Illustration: Kate Hazell

Insomnia and the joy of night-walking

Charles Dickens was right—the boundaries between real and unreal feel insubstantial under starlight
January 27, 2020

Insomnia brings with it a few benefits. Long hours awaiting the approach of sleep offer plenty of time for reading, for example. It can be a useful time to review the day just past, and plan the days ahead. But, sometimes, hours drag on, and there’s nothing for it but to give up and get up. And now, since moving to Orkney, I go out.

I’m very fortunate in that I have rarely felt constrained by being a woman. But moving somewhere I feel safe to go walking alone at night has been a revelation. It offers very different pleasures to rambling in the day. Night is, as Thoreau once wrote, “a very different season.”

I take the dog with me, if she’ll wake. Else I go alone: turning right out the door and uphill, beyond the street lamps and up onto the high ground. In darkness a familiar landscape is made strange again, the sensory experience more vivid. It’s best on a clear night, with a new moon: the stars shine brightest and the cold feels sharpest, the grass crisp and clean underfoot.

Luckily, early nightfall winter offers those with even the most reliable body clocks ample opportunity to get out for a dander in the dark. If you’re not a regular night walker, you’ll be amazed how well you can navigate under even the faintest trace of moonlight. In fact, I recommend leaving the torch behind if you can.

When working in the Arctic, I wore a head torch every day through the winter. You have to, in those endless nights, when doing manual work. But this had, I found, an unexpected psychological effect. The halo of light that follows one’s gaze becomes the focus of your rapt attention; immediately, it is as if nothing beyond this bright circle exists. When you feel nervous this can be helpful, like blinkers for horses. But I seek something else from an evening stroll.

To walk out through fields, and watch the shapes of the hills rising up before you, softly-lit by a silver moon, is a rare gift. So too is to see every tree, every tumbledown dyke afresh; to look down on the bright lights of the houses and think of all those sleeping within, and then out, across the shifting, glittering sea. Impossible, you think, to have this whole world to myself.

Charles Dickens wrote at length on the subject of night walking, a habit he picked up during a period of insomnia. Outside Bethlem Hospital he reflected: “Are not the sane and the insane equal at night as the sane lie a dreaming?” And it’s true, the boundaries between real and unreal feel thin and insubstantial under starlight.

Night walking, as the academic Matthew Beaumont has written, “takes place in the realm of the unnight, a liminal zone between… the waking and sleeping state of mind.” Perhaps this is why the practice has been popular among so many great writers: not only Dickens and Thoreau, but also Blake, Chaucer, de Quincy. Dorothy and William Wordsworth, and their friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, also made a habit of night walks through the Quantocks and the Lake District—all recorded in Dorothy’s charming journals. These moonlit ramblings attracted the attentions of the Home Office, after a suspicious local servant reported an “emigrant family” making “nocturnal excursions” to take detailed notes of the river.

No such excitement here—as far as I’m aware. Though if I met a spy at the top of Brinkie’s Brae, I’d certainly have something to write about.