Researching Fleet Street for my novel I was reminded about the advice to look above shop window level to see what the buildings really looked like. I was doing just that when I noticed the number of different type of signs that shops displayed. The American interlopers MacDonalds and Starbucks had bland fascia boards on their shop fronts – so did Sainsburys so we can’t just blame trans-Atlantic invaders. Not surprisingly the pubs and wine bars had more distinctive signs.
So I wrote the following in my second Cassie Hardman novel,
‘She noticed the sign above the Punch public house, a gold painted profile of the character holding his truncheon aloft.
Then she saw the three gold balls of a pawn brokers, next to a sign proclaiming they were pawnbrokers of distinction. She wondered how long there had been a need for them so close to the Temple and what the phrase ‘a pawnbrokers of distinction’ meant; did they only deal with people of distinction or only lend money against objects of distinction. Whichever it would rule her out.
In an optician’s window she was amused by a poster for spectacle frames by Lanvin; a hundred or so sketches of faces with little bits of colour, a green bow tie or purple earrings, but hardly any glasses.
They walked past what had once been the entrance to Sergeants Inn. Cassie glanced into the courtyard where there was a large green elephant. She pondered on what the animal was meant to represent or indeed why it was there at all.
Soon they were under the oval sign of El Vino’s wine bar. The painted glass, in addition to the name, had the words Spain, Portugal, France, Germany Wines. What no Australian, New Zealand or Chilean, she thought. She remembered her pupil mistress telling her that at one time women were not allowed into the wine bar unless accompanied by a man and then they had to sit in the rear of the premises.
As they drew level with the faded sign of the three squirrels outside Gosling’s Bank, she heard James’s voice as if it was coming through water, asking her something about accounts. She shook her head as if to shake out fluid from her ear. ‘Sorry, I was miles away. You were saying?’
The protagonist in my novel Crucial Evidence, Cassie Hardman walks from the Old Bailey to her chambers in Middle Temple Lane and as my novel is set in contemporary London I wanted to find out how much it had changed since the days when I took the same route. At the beginning of my career Fleet Street was the home of the newspapers. Here journalists and lawyers rubbed shoulders in the pubs and bars, although only males if El Vinos was your drinking hole of choice.
As you can see from the map along the street are some fascinating places redolent with history. I have already mentioned St Brides Church but not the Institute and Printing Library, which is attached to the church. Shoe Lane runs north and there is a library on the western side of that lane. Between Shoe Lane and Fetter Lane are a number of Courts, narrow lanes and squares of a type familiar to all who read Dickens. Dr Johnson’s House.a 300 year old town house nestles among these narrow lanes at 9 Gough Square (see http://www.drjohnsonshouse.org) On Fleet Street is the public house with which the Dr is associated ‘The Cheshire Cheese.’
On the same side of the road is the building that was occupied by the Express group of newspapers. The curve of black glass a contrast to the shop fronts next to it. It is difficult to tell what the building is used for now. I noticed a number of serviced offices being advertised. One of the old Inns of Court, Sergeants Inn has become a hotel. The photograph shows it with the ground floor hidden by the red London bus.
Some things remain the same, the signs outside the public houses, but there are now banks, coffee shops and the small stores the supermarkets have reinvented rather than the offices of newspapers. The Church on the right in the photograph of the map is St Dunstan’s in the West.
St Dunstan-in-the-West was a well-known landmark in previous centuries because of its magnificent clock. This dates from 1671, and was the first public clock in London to have a minute hand. The figures of the two giants strike the hours and quarters, and turn their heads. There are numerous literary references to the clock, including in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the Vicar of Wakefield and a poem by William Cowper (1782):
When labour and when dullness, club in hand,
Like the two figures at St. Dunstan’s stand,
Beating alternately in measured time
The clockwork tintinnabulum of rhyme,
Exact and regular the sounds will be,
But such mere quarter-strokes are not for me.
The courtyard also contains statues of King Lud, the mythical sovereign, and his sons and Queen Elizabeth I, all of which originally stood in Ludgate. The statue of Queen Elizabeth I dates from 1586 and is the only one known to have been carved during her reign. Taken from the website http://www.stdunstansinthewest.org Here too there has been change as the church now caters to the Romanian community in the city.
El Vino’s was of course the inspiration for Pomeroys Wine Bar beloved of Rumpole in John Mortimer’s books.
One of the other changes I noticed was that the vehicles using the street were mainly the buses, taxis and the little white van. Private cars pushed out by the congestion charge no doubt. Parking was always a nightmare, very expensive and difficult to find a space.