The Demon Bar Crawl of Fleet Street

The papers have gone, but they have left behind some remarkable mausoleums, and taken the name with them to Wapping and Kings Cross. Fleet Street is an idea as much as a street, yet the street has no little history; this was the route from the City to Westminster. Having spent next to no time working in central London, doing this walk made me feel like a tourist hick in an important place, getting in everybody’s way.

The blog hasn’t been updated for some time, and will be somewhat quieter this year, for reasons which I hope to reveal at a future date, but here’s something to tide us over. As the last four entries consisted of me departing from my original brief and pissing about, I thought it was time to write another old-school entry of walking around London with Nairn’s London under my arm.

My train pulls into London Bridge, leaving me with a longer walk than I’d remembered to Blackfriars (I appear to have been living under the misapprehension that Southwark Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge were one and the same). Cutting over to walk on the North bank gives you a new perspective on a very familiar stretch. You notice totally different things, such as strange industrial equipment resembling a miniature oil rig on the river.

When you reach Blackfriars proper, of course, it can be distinguished by the remains of the former railway bridge, dismantled in the 80s and leaving the strange sight of clusters of vast supporting pillars, now languishing in unemployment. These Brobdingnagian letter boxes, all laid out in pairs, seem to have been planted in the Thames as some kind of herculean assault course.

Right after the bridge, taking up an awkwardly slender triangular wedge, is as singular a pub as you’ll find anywhere in Britain. The Black Friar advertises itself with a jolly, rotund pisshead above the doorway, jug-wielding wenches on bronze plates and art nouveau mosaics -gold lettering on green- promising ‘Brandies’ and ‘Worthington Ales on Draught’. It’s craftsmanship on a par with Belfast’s wonderful Crown Bar and that’s not a compliment to be bandied around lightly.

In taverna quando sumus. Inside, the gold-on-green motif is inverted by masses of streaky, shining marble that puts one in mind of an indoor version of Ascoli Piceno’s central piazza. The pub isn’t as tiny as it looks on the outside. Each side of a two-sided bar faces onto an obtuse triangle of space with a dining room at the rear, more of which later.

Between head height and the ceiling, the walls are covered in bronze reliefs depicting a whole host of Rabelaisian characters; all occupied with fishing, cultivating grapes, singing lustily, blowing into wind/brass instruments, or just sniggering at each other’s jokes. The Victorians, surprise surprise, are getting nostalgic for England’s dissolved monasteries. It’s Christmas card fare -the friars don’t exactly have the psychological depth of, say, a Velazquez portrait- but rarely seen on this scale, and tremendous fun.

The back bar being windowless, it uses mirrors on every spare surface to generate light and perspective, and here we find the entire concept distilled to its most intense. Turned in on itself, accessed through three identical open archways, with a round-arched ceiling covered in mosaic patterns and a small snug at one end, this really feels like a private chapel of devotions, which to us drinkers is exactly what it is.

There are gargoyles and little demonic figures perched here and there; you half-expect to see your body distended when you catch sight of it in one of those mirrors. It’s a chapel alright, but the devotions are all for the benefit of Bacchus. I’m never quite sure what they’re playing at with the slightly pompous slogans (‘WISDOM IS RARE’, ‘FINERY IS FOOLERY’) but I think it might  cock a snook at the humourless temperance movement.

Connoisseurs of This Sort Of Thing are usually on speaking terms with The Black Friar, which was saved from the wrecking ball by the efforts of John Betjeman. Although Nairn sends us there (“worth seeing; there is nothing else like it”), he follows his independent streak in abstaining from the general applause. Lauded as a masterpiece, The Black Friar “would be, if someone like Mackintosh had been the designer. But unhappily it is tainted with a particularly musty imagination which has clouded the space like a bad pint of bitter. The theme of bibulous friars is flogged to death, the frieze crowded with sententious axioms, the walls look like very old gorgonzola”. I can see where he’s coming from but it’s an excessively harsh place.

Behind the pub is the tiny and easily-missed Blackfriars Lane, and another Nairn destination. “The outside is a heavy-lidded brick building overlooked by the new Times office and nudged in front by the same viaduct which makes such a bewildering place out of Ludgate Circus”. I’m wondering if I’ve definitely fingered the right building as I contemplate a gloomy thing that promises to contain nothing more than a prison yard, until I find the entrance to Apothecaries’ Court.

This is a headquarter of one of the old city guilds, a subject about which I know very little. They always seem mysterious and masonic to me. One imagines that being in the city, they’ve been investing their wealth carefully for a very long time and been accepted through longevity as the standard-setters for the fields they work in, at least to those for whom the old school tie means something. With a blue cat sitting on a helmet and an adolescent arrow-bearing god riding a baby dragon, the coat-of-arms looks not so much mystical as piss-taking.

