Oxford Street, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus: areas of town normally avoided by most Londoners thanks to the overbearing crowds of shoppers and tourists associated with much of the West End. But for one day only, a calm descends on those parts of town whose default setting is 'thronged'. Christmas Day.
We took advantage of one of the mildest 25 Decembers on record (2011) to hook up with Westminster tour guide Peter Berthoud, who led a small group on a 6am peregrination around the deserted streets.
Actually, 'deserted' is slightly misleading. We passed at least a dozen people on our 3 mile walk in from Camden Town. Most were clearly intoxicated, but we also encountered a family of four walking along Hampstead Road at 5am. What was their story? Street cleaners were also out in force, cleansing the city from a night of revelry and smartening things up for the Boxing Day sales. And the main roads enjoyed a steady, if diminished, flow of traffic.
The walk itself began at Admiralty Arch and toured the more familiar areas of the West End, including Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, Soho Square, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Carnaby Street, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and then back to Trafalgar Square for dawn, and a welcome tot of brandy.
Needless to say, these very familiar locations were rendered unfamiliar, even otherworldly by the absence of people. We could hear our own footsteps and the first birdcalls of the morning. Walking in the pink, flickering glow from the Piccadilly Circus signs was like entering a deserted cinema.
By 8am, and the end of the walk, the streets were still very quiet, although a noticeable population of early-morning photographers had emerged, with similar notions of snapping the near-empty streets. The local branch of Pret was already full of coffee-sippers. But our journey back to Camden by Boris Bike was almost entirely absent of people, until we hit Regent's Park, which was as busy as ever.
Tour guide Peter, who's been making these early-morning Christmas pilgrimages for years, plans to run the tour again next year. If you can make it into central London with no trains or buses and want to see the capital in a rare slumber, we'd highly recommend it.
Another veteran of the Christmas Day dawn amble, Ian Visits, was also out and about yesterday, with a much better camera than us. Further pictures of our tour were taken by Mike Paterson of London Historians, and can be seen here.