In Search Of A London Street Pt.2

London

I had now reached the back of Farringdon below Hatton Garden, an area that had changed unrecognisably. However, this part of London is surprisingly hilly, and the original road layouts have been adhered to. I’m heading to Fleet Street but not to Dr Samuel Johnson’s House, where a statue of his cat sits outside – I want to see the backstreets I remember from my schooldays. Although this is a compact area which an astonishing number of dull glass buildings it’s still possible for tourists to get hopelessly lost around here.

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In New Fetter Lane, once the home of printers and presses, there’s a refurbished street that echoes the look of Shad Thames, the South Bank warehouse district that was connected with walkways. They were of iron and wood – the last time anyone filmed before they were demolished was for ‘The Elephant Man’, in which they can still be seen. Now they’re made of glass. I wonder if all that transparency makes workers feel happier or less comfortable?

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I’m trying to find a barber’s shop within sight of Fleet Street, preferably down a side alley – the spirit of Sweeney Todd needs to be honoured. The first play about the demon barber (based on its part-work penny dreadful) was ‘The String of Pearls’ (1847), a melodrama by George Dibdin Pitt that opened at Hoxton’s Britannia Theatre and billed as ‘founded on fact’. It soon became an urban legend. Stephen Sondheim’s magnificent version was based on Christopher Bond’s intelligent British play, and was subsequently mangled by Tim Burton in a miscast film with many of the best bits removed. I found my barber shop, at least.

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Into Fleet Street and past the Punch Tavern, which featured in ‘The Victoria Vanishes’. Sadly the pub’s collection of rare Punch and Judy puppets appears to have ahem, mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind a pleasant pub that will no doubt soon be turned into a McDonald’s or Starbucks like so many others (thank you, America). The pub is unusual for having this extended entrance. Actually, the pub doesn’t have any connections with puppets – a former 19th century Gin Palace, the boozer was named in the 1840s in homage to the regular drinkers from nearby Punch magazine.

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Onwards around the back of Fleet Street to St Bride’s, with its wedding cake spire and lead-lined coffins, and the Bridewell Theatre, which is currently performing ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’. I love this overlooked theatre, and the wine bar just past it under the tunnel. The theatre has an underground river visible in its basement.

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I saw ‘Sweeney Todd’ in an immersive promenade production here, where the sound of Fleet Street church bells blended in with the music, and it was spine-chilling. Hallowe’en is approaching and there are many eerie productions going into theatres around the capital.Lately there has been an attempt to return the British celebration of Guy Fawkes’ Night (Nov 5th) to prominence over the Americanised Hallowe’en, but ‘Penny For The Guy’ days – a big part of my childhood – have been killed off by over-protective parents. Besides, I can’t imagine children make stuff anymore – I hope I’m wrong.

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Courtyards, alleyways, gunnels, passages, narrow planked streets that look like scenes from ‘Harry Potter’, but I cannot find the particular street I set out to look for. Even if I resorted to using my phone now I doubt if it could help me.

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On past the statue of Sir Rowland Hill, the inventor of the penny post. There are two statues; the other one’s in Kidderminster. This one is by the Old Bailey and talks to you when you scan it with your phone.

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As a child I was always on the lookout for free things to do; one of the strangest is to spend the day in the law courts listening to cases. These days you’re not allowed to take anything in with you at all. I’m not sure you can even take notes. There are no facilities to store anything either, so you have to turn up with nothing – trickier than it sounds. Some days there’s a queue for the big cases; other days you can walk right in.

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I’m still looking for the blasted street in which I once spent a pleasant evening. Perhaps, Brigadoon-like, it only appears once every one hundred years. I’ll push on for a while. It has to be around here somewhere. On to sit in Postman’s Park for a while, and study the peculiar tiles that catalogue the deaths of postal workers. I’ll conclude the walk tomorrow, and reveal whether or not I found my street.

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22 comments on “In Search Of A London Street Pt.2”

  1. Chris Webb says:

    I am going to try out this tour at the weekend.

    One minor quibble. First line “an area that had changed unrecognisably” Would it not have been more elegant to have said “beyond all recognition”?

    Keep up the good work.