The courtyard is something else, though; an unsuspected portal into the old quarter of an old Mitteleuropa town somewhere along the Danube. The cool yellow stucco renders the space serene, relaxed. In the heart of the City, it really is a sealed pocket of cool Alpine air somehow lurking in a furnace. Nairn is right to highlight the uncanniness of a courtyard “unrolling itself with all the time in the world… you could walk all day in New York and not find this kind of contrast, which is one of the ways that cities stay sane”. One of the doors is marked ‘Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers’ and the row of round windows just above the clock give the impression of whirring cogs in a timepiece. You can imagine artisans coming here and making things in the same technical way they have for centuries, although I’m sure it’s not like that at all today.

The rest of Blackfriars Lane is mostly restaurants, although there are a few apparently sacred rubik cubes and, through a set of ground floor windows, the delectable sight of rows of poor sods chained to their telephone and PC whilst you’re free to glide from pub to church to pub.

Fleet Street itself starts with no small amount of decoration; heads, nymphs, sea gods, muses, cherubs, all the usual mob. St Paul’s is just up the hill and this will have been prime office space since Day Dot. It’s mostly neo-classical with broken pediments, and the odd bit of arts-and-craftsy medieval.

I’m quite struck by the Daily Express building, lustrous black and silver, sleek and modern in a very 1920s way. Funny to think there was ever a time when that publication wasn’t a laughing stock. It’s a cadillac of a building. It’s Jay Gatsby, Al Capone, Bertie Wooster in America. The corners are rounded, the receding tiers are a sly nod to the famous spire of St Bride’s across the road, and if you try to look into its soul the black vitrolite panels just throw back your own reflection, like Michael Douglas’ mirrored sunglasses. The current tenants are Goldman Sachs. Wondering about the famous foyer (which, you guessed it, is hidden behind blackout curtains) I wander too close the the front door and an extremely soigné doorman hisses a Can I help you, Sir that makes my blood run cold.

A couple of doors along is the no less distinguished Daily Telegraph building, a thing of beauty with its oddly kaleidoscopic art deco clock of many colours, and a winning carving of twin winged messengers setting off from head office to send their clickbait viral in the Orient and Occident.

On the other side of the road is Lutyens’ Reuters House (dominated by a vast oculus above the doorway, in which an angel toots on a horn) and behind, the famous spire of St Bride’s, Wren’s tallest and the inspiration for wedding cakes. You can imagine Rapunzel letting down her hair from the top tier of this one. There’s a (possibly tall) story about it being struck by lightning and George III having a falling-out with Benjamin Franklin about which type of lightning rods to install.

The church has a long association with the departed printing press. Much of the inside is a post-Blitz remodelling. The newness of the fittings, the monochrome floor pattern, the pews running around the perimeter (each seat with a sponsor’s plaque), and the bizarre touch of little pink lampshades everywhere make it seem less like a church, more like the parliament of a small country.

The floor tiles are almost modernist but compared to most post-war churches they’ve played it fairly safe. There are some puzzling features, like trompe-l’oeil statues of Old Testament characters painted onto the wall behind the altar.

An exhibition in the crypt tells you the story of St Bride’s. There are bits of bric-a-brac like Burke & Hare-proof coffins, and the star attraction is a section of pavement from Roman London; simple black tesselated tiles deep under the foundation, which you can only view in a mirror posed from the ceiling.

By now, whether I’ve earned it or not I fancy another drink, and duly sneak up an alleyway (Wine Office Court; I like their style) to visit Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. This is another venerable old city pub; a favourite of Dickens and Wodehouse, it was rebuilt immediately after the Great Fire and has been open continuously since. Current custodians are Sam Smiths, an under-the-radar chain offering cheap drink and no muzak, without which Londoners would be lost. I wish they ran The Black Friar.

The inside is more than the sum of its parts. I hadn’t been for a very long time and had forgotten what a bewilderingly large number of dark, barn-like rooms there are. The front two have nice, Victorian-looking wood panelling but there’s nothing that remarkable about any of them. The basement rooms with barrel-vaulted arch ceilings date to the C13th and were originally part of a Carmelite monastery. After surveying the place (the further in you go, the more it’s Japanese & Americans eating tepid burgers/chips) I go back to the first room I tried, which is fairly snug with an open fire, and a thespian/tramp of the kind you only find in central London pubs, pulling poses in front of it.

