Gemma Seltzer runs Write & Shine, a series of early morning creative writing workshops in locations across London.
I've always been curious about what happens in familiar places while we’re asleep. It's a bit of an obsession, maybe. A few years back I charted life across London at 5am, capturing the breaking light, birdsong and people quietly making their way to unknown places in the small hours. Wherever I am, I try to be the first person to rise. When I heard of Toni Morrison’s habit of drinking a cup of coffee while watching the dawn every day, I followed her example.
Being awake in the early hours has changed the way I look at London. When I’m weary of pressure and chaos and wheelie suitcases blocking the route to work, those morning moments — before the day really begins — from my living room window, or from another spot, make me love the city again.
Here’s a selection of my favourites places to start the day:
My thoughts are clearest in the morning, so it’s wonderful to find areas of London with open views of the sky and the Thames. I choose Albert Bridge as my river-crossing of choice for an early stroll. At night, it dazzles with thousands of bulbs but at first light it’s much calmer, with its pink paint nicely muted. Nearby, in spring, Cheyne Walk tickles the senses with the soft smell of purple wisteria.
Crystal Palace National Sports Centre
I’ve watched the sun rise from behind this Grade II* listed building, and it was an extraordinary thing. Surrounded by parkland, it is magnificent in size, and defiant in attitude. Despite mooted plans to shut it down, it remains open. The Sports Centre is a confusing series of glass buildings and concrete walkways. It has designated spots for eclectic activities such as beach volleyball and racing remote control cars. But in the early hours, it’s completely deserted and completely beautiful.
Houses of Parliament
There’s nothing quite like the glow of the Houses of Parliament on a sunny morning. Before the tourists arrive and the suits march by, this part of London is a sight to behold. Gazing up at that Gothic architecture, those towers and spires, and the honey-coloured stone is a joy. Hearing the Big Ben bongs while standing on quiet streets always renews my love of London.
Central London is busy at all hours, just in different ways with different people. Finding quiet moments can still be challenging before dawn. (It can also feel dangerous, so I prefer to be with someone else!) On one of our sunrise excursions, we explored Hyde Park in March. We were in total darkness. There were no street lamps, little traffic, and few other people. After a while, birds started to sing, and the sky shifted from black to indigo to a gloomy blue. We walked in silence until we saw the Serpentine reflecting in the moonlight. It was stunning.
At 6am, Pimlico, with its Regency architecture, could be a film set. There’s a cat that leaps to unlock a garden gate then, its pathway now open, pauses to consider. On a winter’s morning, the street is in thick darkness except for a lone laundrette, interior lit, washing machines still, a row of chairs waiting. Further on, two foxes jog by. Moments later, singing softly, a woman places her crying child into a car seat. In this part of London, there’s a sense that something significant and brilliant is bound to happen.