in mid air, free from the crowds that press into its courtyard and up its steps during the day. Streets of soot-blackened brick terraces stand sentinel as I hurry past, throwing long shadows across the pavements. I find myself in a world of timelessness, and I can almost imagine turning a corner to find Virginia Woolf just ahead of me, always tantalisingly out of reach.