The alleyway leads on to Gough Square, best known for Dr Johnson’s house (now a small museum) and facing it, a statue of Sammy’s cat with a couple of oysters on the side. That the the next two photos were taken standing on the exact same spot, says more about London than a billion of my fumbling descriptions ever could.

There’s a former HQ to a more esoteric group of newspapers (no offence to Dundee, or her Courier) and one could easily miss St Dunstan-in-the-West, crammed as it is into a fairly small space. Not that there isn’t plenty to see on the exterior of the church. As Nairn says, “in a tolerant London way it has collected older bits around it… it would take a sour sub-editor to dislike it”. The octagonal spire is pretty and beneath are two caged giants who strike the clock. There’s also a famous statue of Elizabeth I, created in her own lifetime, which originally stood above one of the city gates. Interesting to note that she looks like Michael Winner in drag.

The octagonal spire turns out to be a trailer for an octagonal church. It’s an unusual and striking set-up, a precursor to churches “in the round”. Each equal segment of the wall houses a broad and shallow chapel; sitting in the pews you feel like the church is dancing the hokey-cokey around you. Nairn thinks it “so child-like and transparent that it regains the integrity which should be every building’s birthright”.

For Nairn, it is a particularly religious church and “could be in Bavaria”. It’s funny that he should detect a European sensibility; I very much doubt this was the case in his time, but St Dunstan is currently shared with the Romanian Orthodox community. Carved angels and romantic marble sculptures of expiring youths sit side by side with Greek/Byzantine paintings of icons in garish colours. Yep, we’ve seen your perspective and your psychology, cheers- we’ll stick with the icons. They’ve even bothered to transport over a towering iconostasis whose paintings are faded away, but in any case who play second fiddle to the woodwork.

Stopping to briefly contemplate Prince Henry’s Room, one of the flashier survivors of the Great Fire, I turn off and make my way to Temple Church, built 1170. The round church at the front is the oldest part, and where the Crusaders held their initiation ceremonies- the main nave was added a half-century later. The doorway to the round church has a fantastic romanesque doorway of four tiers whose faces have almost been obliterated by age and weather, yet still crackle and fizz with life and energy.

I did think twice about going in, as they charge £5; pretty hefty for a church with no Raphaels or Titians. Sadly, having compared notes with friends who have recently visited Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, I think this is the practice of all churches that have a prominent role in The Da Vinci Code. The round chapel was modelled on Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre (as was the Jeruzalemkerk in Bruges which, needless to say, looks nothing like this). The church had its share of blitz damage, and no doubt the lawyers pay for its upkeep, but so much work has been put into restoration that even calling the church C12th has the smack of Trigger’s broom about it. One feels suspicious, as if faced with one of those celebrities who has been around since the 1950s but has the pinched plastic face of a teenage elf.

It is very handsome, with high pointed arches and a circular gallery above. Nairn calls Temple Church “London’s Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle rolled into one”, and this is the Notre Dame. “The earliest Gothic in London, still nursing its ornament but completely sure of its spaces”. The rogue’s gallery of gurning faces running around the perimeter, looking quite Manueline, bring an amount of levity that undercuts any Holy Grail mumbo-jumbo visitors may wish to read into all this. I was fascinated by the effigies laid across the floor; stone crusader knights, clutching their swords as if they expect to leap back into battle when resurrected at the Last Judgment, and wooden carvings of innocent-looking priests.

Only the spiral staircase up to the gallery really looks its age. The gallery itself has a smattering of modern art and some pleasing floor tiles depicting winged horses, lambs with flags, etc.

The main nave has a strikingly happy, upbeat feel. The windows that take up so much space give it plentiful natural light and the entire space feels very unified; so often these medieval churches are partitioned into three by rows of rounded arches that basically constitute walls. They like dizzyingly high roofs, which tell people that God is great and they are small; this one bucks the trend altogether. It even blends into the round church, which feels as integrated with the whole as a head on a torso.

This part of the church brings out Nairn’s patriotism as much as does St Paul’s. “Finished in 1240… already, this points to 1688 whereas the overwhelming pride of Sainte Chapelle foreshadows 1789… a blend of correctness and humanity which appropriately enough is a model for legal behaviour”. Like many City churches, the altar displays a chunk of scripture; the Ten Commandments, in which God the diva insists that we pick out all the brown M&Ms.

We’re in the Temple Inns of Court here, another Nairn destination (“One plus one makes six… most cities would give their eyes for this oasis… as memorable as anything in Oxford or Cambridge”) and somewhere I’ve never actually gone into in all many years; I wasn’t entirely sure they were open to the public, I think. In any case, he suggests one starts at the North-west corner, at Devereux Court “next to the Devereux pub, which goes very legal in the evenings and then closes early”. The pub’s still there.

