London’s Concrete Ladders

Piccadilly Circus, London, as seen from the top of the Centre Point building.

LONDON — It was by climbing London that I fell in love with it.

I don’t dislike ground-level London. I have grudging affection for its impractical streets and the unhinged ambition written into its architecture. I like the details: the font on the Underground station signs and the hundreds of sea gulls that perch, looking incongruously seaside and skeptical, on the Millennium Bridge each night. I like the self-conscious solemnity of the faces in the National Portrait Gallery and the variegated gray of the Thames. Most of all, and especially now, I cherish its defiantly global heart. But living in any city takes tensed muscles and a carefully calibrated deafness. There are moments when the desire for escape and a wider sky becomes overwhelming, and it’s then that I go night climbing.

I do so because to know a city properly, it helps to touch it and to know the textures and scents of the materials that built it. I have developed strong opinions about brickwork and brick dust and cement and concrete, about the skeleton of London. I have come to love the rich tawny color of the yellow London stock brick, its mellowness stemming from the clay of South East England.

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Credit...Andrew Testa for The New York Times

I go night climbing because London’s street map in the dark is a majestic thing, a wilderness drawn in light. Unlike the grids of New York and Chicago, it is chaotic. The lights look more like the anarchy of stars than town planning. There are the great gaps, as black as the sky, of Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath.

I do it because to stand on the rooftops of a city is to see its secrets.

My night climbing is not strictly legal. I slide under fences. I go slowly: My kind of expedition has nothing to do with the bravado of those roof climbers who hang from the edges of chimneys and joists. And I don’t have the kind of arm muscles that mean I can do pull-ups with one hand, so the building needs to have scaffolding. (The scaffolding, though, mustn’t reach all the way to the top, otherwise the roof will be covered in plastic; there will be no view and it will smell like dust and feet.) I am always a little scared. It is a grotesque whimsy to want to dance on top of a skyscraper.

I’ve never been caught, but have been told that if I ever am I should be honest but not garrulous. Say only that I wanted to see the city from above, to know what London was hiding. It is true, too, that my freedom from the fear of being caught stems in part from the privileges of my class and race —London is still uneven in those it allows to sin.

Not long ago I climbed newly erected scaffolding to the top of Centre Point, a 380-foot skyscraper in the center of the city. I started climbing buildings while in college, clambering up small spires and saluting Oxford’s gargoyles, but this was different. It wasn’t the first skyscraper I had been up, but it was the tallest, and at its feet is one of the busiest streets in London. Even at half-past one in the morning, Tottenham Court Road still has stragglers: drunkards, shift workers and occasional police officers.

It took a long time to get to the top, an hour or more. With a friend I shinned up a lower next-door building, which stood dark and empty, and ran along its rooftop, slipping sideways into its neighbor’s maze of scaffolding bars. At the top it was the kind of height that makes your skin feel too small for your bones, and your knees feel sentient; there were moments when I snorted the sweat on my upper lip through my nose and out through my mouth — a neat trick if I’d been doing it on purpose.

But the view made it worth the fear.

I saw London stretched out, sharp-edged, dirty, knowing, witty, tough: a place where knowledge has been pooled and mad theories formulated. It makes sense, then, that night should work on the city like an alchemist. It takes what in daylight are chrome and glass and gray, and turns them to gold.

Piccadilly Circus looked suddenly ancient, its lights like offerings to small gods. I could see the unromantic air-conditioning fans whirring on the rooftops of buildings whose marble facades made them look as if they wouldn’t deign to even admit the existence of weather. The Tate Modern, out across the river, stood like a rook among pawns. Late-night crowds on Oxford Street, which, when among them no sane person could love, were beautiful from above in the way that migrating herds are beautiful.

Coming back down to earth felt a very grudging concession to necessity. As it always does. The adrenaline carried me through the journey home, and it was only when I got there that I realized my fists were scraped and bloody and my hair so full of dust that the water in my shower ran the color of coffee. But to climb a building is to change the way you see it, irrevocably. When I look at Centre Point now, I no longer see a blocky piece of Brutalism built in 1966. I see a concrete ladder to the cold night sky.

London is wilder than we think; that is what is clear from up above. If we turned it upside down and shook it, what secrets would pour out of its upper reaches, what lights and rats and hidden things?


Katherine Rundell is the author, most recently, of the children’s novel “The Explorer.”


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