One of my favourite books is Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Indeed it was the first book on the reading list when I began to study law at the University of Sheffield. In it Esther Summerson describes going into Old Square Lincoln’s Inn ‘we passed into sudden quietude under an old gateway, and drove on through a silent square..’ and in The Mystery of Edwin Drood the change as one passes into the Inns of Court in this case Staple Inn is evoked in these words – ‘It is one of those nooks the turning into of which out of the clashing street imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears and velvet on the soles of his boots.’
I’m not sure it is so quiet these days but walking into Middle Temple towards Fountain Court one does leave much of the bustle of modern London at the entrance. Today the gateway under the sign of the Knights Templars is guarded by a modern barrier to prevent any entry by motor vehicles. It does look rather incongruous.
There is a small shop at the entrance that is now the premises of Thresher and Glenny Tailors and Outfitters for three hundred years, the blackboard proclaims along with the boast that they were the inventors of the Trench Coat and through the window I could see a khaki coloured coat looking rather battered as if it had lived through two world wars, as indeed it may have.
As I walked down Middle Temple Lane where my imaginary Burke Court is set squeezed in between other sets of Chambers, rather like platform 9 and 3/4 at Kings Cross nothing has changed for two centuries, although I suspect it is rather cleaner than it was. I did see a noticeboard with posters warning about terrorist threats, thefts and events in Middle Temple Gardens; similar lunches may well have been enjoyed in the Garden, indeed the Inns were known for their conviviality, but City of London Police posters would not have been evident until recently.
In Fountain Court, where John Westlock woos Ruth Pinch in Martin Chuzzlewit, the fountain splashes into the round stone basin, the mulberries stain the ground around it and a young man eats his lunchtime sandwich from a Pret A Manger carrier bag.
I have described The Temple in the following passage taken from my novel, Crucial Evidence-
‘Cassie’s chambers were at 3 Burke Court, part of that area of London inhabited by lawyers for centuries and known as The Temple. Walking through the arch bearing the Pascal Lamb, was like time travelling; each time, she was stepping out of the tumult of the twenty-first century into the ordered calm of the eighteenth. She was reminded of her home town, where similar Georgian buildings surrounded the castle, built by John O’Gaunt, which remained a centre of law and punishment, judges and offenders at its heart. So unlike The Temple which turned its back on the bulk of the Royal Courts of Justice across the Strand, a row of the banks and sandwich shops providing a barricade to the noise of traffic and the bustle of pedestrians, and creating a sanctuary of narrow lanes and courtyards for its lawyer inhabitants.’
As I have remarked here the changes are ‘de minimis’ to quote a legal phrase.
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.