In the early hours of a Saturday in May, a small group of friends and colleagues made the last preparations for Hackney Dawn Watching, in an old church tower. The clock ticked towards 3am as we readied the guest list, set up the camera, busied ourselves with spreading sandwiches.
It was a very mild night – almost eerie for being so still and warm – and Hackney spread out quietly beneath us.
3:04am. The first creaks of footsteps on the stairs. I’m still spreading sandwiches but I show people up to the top floor, exchange tired greetings.
3:30am. Most have arrived and made their way to the top of the tower. The darkness and silence presses around us like drawn curtains – we speak in hushed voices, respectfully. I notice we have all fanned out to the edges of the tower, standing guard at all four compass points. To read the booklet we were handed on arrival we have to tilt it, catching the moonlight.
3:32am. Regular clicks of the camera record the skyline and us with it. I can’t yet notice much change, but I know this particular patch of sky better.
3:38am. A man mentions birdsong and for the first time I hear it nearby.
3:41am. A woman describes watching the dawn from Arthur’s Seat during the Edinburgh Festival. A group of them went together, spontaneously. They were young and wild. The memory stays with her now – if she ever wanted to kill herself, she tells me, she would make sure she had stayed up to watch the sun rise first.
3:46am. The moon shines white and strong against the sky. One woman left her house in Kent a couple of hours ago, creeping past her dog hoping not to wake her, then sped along the motorway enjoying the clear road stretching ahead.
3:49am. We talk about ‘Hitchcock moments’ – when a situation is suddenly filled with fear. Perhaps we are closer to fear now, huddled together in the dark. As if a porous skin is between us and it. A woman jumps when a shadow moves, revealing itself to be a figure stood by the bell on the third floor.
3:51am. Overlooking Mare Street glowing with streetlight, I glimpse people walking. Some are rolling suitcases behind them and all, from this distance, look calm, unhurried.
The voices of the group, hushed in the darkness, rose in volume with the sun. As the sky grew lighter we could see each other clearly, make eye contact across the roof, speak and laugh more to the group instead of in our small huddles.
Time moved strangely. The period of twilight dragged on but the sky seemed to change at breakneck speed. At times we wanted it to slow down, to wait for us to appreciate each shift in turn before moving to the next.
3:58am. A woman predicts the sun will be up in ten minutes. It’s much lighter now and the sky is restless, changing its colour fast. Two brothers point to a thin scattering of stars I hadn’t noticed before. Small screens glow – a camera, an iPhone.
4:01am. There’s a blue light cast on my page now – I don’t have to catch the moonlight to read my words.
4:08am. An accidental group gathers on the floor below with sandwiches and hot chocolate. I feel a sense of camaraderie and our voices grow bolder, unconstrained. A man says we are the Night Watch, and we laugh into our cups. We are surprised how much the light has changed when we emerge back onto the rooftop.
4:14am. To the south west the sky is inky purple, pricked with lights. More birds join the chorus, quite raucous now.
4:21am. Some latecomers arrive. There’s a strange feeling that they have missed half the show, and they are self-conscious stepping onto the roof.
4:30am. Another latecomer, who I let in from the churchyard. Twilight hangs around us and I pause, watching the long grass. With this light comes the feeling of safety in this unknown place.
4:37am. There’s a pink sky to the east now, and with the appearance of this streak of colour something is released. Laughter ripples through the group.
4:39am. A man smokes a morning cigarette.
4:42am. We’ve missed the moment they changed, but the streetlights are off now. Two women have been watching, waiting and they are annoyed they missed it. Natasha steps over to tell us that this means we have entered the period of ‘civic twilight’.
4:47am. A man looks weary. He tells me he went with a friend to a bar to try and stay awake. It reminds me of having to stay awake through the night for a job, and how artificial it feels to fight sleep.
4:50am. Two women, in their excitement, run downstairs to ring the bell. The sound is joyful. It seems fine to do this now, and it’s only when I write down the time that I realise most people are still asleep.
4:52am. A freight train runs along the track below, loaded with shipping containers. There are other people awake, starting work. Plane trails cut across the sky, picked out in gold.
5:01am. A red bar lies across the horizon. We know the sun is coming now, and a hush falls. We all gather along the eastern side of the roof.
5:04am. The sun’s shimmering tip appears and a man plays notes on his recorder. There are whoops and laughter. It is golden at first, then a giant, orange disc. We watch without speaking, as if not wanting to break this moment. Cameras click. We smile. It isn’t a picture postcard sunrise, but impressive for its lack of drama. Just the lone sun, a blazing circle of orange-red, without clouds to pull out its other colours.
5:09am. The sun detaches from the horizon. People start to shift, the recorder stops. It feels like the show is over.
5:11am. We scatter again across the roof of the tower, looking out in different directions. The sun is very bright and harsh, with a glowing cone of light above it – painful to the eyes.
And then, as people started to leave there were smiles and goodbyes. They told me of their excitement at stepping out of habit, reminded of rising early to catch a flight. Early mornings carry a sense of anticipation. One by one they left the tower, stepping out into the churchyard with a whole day stretching ahead.
One man described to me how he found an invitation in the street and decided to join us, spontaneously, just before 3am and without knowing what to expect. When he arrived at the tower he said it felt like a secret society – dark figures entering this old building in the night. And as he left I thought about how, for this time, we were a society of sorts – gathering and watching together with this shared goal. I picture the group fanning out and disappearing into the streets of Hackney, tugging at their individual threads like spiders on a cobweb.