In Search Of A London Street Pt.2
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.