Where is it?
Fleet Street runs from the end of Strand to Ludgate Circus junction. Despite being only about 550 metres long, it packs in a lot.
What’s the story?
The street takes its name from the river Fleet, one of London’s ‘lost’ rivers which still trickles along in tunnels beneath Farringdon Street and New Bridge Street, perpendicular to Fleet Street where it joins Ludgate Hill.
Originally the river formed the natural western boundary of the Roman city of Londinium. From the early years of the 16th century, Fleet Street became a hub for printing and publishing, which at the beginning of the 18th century moved in to newspapers. By the 20th century almost every building on Fleet Street belonged to a national newspaper with both the writing and printing taking place on the street, spawning the name ‘ink street’. Even though all of the newspapers began moving out in the 1980s, “Fleet Street” is in the UK still used as a byword for the newspaper industry.
How do I get there?
As Fleet Street literally runs from Strand, you could get the No.15 bus (mentioned in the Strand post), or alternatively use Blackfriars Station. Temple or Chancery Lane stations are within easy walking distance. If you’re travelling from further afield, there’s a City Thameslink station on Ludgate Hill with ‘real trains’ that come in from Brighton and Gatwick in the south, parts of south east London and Bedford, Cambridge and St Albans to the north.
What’s it like now?
Some of the newspaper heritage is still visible with names of newspapers lingering on buildings, but the historic identity of ‘ink street’ is long gone, and has become a generic business street. As a main thoroughfare between Westminster and the City it does get super busy (particularly at peak times), many of the buildings are interesting to look at, particularly above eye level and heading east you are afforded a lovely view of St Paul’s cathedral at the top of Ludgate Hill.
Where would I stay?
I do occasionally meet people who stay in and around Fleet Street, which I think is an interesting choice. Firstly, you’d be incredibly well placed between the main sites of Westminster to the west and St Paul’s cathedral and the Tower of London to the east. It is a business district, so during the week, the pubs in particular would be packed, but on the weekend, it’d be dead and you’d find many of the shops don’t bother opening. I’ve met people to do a private walk at the Apex Temple Court Hotel on Fleet Street and they did say that almost every other guest was a business man or woman staying for work reasons. There is a Premier Inn close by just behind St Bride’s church but if you’d rather be close to St Paul’s cathedral there’s the King’s Wardrobe secreted away in a lovely little courtyard or the recently renamed Leonardo Royal Hotel. Budget travellers will be thrilled to learn that there’s a YHA Hostel on Carter Lane in a building formerly occupied by St Paul’s cathedral choristers.
What’s of interest?
City of London Dragon
If you begin at the east end of Fleet Street where it meets Strand, you are standing at Temple Bar which marks the boundary between Westminster and the City of London. It was a later western extension of the original Roman city, and as such had a gate, known as ‘Temple Bar’ because it began life as a simple bar across a gate close to the Temple church. The city gates were largely removed in the 18th century due to congestion problems, but Temple Bar survived, and with its own intriguing history can now be found between St Paul’s cathedral and Paternoster Square.
The City of London boundaries are now marked by dragons (There are 13 of them) and this one was erected in 1880 with sculptures of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in niches either side. The Dragon (sometime referred to as a Griffin) is the symbol of the City of London, holding a shield with the cross of St George and a small sword of St Paul; the coat of arms of the City of London.
To your right, you’ll find the myriad of passages leading down to the river, which are the precincts of Inner Temple and Middle Temple Inns of Court and the wonderful Temple Church, mentioned in the Strand post.
Dr Johnson’s House
Tucked away on Gough Square is one of London’s small house museums; Dr Johnson’s House. Much of the area was destroyed during WWII but No.17, despite being damaged (still visible) was spared demolition largely on account of the fact that it was where the first definitive dictionary was compiled in 1755 by the larger than life character that was Samuel Johnson. His quote “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” adorns the introduction to almost every book about London ever written. If you’d like to learn about Johnson, his contemporaries like David Garrick or the former slave Francis Barber who became Johnson’s man servant and heir to his fortune, or just about life in 18th century London, then it’s well worth a visit. Also say hello to the statue of Johnson’s cat Hodge who sits proudly on a dictionary at the opposite end of the square.
