Night walking can be addictive. It offers the thrill of exploring the unknown but also in an environment that evokes constant adrenalin. The dark is associated with evil; it renders the sight almost colourless as well as blank. The lack of sight inflates the feeling of isolation and with the limited noise makes you feel startled at any unanticipated sounds. A recurring theme throughout Dicken’s Night Walk is ‘Houselessness’, referring to those who wander at night in purposeless manner.
My Night walk, based on Charles Dickens Night walk, takes me on a circumference between Westminster bridge to the west, waterloo bridge at the centre and London bridge to the east. Trafalgar square and Covent garden to the north west and the Old Bailey, Bank station and billingsgate market to the north east. To my south east I went down Dickens memory lane to Bench Parks marshalsea prison and the imperial war museum. However, I started my walk, miscellaneously perhaps, at Haymarket, in the hopes of drawing a comparison to Dickens description as one ‘the worst kept part of London’. This is partly because of its association with prostitution and other sources of entertainment. Walking up the sloping Haymarket street passing Cineworld cinema on my left that is extortion to visit. Most stores within this area have their own set “London” prices.
Waterloo bridge holds the great entertainment complex with the royal opera house, Covent garden and the strand north of the river and Southbank south of the river. Agreeably with Dickens the river holds a special resonance at this time, however, not a call for suicide. Once everything had slowed down the small waves in the river provide some serenity and also a sense of freedom from the rush and noise during the day. The day time, at the strand and its theatres, is relatively quiet, however, as dickens refers to the period that is ‘The restlessness of a great city, and the way in which it tumbles and tosses before it can get to sleep, formed one of the first entertainments offered to the contemplation of us houseless people’. The time in which people are heading home after their evening out in the theatres or the pub, is this area’s busiest period and after it, its quietest. Even at times during desolate hours this area was in state of restlessness with cleaners (as well as arguable the mouse) cleaning the streets for the morning tourists and workers, builders repairing streets and as Matthew Beaumont describes the people at this as those either ‘running out of time or those with time to burn’. Working the curve of the strand I headed towards the old bailey where once it housed Newgate prison.
The Newgate prison was demolished after 1902 now home to the Old Bailey criminal justice court. The prison housed all sorts of criminals from petty theft to rapes and murders. Not far from where the Newgate prison once existed lies Bank home to the Royal Exchange and the Bank of England. Describing the Debtor’s door as the death door, at this point, Dicken’s talks about his father dealings with debt when he was younger. Today it screams affluence and yet seems uncommercial. For years, I had never known its existence because around the area retail buildings are housed within what looks like official and grand office buildings. Much what you would expect for educational buildings or courts. The area is not as sociable as in the north-west region but there are many restaurants and transport links around the area. You can tell that this is a place for white collar workers and weirdly I had not noticed a homeless person nor really any houseless.
Crossing London Bridge that was once full off carriages. I went on to pass the old billingsgate market where dickens had hoped for some company in his Night walk. Billingsgate now a hospitality and events venue can hardly be remembered for it world’s largest fish market and great brewery.
Moving on King’s Bench prison also known as the marshalsea prison has been demolished with a plank place in honour of Dicken’s as well as a library. Following on from his father’s issue with debt his family were held in the marshalsea prison while he worked in Warren’s Blacking factory off the strand. Walking the street felt more isolated than anywhere else. The whole south side of the river seemed darker and less commercial because there were more houses. You would also find fast food takeaways that were open till late and foxes rummaging through people’s bin. At one point, though I was walking on a street that was wide and bright the sound of the autumn leaves startled me because I had initially no idea where the sound was coming from.
Philosophically, Dickens talks about being sane and those who were kept in Bethlehem mental asylum now home to the Imperial War Museum (IWM). Bethlehem hospital itself had moved to different areas around London throughout the centuries but during Dickens time would have been where the IWM is now. The building itself is actually quite pretty and does not scream mental asylum even if there is great big canon in its front yard. Conversely, perhaps Dickens judgement was clouding at this moment but Dickens logically explains the insanity in all of us in reference to the Night.
‘Are not the sane and the insane equal at night as the sane lie a dreaming? Are not all of us outside this hospital, who dream, more or less in the condition of those inside it, every night of our lives?…Do we not nightly jumble events and personages and times and places, as these do daily? Are we not sometimes troubled by our own sleeping inconsistencies, and do we not vexedly try to account for them or excuse them, just as these do sometimes in respect of their waking delusions?’
Moving on, towards the end of my journey I moved to Westminster, Covent Garden and St Martin’s Church by Trafalgar square and realised my phone battery would barely last me and was in need of my sleep. Westminster, the ginormous building that is difficult to take a shot off up close, alludes to the power London holds now as it did then as well the history of its power. He also talks about the law and civility which was at the heart of Victorian era’s Martin’s Church Highly gates like most building in the centre was resting quietly in the corner of Trafalgar Square. Covent Garden, guarded by security men at the time during which drunken men were being disorderly still had an unexpected amount of noise and light. At this point it was quite heartening to hear them after the long silence south of the river.
In conclusion, it was a lot of ground to cover but a recommended walk to getting a sense of the wide variety London has to offer. I know this blog won’t do justice to the insight gained from walking through London’s history but it has developed my ability to empathise with the historical context Dickens wrote in during the Victorian times.
Matthew Beaumont, Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London (London: Verso, 2015)
Dickens, Charles, The Uncommercial Traveller, 1st edn (London: Oxford University Press, 1958)