  2. admin says:

    Everyone’s an editor. I wrote this on my phone while walking through traffic! (on the spot reportage)

  3. Chris Webb says:

    I once worked on the 14th floor of a building with floor-to-ceiling glass. It was nice and light, but once or twice very low cloud came down that far which felt weird. I would never go within about 6ft of the windows!

    You can see the yellow sky in your photos. My eyes have been really sore for the past couple of days and I think it must be because I’ve got bits of Sahara in them.

    When I was a kid there were only 3 TV channels (during the day effectively 2 because BBC2 was evenings only) so we’d watch almost anything that was on. I did draw the line though at Crown Court. The most mind-numbingly boring programme ever made. The idea of seeing the real thing live for a whole day doesn’t seem any more appealing to me. “Each to their own” as they say!

    I thought the Postman’s Park plaques were of people who drowned trying to save animals, or something like that. Am I thinking of somewhere else?

    Sir Rowland Hill’s statue talks to you? Have you been keeping your sandwiches in Arthur Bryant’s skull? 🙂

    Btw, the “real” Diagon Alley is off St Martin’s Lane, can’t remember what it’s called and while it is shown on maps they don’t give its name.

  4. Brooke says:

    Although there is nothing idle about Mr. Fowler, “In Search of…” is in the true tradition of the flaneur. Thoughtful, witty, observant, eye for history and for beauty. Could we hope for a published collection of his travel and urban adventure writings, with photos and K. Page illustrations?

    Btw, I am so envious of the quality of the writing (pace, Chris Webb), I could spit.

  5. David says:

    Saffron Hill, between Hatton Garden and Farringdon used to be a thieves kitchen, a rookery, not a good place to get lost in. The whole Leather Lane / Hatton Garden area is a nice surprise these days, it still has a bit of character to it.

    A notable pi$$ alley off St Martin’s Lane is Goodwin’s Court, the home of John Lawton’s fictional detective, Frederick Troy.

  6. Martin Tolley says:

    Mr Bryant got a guiding qualification I recall. Perhaps there’s a market for a book of walks (pocket-sized, or more likely “an app”) around lesser known/historically interesting/lost bits of London, maybe including significant scenes of past adventures? – Bryant’s Byways?

  7. Jan says:

    Did Arthur not do his blue badge guide? That was one of the things I could have done but got distracted. They really want a second language now and my C.S.E grade 3 French wouldn’t cut it!

  8. Jan says:

    This won’t be the place u r aiming for Chris so not giving your punchline away. I have an interest in the Whitefriars area. I was going to write about it a few weeks back and didn’t cos I felt so rough. If on your travels you toddle down Fleet street into Bouverie Street then on your left is Magpie Alley make the left into the alley and above you is the old White Friars crypt from the original monastery. It has been moved about a bit through massive redevelopment. It was not rediscovered until 1890s during a rebuild and there have been a couple more redevelopments at least since then. I find it really interesting thing the crypt. Well worth a look.

    The whole history of the place us fascinating the Whitefriars were a Carmelite order – distinct from the Blackfriars. The order was founded by crusaders in 11C near Jerusalem on Mount Carmel obviously enough. The Saracens booted them out of the Holy Land in 1238. Henry 3rd’ s brother Richard Earl of Cornwall protects them and the members of the order who had sailed back to the UK were granted land by Richard just to the S of Fleet street. By 1253 they had created a church the precursor to the present St Brides possibly on the site of a pagan sacred place which possessed a healing well. The monks developed the area extensively. Remember monasteries were in fact the technology parks of their day. Places of innovation, experiment and commerce not such prayer sanctums.

    All was going well until H8th dissolves the monasteries in mid 16C. He gifts this area the old Whitefriars monastery basically to his Dr. The Dr being William Buhe. The area steadily go’s downhill it became known as the Liberty of Whitefriars a place for people on the run from bailiffs or from sheriff’s to seek sanctuary from the law. King Jame’s the first enshrined this”liberty” by granting a charter allowing the Liberty of Whitefriars a surprising amount of self governance. Thereby reinforcing its reputation as a lawless place.

    Now sometime early on during this period a glass making company appears close to the old monastery.

    Thinking of the technical innovations brought in by the monasteries and the fact that their primary market must have been religious or aristocratic folk I thinks it’s a fair guess that this glass making workplace,a furnace, and factory of sorts complete with kit was in fact a premises hastily left by the monks! This is only my best guess could be completely wrong but I don’t reckon so. I reckon the original innovators here were the monks prior to their downfall under Henry8. Later on whether the surviving monks started to work commercially I don’t know
    for sure.

