Every year that I’ve lived in London I’ve had the best intentions of camping out on the night of the Summer Solstice.
When I say camping out though, what I really mean is climbing upstairs to the roof terrace and sleeping about five meters above my bedroom, my bathroom and all the other creature comforts afforded to me in my London apartment. So rather than camping, perhaps an outdoor sleepover is a better description for what I intended. A sleepover where the kitchen and an opportunity for a midnight snack is quite readily available, if so desired. It was never a particularly ambitious plan, for sure, but nonetheless year after year it never managed to eventuate. Ultimately it always boiled down to the weather, which in London, in summer, is always likely to upset any well-intentioned plans. Wind was usually the villain of the piece, threatening to upend any tent pitched for the occasion. The roof is only on the fourth level of the building, but somehow even the gentlest breeze at street level gets elevated to a full-blown gale just four flights of stairs up and is very readily felt.
As snug as a bug in a rug.
In the summer of 2020 I had a pretty good feeling that my time in London would be coming to a close. The UK was still in the middle of its Covid Lock-Down and things weren’t looking great for my sponsored job. I was happily riding things out on furlough in the interim, but I had a strong notion that my role would be made redundant – hence an urgency to finally get up onto the roof and make a concerted effort to celebrate the solstice in what indeed has proven to be my final summer in London.
There was still the threat of rain showing on my weather app for the night of the Solstice, but we’ve all been let down by weather apps before and I chose to run with optimism and believe it was simply wrong once more. There was certainly a fair whack of cloud in the sky, and a bit of a breeze to boot, but the temperature was warm at least. All in all, for a June evening, it was really rather pleasant. And so I said goodnight to my housemate and tootled upstairs in my sleeping bag, dodged the slugs that like to gravitate towards the rooftop crop of tomatoes and bedded down in the hammock for the night. So far so camp-like, but with the added comforts of pillows from my bedroom, outdoor terrace lighting, my Kindle in hand and the promise of a bathroom stop just one flight of stairs away.
The streets of London below my building were wonderfully silent as I settled in around midnight. The Lock-Down had changed the inherent nature of London’s once busy arteries and there were no busses to be heard, no Ubers or cabs, and certainly no boisterous conversations from the locals in the pub below. Car horns, revved engines and emergency sirens were long gone from the general aural landscape also. All was quiet on the streets and pavements, except of course for the odd moped rider out delivering food. The life of the Deliveroo and Uber Eats rider through Lock-Down can’t have been an easy one, but despite their newfound demand and the newly added risks of their jobs, they were surely having the time of their lives with their now undisputed ownership of London’s streets.
The sky above me was equally empty of inhabitants and the once constant flickering of aeroplane and helicopter lights was long gone. The lock-down had banished our ability to fly and the stars had reclaimed their dominion over the heavens, no longer sullied by flashes of red and blue or crisscrossing vapour trails. It had become an unoccupied space once more, for the first time in an extraordinarily long time. Nothing was coming in to land at Heathrow, Gatwick or City Airport and nothing was taking off from Stansted. And with everybody tucked up in their homes, quietly abiding by the new rules, there was no need for police helicopters to pester the sky either. The only thing taking up any smidgen of my heavenly view was the dark spire of St Mary’s Church, but that seemed perfectly acceptable in the circumstances.
I switched off the outdoor lights and tucked my devices away for the night. I was tempted to fall asleep to ‘Dark Side Of The Moon‘, all too happy to drift off somewhere around ‘Brain Damage’, but thought better of it and decided to immerse myself fully in my surroundings. So the headphones stayed off and I let the sound of the breeze being carried through the summer foliage keep me company instead. Other than that rustling, and the occasional creak of the hammock as it swayed beneath me, London knew a quiet like I’d never experienced before. I might have been a thousand miles away on a mountaintop in Norway for all the sounds of civilisation there were to be heard. All of the aural trappings I’d come to expect from this city of eight million had departed and it left me mindful of a London that might have been in years past. A city before mopeds, and busses or petrol powered cars even. A city before electric streetlamps and asphalt, and even horse drawn carriages.
When had London last seemed this silent and inanimate? Was it perhaps during the Blitz, when an even more pervasive idea of threat settled over the populace? Was it perhaps in the days and weeks following the Great Fire? Or was it perhaps even millennia ago, fore the Romans had first stepped on British soil and tribes of Celts called Londinius home – the place of the bold one. Bold indeed, much like my optimism that I could spend the entity of the night beneath the clouds and occasional stars. It was shortly after 3am when the first drops of rain stirred me awake. They were infrequent enough, and I thought that perhaps drops were all they’d amount to. I stirred about in a half-conscious state trying to fathom which way the wind would blow, so to speak, and within ten minutes or so it had blown decidedly in favour of rain. Big, fat, consistent drops of the stuff.
I rose from the hammock and released my feet from the sleeping bag then gathered my things with bleary eyed. I folded the hammock and tucked it away in the shed then made my ways to the stairs and closed the door behind me. My bed was firm and solid beneath me, in sharp contrast to the hammock, and it felt like good to be back in it, after only hours of absence. I felt slightly cheated still that I hadn’t had a full night to call my own under the stars for the Solstice. But in keeping with a small part of my original intent I didn’t release myself from my sleeping bag, and called that my bed still for the remainder of my sleep.