An Ode to Nightwalking or Dickens, under the influence of De Quincey, accompanies his mistress to the arcade, shielding her from the perils of the night.
This video documents a modern walk from Dickens’ alleged New Cross retreat to the address of his mistress Ellen Ternan (Dickens may have taken a similar route himself). It then moves on to Rye Lane and the modern arcade that is Aylesham Shopping Centre, Peckham [namesake of the link shared between Southwark Council and Aylesham, a Kent mining village, during the miners’ strike 1984-5 as stated in Origin of Placenames in Peckham and Nunhead by John D. Beasley (Amberley Publishing Limited, 2010)]. It is narrated with Dickens’ own words.
In Charles Dickens: a biographical and critical study (Philosophical Library, 1950, pg. 379) Jack Lindsay writes ‘his habit of wandering round in strange places at strange times of the day or night went on; and he had a secret retreat in an apartment close to the “Five Bells” at the corner of Hatcham Park Road’ and this scene is where the journey begins. Implanted into the mind of Dickens, imagining this line of sight as his own, we are very quickly jerked into action as he heads up Pepys Road (a personal nod to Samuel Pepys, a writer who made mention of the Deptford and South East London area regularly).
We pass through Telegraph Hill, an area referred to as ‘Plow’d Garlic Hill’ on John Rocque’s 1746 Map of London, past Nunhead station, through the Barset estate on Gibbon road and eventually we arrive at Linden Grove, home to Dulwich Cemetery and also Dickens’ mistress. The speed and movement in the video represents the ‘manic’ Dickens, his walking habit becoming compulsive and obsessive.
Dickens begins to have visions of his mistress and as we approach 31 Linden Grove (the site where her home once stood), her image becomes clearer to Dickens and ‘Nelly’ joins us on our walk.
The effects of insomnia create a disorienting haze which renders the peripheral jarring and leaves us wondering if the flickering object of Dickens’ focus is indeed real or imagined. The exaggerated colours and exhilarating pace is also a tribute to the heady tales told by Thomas De Quincey, an avid walker in his own right, spurred on by another form of intoxication. Perhaps here we explore our own northwest-passage, a colourful ride from Dickens’ Victorian London to the modern London of today.
As we reach Peckham Rye Common the contrasts between day walking and night walking begin to be explored further. As we travel upon the desire path, visible along the ground, carved out by the countless others not constrained by the ‘suggested’ path, in the light of day children enjoy a game of football and dog walkers are a common feature but Nelly however is walking at night. Does this become a dangerous place for her? For Dickens? For them both? A woman alone in the dark traversing the common must certainly arouse suspicion. Fortunately for Nelly, she is accompanied by Dickens, a man of stature enough to see him unmolested, his midnight meanderings acceptable. Fortunately again for Nelly, this is no seaside town.
We leave the park and the lights of Rye Lane begin to illuminate the streets. As our perspective shifts from day to night do we notice a difference? Is Peckham any more perilous under the sunshine or the moon’s glow? Nelly walks on undeterred.
Finally we reach what appears to be our destination. Glass ceiling panels and windows galore. Nelly marvels at the delights on offer and Dickens wanders in tow but is this arcade the realm of the flaneur? Or have we arrived at a ‘feminine’ space? Can Nelly, a woman, occupy the role of the anonymous flâneur in the arcade, becoming the flâneuse? Is it appropriate for Dickens as a 19th Century man to stroll about the shops as a relief from his responsibilities? Distracted and satiated by the burgeoning consumerism of the epoch.
While depicting a brisk and erratic walk through South East London, this video moreover explores the various ideas held throughout history surrounding the concepts and understandings of ‘walking’ in London and elsewhere, examining and questioning them.
Photographs and video by author.
Origin of Placenames in Peckham and Nunhead, John D. Beasley (Amberley Publishing Limited, 2010)
Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, Chaucer to Dickens, Matthew Beaumont (Verso Books, 2015)
Psychogeography, Merlin Coverley (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006)
Confessions of an English opium-eater, Thomas De Quincey (Cambridge: Proquest LLC, 2008)
Charles Dickens: a biographical and critical study, Jack Lindsay (Philosophical Library, 1950, pg. 379)