St Bride’s Church
A number of churches around London have secrets which you only find out about if you go in and explore. St Bride’s on Fleet Street is no exception. Following the familiar pattern of many of the City churches, St Bride’s was a medieval church burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren and then bombed in WWII. St Bride’s was completely gutted but lovingly restored and is known as the ‘Journalists and Printers’ church’. In the north east corner, you’ll discover an altar adorned with photos of journalists who have died whilst reporting in war zones.
I encourage you to head down in to the crypt where you’ll find cases filled with artefacts that have been found on the site, dating back to the Roman period, and exhibition boards detailing the history of the Fleet Street printing industry.
If you wander over to the small chapel at the far end, you’ll see reflected back in angled mirrors on the ceiling, the remnants of a Roman pavement, hidden beyond a medieval wall. If you join one of the church’s weekly Tuesday afternoon tours, you’ll even get to see the thousands of bones piled up in the ossuary next door. Not for the squeamish.
I almost forgot. Perhaps the most famous thing about St Bride’s is their spire and its distinctive tiered design which is said to have inspired a local baker to create the first tiered wedding cake. For this reason, many people simply call it ‘the wedding cake church’.
If you walk up Ludgate towards St Paul’s cathedral there are a number of little lanes and alleyways off to your right in an area that once belonged to a large Dominican Monastery, whose monks wore black. The area, a pub, a station and a bridge are now all known as ‘Blackfriars’. In 1613, the Globe Theatre on Bankside burned down during a performance of Henry VIII. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the theatre troupe Shakespeare belonged to) decanted to the old Blackfriars Monastery and built an indoor candle-lit playhouse whilst the Globe was being rebuilt. You’ll still find ‘Playhouse Yard’ there today. William Shakespeare bought a house close by (the deed of which still exists) just three years before his death. You’ll find a plaque commemorating the fact on St Andrew’s Hill on a building on the other side of Ireland Yard from a pub called ‘The Cockpit’.
St Paul’s cathedral
Like a number of ‘places of interest’ I’ve mentioned, a short paragraph clearly does not do St Paul’s cathedral justice. There’s been a church dedicated to St Paul on the same site since the year 604. The current cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and finished in the first decade of the 18th century after the previous building (known as Old St Paul’s) burned down during the Great Fire of 1666.
The cathedral reaches 365ft tall (one for foot for each day of the year) and remained the tallest building in London for just over 250 years until it was usurped by the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) in 1963. Despite now being way down the list of London’s tallest buildings, St Paul’s cathedral remains a protected view and remains visible from a number of vantage points around London.
Horatio Nelson’s tomb has pride of place in the crypt directly beneath the dome and the cathedral has hosted the funerals of the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill and more recently Margaret Thatcher, not to mention the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana in 1981. Like Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s cathedral is first and foremost a place of worship, but aside from regular services there’s so much to experience. If your legs will allow, climb to the top of the dome (2nd biggest in Europe after St Peter’s in Rome) for incredible views across London, learn how the building survived the intense bombing in the area during WWII and much more.
A short walk from St Paul’s cathedral, you’ll find postman’s park in the former church yard of the wonderfully named church of St Boltoph without-Aldersgate. In 1900 a small section of the garden was given over to a memorial dedicated to ‘Heroic Self-Sacrifice’ with the names of people who died in the act of saving another person’s life. The tablets are beautifully rendered, incredibly moving in their simplicity and featured prominently in the film ‘Closer’ based on the play of the same name by Patrick Marber.
Just north of St Paul’s cathedral is an area called Smithfield, which for the last 900 years has been a meat market. However, all that is about to change as the Museum of London, an absolutely brilliant museum about the history of London is preparing to move in to the Victorian meat market buildings. The area is on the verge of a huge amount of change, but it’s a fascinating area. Scottish patriots or fans of Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’ might like to pay a visit to the spot where William Wallace was executed in 1305. Close by is the beautiful medieval church of St Bartholomew-the-Great, originally part of an Augustinian priory in 1123 and has been used as a film location for films such as ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves’, ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and many more.