    Any road the area continues on its downward trajectory becoming known as Alsatia (a lawless region of Alsace Lorraine not far from the Rhine that suffered a great deal in the 30 years war.)

    But the glass works which by mid 17C is described as a small glass factory off Fleet street does surprisingly well and continues to thrive. I wonder if by any chance the company generated heat in or near the crypt in Magpie Alley? I suppose not but there’s a possibility .

    In 1919 the firm changes its name to Powell and Sons. With the new name comes a change of location up to Wealdstone in Harrow quite close to where I used to live. If money hadn’t run short because of the first world war they were going to build a village to house the workers like a Bournville or Port Sunlight. As it was a light from the old furnace was carried by a succession of the firm’s employees up to the new Wealdstone premises. Later the name changed again to White Friars glass Ltd reflecting the companies original location. The company was very successful making glass used in submarines and those odd fisherman’s lobster pot glasses you see with netting in seaside pubs! Decorative glass was a speciality and th companies work is still very highly sought after. Vases,paperweight and similar items.

    I can remember the factory closing in 1980. If you go to the Tithe Barn museum(a proper tithe barn well worth seeing ) in Headstone lane North Harrow. There’s lots of their glass on show. Beautiful stuff.
    Hope I have not bored the pants off of you!

    What a tale though from sacred place in a city, Crusaders, monasteries, Liberties -enclaves for the lawless, redevelopment …..commerce.

  9. SteveB says:

    ” They were of iron and wood – the last time anyone filmed before they were demolished was for ‘The Elephant Man’, in which they can still be seen” Hmm, you’re sure it wasn’t “Doctor Who and the Resurrection of the Daleks” ? 😉

    I know all these places very well, when I’m in London I work in a building just round the corner from St Brides, and used to work in Farringdon Road.

    Didn’t know that (the origin of the name) about the Punch Tavern!

  10. Jan says:

    Ps Chris Webb is,quite right Postmans Park commemorates acts of heroism by ordinary individuals. Not just posties

  11. Chris Webb says:

    Jan, you really ought to start your own blog.

  12. Jan says:

    Awww that’s really nice of you Chris W. But I wouldn’t have the first clue really!

    I do write fairly regularly for a few Facebook groups:

    Holy Wells and Sacred Springs of Britain
    Ancient and Sacred Trees of Britain +
    Strange things found in churches.

    You can see it’s me Jan my picture is a cartoon of myself in the guise of a mermaid.

    Writing on Chris Fowler’s blog gave me the confidence to start writing elsewhere. But my grammar + punctuation often drifts off into the woods (amongst the ancient and Sacred trees !) Helen normally let’s me know when I have wandered too far off track.

    Thanks very much Chris W. much appreciated

  13. Roger says:

    The plaques in Postman’s Park, the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, were set up by G,F, Watts, England’s Michelangelo, ex-husband of Helen Terry. He’s also remembered by a gallery in Surrey just outside Guildford.
    Is the whopping big phallic minotaur by Michael Ayrton still in Postman’s Park? The church’s vicar disapproved of it a few years ago. On the other hand, given its size and weight, it would probably be easier to move the vicar than the statue.

  14. Jan says:

    Haven’t been for 18 months or more will check for you next month Roger. I think I remember seeing it ages ago. Horrible thing but symbolic of the very old city. Mithras, Mithraic temples and the old temples supposedly in the area prior to Saint Bartholomews church or the hospital. Of course Smithfield (Smoothfield) meat market, the jousting ground and the Rahere haunted church are all close by. This is a place inhabited since time out of mind. The Saxons wouldn’t live there because they felt it to be haunted by Roman + pre Roman spirits. Their city was a bit to the W. The City is almost 28 foot higher than it was at the time of the Roman occupation. The list of strangeness goes on and on. (Bit like me)
    Wasn’t Watts the guy who kept refusing to be an Earl or a bayonet or something suchlike? A right posh lefty married to an actress. He created the Park himself did he not?

