17 March 2015

Three London Nightwalks

Posted by Matthew Beaumont

The Route of the River Westbourne

This was the nightwalk I did as I was starting to write my book. I wanted to plot a course through the city that, seen on the A–Z, looked like an entirely arbitrary route, but which secretly traced a subterranean logic – in this case, one of London's lost rivers. I chose the River Westbourne because it runs through Kilburn, where I live, and where it can be heard bubbling beneath the grating outside a disused pub, the Bird in Hand on West End Lane.

The walk starts, like several of London's forgotten rivers, at Whitestone Pond, at the top of Hampstead Heath, and runs from there through West Hampstead, Kilburn, Maida Vale and Paddington, before feeding into the Serpentine, in Hyde Park, which was formed when it was dammed up. The park at night, if you clamber over the railings, is a pretty magical place in the moonlight. Once it's left the park, the river is channelled through Victorian sewers, then through a pipeline that takes it over the Sloane Square tube line, before gushing into the Thames near Chelsea Bridge. It's a fairly long walk, but because it tracks a river, of course, it describes a steady descent. Ford Madox Ford lamented in The Soul of London (1905) that, ‘little by little, the Londoner comes to forget that his London is built upon real earth: he forgets that under the pavements there are hills, forgotten water courses, springs, and marshlands.’ Walking at night along the route of an underground river militates against this forgetting.

CCTV in the City

This was the suggestion of the friend that came with me on this occasion, who I asked to come up with an itinerary – it was an attempt to monitor the cameras that monitor our movements in the metropolis by walking through the City of London at night identifying all the CCTV cameras that have been posted there, either by the police or by private companies. We wanted to lace them together, and list them on the map, in order to ascertain the extent of surveillance there. We also wondered whether, if we gazed into all of them, or cavorted in front of their silently blinking eyes, we'd eventually start to attract attention from the police or from some security firm.

London has more CCTV cameras in it than any other European city, so this was an ambitious, if not quixotically crazy way of manouevering its spaces. And indeed after a short time, confronted with the sheer quantity of cameras, which bristle on every street and lane, rotating on every corner, gazing from every office entrance way, we were forced to give up. Instead, we traced a derive through the city, responding to random impulses, some of which were prompted by our appetite for something sustaining to drink, some by the desire to see what buildings or churchyards or alleyways looked like at 3 a.m., when a region of the capital heaving with self-important commuters during the day is finally deserted, and one can vividly imagine, if one overlooks the thousand eyes of those cameras, the medieval city.

Tyburn to Newgate

This is a shorter walk, and one that, once again, was suggested by the friend with whom I walked. He called it a 'resurrection walk', because it traced the route of the cart that carried the condemned prisoners taken from Newgate Prison to the site of the hanging tree at Tyburn, today's Marble Arch, but in reverse. We headed south from Kilburn at about the time most pubs were closing, and for half an hour or so loitered about the Arch itself – a place I loathe both because of the pomposity of its architecture and because, with a sort of ruling-class insouciance, it suppresses the history of the killing fields on which it is built. Then we set off from the plaque, embedded in the pavement of one of the little traffic islands at the foot of the Edgware Road, which remains the only reference to the Tyburn Tree. It doesn't catalogue the victims of the hanging tree, though, who were mainly vagrants, strangled by the noose. Then we worked our way up Oxford Street, past a few straggling tourists, towards Holborn and the Old Bailey, where Newgate once stood. (We passed South Molton Street, where William Blake – whose hatred of the regime of Tyburn I document in my book – once lived.) In a sickening irony that I pointed to in a 'Short Cut' for the LRB, it transpired that, on that very night, about half an hour after we left Marble Arch, a homeless Scottish man was strangled there by an Afghan immigrant suffering from severe mental health problems.

Matthew Beaumont will be in conversation with Lauren Elkin at the Bookshop on Wednesday 25 March. Book tickets here.