The magic takes hold as soon as I step into All Hallows by the Tower churchyard. It’s gone midnight and at first I look right towards one of the City of London’s oldest churches. Then I turn left, with a coldness trickling down my spine as I stare deep into my own past.
My father, nearly 20 years dead now, used to take me on both day and nighttime jaunts through London. A thin, stylish East Ender, he was the sort of man who could produce a coin from your ear, magic away sickness and reveal the weird glories of London. Dad found the miraculous in everything, which is why I always carry him in my head when I go on these midnight yomps through the City.
All Hallows churchyard conjures up memories of Johnny Eagle, a Romany strongman and magician dad used to take me to see. Festooned in chains, a talking parrot on his shoulder, Johnny worked the tourist crowds back in the 1960s and 70s, and I can almost hear him clanking the links of his ever-present prop through the now calming roar of traffic on Byward Street. At this time of night I could, if I felt so inclined, run across this street to my next destination, which is Seething Lane. But I don’t.
Instead I walk through the underpass which runs from just outside All Hallows to near the All Bar One pub on the opposite side of the road. It’s a dingy, smelly example of the species, completely without merit until you realise that the metal grilled door at the northern end leads down to an abandoned tube stop. The All Bar One building was Mark Lane station until 1967, when the new Tower Hill station was built. The underpass used to lead to the westbound platform. One platform remains and can still be seen from tube trains as they pass from Tower Hill to Monument. A fleeting ghost.
Emerging from the underpass, I make my way north along Seething Lane, heading for the building on the corner of Hart Street. This 12th-century Gothic church is St Olave’s, also known as the Norwegian Church, for the nationality of its patron saint.
Charles Dickens had another name for it: he called it “St Ghastly Grim”. A passionate London night-time walker, Dickens was thrilled by the sight of the triple-skull memento mori over the entrance to the churchyard. It can give you a bit of a jolt on a cold, dark night, especially when the streets are as empty and echoey as they are now.
Crossing Hart Street, I enter an alleyway between some heavily shuttered shops and climb a small set of stairs which lead to Fenchurch Street station on the right. Together with nearby Liverpool Street, this station is the gateway to Essex. Now silent, it still exudes a faint smell of the cigarette smoke that, pre-2007, wreathed it like a veil. Some rough sleepers in the shuttered doorways stir and turn over.
This is now the commercial heart of the City, and turning left on to Fenchurch Street amid the ghosts of insurance and reinsurance companies past and present, it’s easy to feel slightly haunted by the lack of activity.
At the end of Fenchurch Street, I turn right into Gracechurch Street, whose new iron-and-steel palaces of commerce block out the moon. I make a quick detour into the narrow cobblestone streets of Leadenhall Market, a celebration of ornate Victoriana that, almost two millennia earlier, was the site of Roman London’s basilica – its extensive civic and legal centre.
Continuing north to where Gracechurch Street morphs into Bishopsgate, I cross the road and head for the churchyard of St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate. Built in 1729, it was originally designed as a place where travellers might seek comfort just outside the City gates. But I’ve not come to see the church on this occasion. I’ve come to see a jewel.
At the back of the churchyard is a small building that looks as if it should be in Istanbul. A 19th-century, onion-domed former Turkish baths, it was built to resemble the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – and it is magical. Even at night its turquoise tiles glow bright. And although it is no longer used as baths (it’s a restaurant), I know that the old structure still remains underground, like old Mark Lane station. A time capsule, first shown to me by a ghost.
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