    I can remember the big old GPO depot just next to Saint Barts in Little Britain. Now more than half that hospital seems destined to become luxury flats. Was one of Britain’s premier teaching hospitals . Back in the 1970s better A levels were required for SRN training there than for most university degrees. Now nursing is a university degree course and entered normally by way of a more practical NVQ qualification. Or rather WAS b4 The government decreed students needed to rack up an enormous debt for a rubbish paying job.
    Night night

  15. Jan says:

    Baronet not bayonet !

  16. chazza says:

    Ah, Farringdon Street! Fond memories of waiting by Jefferies’ book barrows for the covers to come off at 9.00 a.m. and then the free for all with other bibliomaniacs for the treasures revealed – and what treasures! Then to retire to The One Tun to recover and massage the bruises! All gone….

  17. Jan says:

    Didn’t the One Tun used to do really good Malaysian food a good few years ago?

  18. chazza says:

    Jan – no idea but it was the meeting spot of the science fiction book group for years who were more interested in the booze and talking….

  19. Ian Luck says:

    Your mention of ‘Penny For The Guy’ reminded me of an incident in a book, part of a series, written by an old East End copper. The books, which were his memories of being a copper in the 1950’s/60’s were full of incident, funny, sad, disgusting, frightening – and one of the funny ones was seeing a couple of young kids wheeling about possibly the best Guy Fawkes the copper had ever seen. It was good. And, after seeing it several times on his beat, he realised it was too good for these urchins to have made, and, so, the next time they crossed his path, he stopped them to have a closer look – and rather wished he hadn’t. It had a Guy Fawkes mask on, but under that… was a rather old, and well preserved corpse, which the boys admitted that they had liberated from a bomb-damaged church ruin. The copper told the lads that if they returned the stiff to where they found it, pronto, he’d forget that he had ever seen them. This, they did. A couple of days later, as the copper was doing his rounds, he saw a totally different bunch of kids on the street. With a Guy. A very familiar looking Guy…

  20. Helen Martin says:

    Always worth reading. Jan, I thought you were having a shot at the aristos with the word bayonet.
    By the way, what does the stamp man say if you aim your phone at him?

  21. Jan says:

    No no such thing Helen! I am constantly being outwitted by predictive text…..in fact I even had to change that the tablet insists I am being outfitted by predictive text…..Such a nuisance.

    Thought u might like the above Helen.

    Just had a couple of days in Manchester. (Am originally from the Lancashire /Greater Manchester area) Was absolutely gobsmacked by the pace of change up there. Both in my home town and in City of Manchester. Chris thought he was facing a tough time down Blackfriars up there I found I still knew a few buildings whole streets, squares, shopping areas have just gone. The older Victorian commercial terraces up around Balloon Street are still about. The C.I.S Co Op insurance building is still there like the Pan Am building to Manhattan -with added attraction of being owned by its original company. Co Op in the north nothing else to say in the arms of the co op from birth through till death.

    One of the young guys who writes on this blog had said before how fast town was changing I thought he’d exaggerated a bit. Not at all. Was great must admit but looking at what’s still a reasonable amount of very old property from Victorian Edwardian eras rotting away big plants growing through missing rooves amongst all the ultra modern stuff. It’s disquieting. Really odd like a North American city rising from the ashes of a vast old industrial town.
    And as for the fake industrial back ground of the print works- why? We had it for real

  22. Helen Martin says:

    Does anyone pluralize roof to rooves? Then backwards would be groof to grooves. Aint English geat? Co ops. We’ve had producers’ and consumers’ co ops both as well as banking ones (credit unions). There was even a play written about the co op life. “Pass the co op peas, please.” Yes, but may I have the co op butter?” The wheat pools were grain farmers’ co ops – Sask Pool and Alberta Pool, chiefly. They were formed to battle the goddamnedCPR and the big grain buyers. Together they had a lot of leverage and they improved the income of prairie farmers considerably. The consumer co ops came out of that, starting with tractor fuel and fertilizer and then becoming general stores operated by the members as volunteers. There were problems, of course, because you’re dealing with people, but the movement gave the prairies a socialist reputation, especially after the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation was formed in the thirties. A political party based on cooperation, whatever will happen next? What happened was the CCF decided it would really like a chance to form a federal government so they invited the trade unions to join. My mother watched that convention with tears in her eyes. Heavens, Canadian political history!? Whatever next?

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