There are gardens running down to the river, which Nairn thinks “perpetually compromised by the roaring traffic along the Embankment… it is best to hug the top, parallel to Fleet Street”. Follow Nairn to the letter, though, and I think you miss out.

The next court would be just as pleasing did it not also serve as a car park. However, look down Middle Temple Lane to the gatehouse facing Embankment and you get a real sense of these courts as a little world of their own, their frontiers with the outside world clearly demarcated.

Pump Court is much nicer, elegant Georgian with an arch at one end and a small set of cloisters leading the way back to Temple Church. “Stop in the middle of the cloisters and pivot: you can hold the whole of this extraordinary equation in the palm of your hand”.

After the church, two rows in a L-shape and gardens beneath make up Inner Temple. As you tramp around these fine structures feeling like a participant in some period drama, Nairn makes a revelation. “More than half of this is post-war, reinstatement of what went in the Blitz. So ironically, the best new townscape in London is neo-Georgian.” Furthermore, he encourages the reader to step inside and walk around, with the reassurance that snotty lawyers are vastly outnumbered by “hard-working and unaffected solicitors’ clerks”.

Back out onto Fleet Street where it meets the Strand, we find G.E. Street’s Royal Courts of Justice on our right. The proliferation of turrets makes me think of a romantic folly such as Fisherman’s Bastion on Buda Hill, whereas the facade is a very concentrated effort to recreate a French Gothic cathedral. Nairn, through gritted teeth, gives high praise to the Great Hall inside (“he has knocked it back into the C13th through sheer will… magisterial, ordered, compassionate, direct and to a huge scale… the hardest, most meritorious way to get to greatness… every word of this is wrung out against my own inclinations, so this may be the truest entry in the book”). I peek through glass doors at the Great Hall, but it’s all security guards and airport-style body scanners, so chances of getting to enjoy its qualities are fairly scant. We’re left with the big showpiece of the exterior, which Nairn is swift to dismiss as “clever, heartless hack-work”.

Not to worry, as there’s history in every direction here. Across the road are the Twinings Chinamen. Nairn eschews all the fancy tall buildings of our golden age to focus on Nos. 229-30 of the Strand, a pair of Great Fire survivors that look positively unassuming in the middle of such finery. I think he appreciates two different shapes and heights coming to an accommodation. “This is what all London is like before designers started flinging architectural styles at the public like so many varieties of spaghetti… beams mercifully covered up, their surface a wise old mixture of dark wood and yellow plaster… this is true co-existence, and how C20th London needs to learn about it”. My tastes may be banal, but I happen to love spaghetti in all its various forms.

A quick detour up Chancery Lane, a narrow street whose edifices are outsize and crammed in. You can’t get far back enough to have a good look at them and they haven’t got room to breathe. Confronting each other like a pair of antagonistic housewives on their doorsteps, are a large Greek revival building (Nairn scolds it for being “grossly academic”) and a Gothic palace. I’d spotted this over the glass offices around Gough Sq and assumed it to be the start of the Royal Courts; it is a library belonging to King’s College, but in Nairn’s time it served as the Public Record Office. He is chiefly excited by its contents, but does mention the architect Pennethorne as “a great classical designer forced to build Gothic whims… the effect is that of a dour man the size of Hawksmoor, kicking against the pricks and watching the shallow climb on the bandwagon”. At No. 114, the comparatively muted next-door neighbour to that Greek temple wins its own entry, for doing “the Florentine Renaissance with just enough of an English square-cut to stamp it as C19th”. It’s probably a better fit for its surroundings.

I press on to Carey St, an interesting spot hiding out between the rear of the Royal Courts and the southern edge of Lincoln’s Inn.

Someone had told me about the Seven Stars pub around here, run by one of the patronnes of Old Soho who saw how the wind was blowing and got out, and that during his inquiry Lord Leveson would flee here for sanctuary. It’s a very informal little place with an interesting looking menu, a staircase that feels on the brink of collapse leading to a single toilet, beside a messy office blasting out Radio 3, the owner holding court in one corner as the barmaids defer and fuss over her. In the age of the chain the possibility that pubs could have this much character has been negated, and The Seven Stars gives you a Proustian rush for the kind place you had forgotten ever existed. The decor (checked oilcloths and garlands of dried flowers) makes it feel more cheap Parisian bistro than London pub.

Back on the Strand St Clement Danes and St Mary-le-Strand are Nairn churches, but both are resolutely locked up and I find it hard to believe anyone’s still reading by this point. Anyone who is has suffered enough, so I’ll save The Strand for another time.

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