On the other side of the market is a genuine bona-fide hidden gem in the form of Charterhouse, a 14th century priory that was largely rebuilt in the 16th century. The rambling assortment of buildings sit within a 7-acre plot hidden away from the world and is a retirement home. However, they recently opened a small museum and provide tours. If you can, I highly recommend visiting this unique, living breathing piece of London history.
There are a large amount of pubs in the area, and not only that, put pubs that are historically interesting like Ye Olde Mitre, just off Hatton Garden. However, as we’re supposed to be focusing on Fleet Street, here are a few on that street alone.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Often, if establishments put the words ‘Ye Olde’ at the beginning of their name, it means they’re not old, but would like to be. However, a look at the sign over Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’s threshold on Wine Office Court which reads ‘Rebuilt in 1667’ plus the list of Monarch’s that have reigned since it was rebuilt, beginning with Charles II would suggest you’re dealing with the real thing. You are.
Stepping in to Dr. Johnson’s local is a to step back in time. Once your eyes adjust to the dark, you’ll notice sawdust on the floor, low ceilings, a brazier burning in the ‘gentleman’s bar’ and the feeling that it probably hasn’t changed that much since the fictional character of Charles Darnay entered in Charles Dickens’ novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Be sure to head down two floors to the cellar bar, but be careful not to bang your head on the way down, or up.
The Tipperary is a saloon bar style Irish pub on Fleet Street and claim not only to be the first Irish pub outside Ireland but the first to serve Guinness in England.
The Old Bell
Standing on the site of an earlier pub, The Old Bell (which I exuberantly labelled Ye Olde on my map) was apparently built by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire for the masons working on the adjacent St Bride’s church.
The Punch Tavern
Occupying the site of a former 19th century gin palace, the Punch Tavern received its current name after employees of the nearby Punch magazine who were frequent patrons.
The Charterhouse - Smithfield
It seems that not a day goes by when I don't hear or read about something in London, be it a bar, restaurant, museum, building, house ... or whatever, heralded as one of 'London's hidden gems'. It is true, there are many of them, and it's just one of the long list of things I love about this city. One place however, which must surely have an incredibly valid claim for actually being such a place (and near the top of the 'hidden gem' charts), is the Charterhouse in Smithfield, or to refer to it by its official name ... Sutton's Hospital in Charterhouse.
To say that the experience of walking through Charterhouse is 'magical' would be an understatement, as testified by the amount of film producers that have used its buildings, courtyards and rooms as film sets. Although, you can join occasional tours, Charterhouse is not commonly open to the public. In essence, it is a retirement home and 'the brothers' who live there ... actually do live there, enjoying the peace and tranquility of a life that seems almost protected from the outside world.
The current buildings (many of which are ancient) occupy the site of a former Carthusian Monastery, first established in 1371. The order was founded by Saint Bruno in the 11th century, who had his first hermitage in the valley of the Chartreuse Mountains in the French Alps, which is where the word 'Charterhouse' is derived.
Until the 1530's, vast tracts of land belonged to religious orders (just a short walk away, you can still pass through St John's Gate, once part of the area belonging to the Knights Hospitallers). All this came to an end when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, but the Carthusians refused to conform to the King's 'Act of Supremacy' and many of them were executed at Tyburn (now Marble Arch) as a result. The Monastery buildings were turned in to a fine Tudor mansion, passing through various owners during the remaining years of Henry VIII, throughout the reign of Elizabeth I (who visited Charterhouse on a number of occasions) and through to the early 17th century when James I became King. It was during this time, in 1611 in fact, when the current story of Charterhouse begins. It was bought by a self made man, an incredibly wealthy and not to mention generous and philanthropic individual called Thomas Sutton.
Sutton set up a Charitable Foundation to educate boys and to care for elderly men, known as 'brothers'. The school, Charterhouse, still exists today, but moved to Godalming in Surrey in 1872, whilst the 'brothers' (and I think there are currently about 45 of them) still reside in the buildings you can see pictured. There was perhaps not surprisingly, considerable bomb damage during WWII (the 40 acre site, obliterated at the same time and now houses the Barbican Centre is just a few minutes walk away), but was faithfully restored and has seen new buildings added as recently as 2001. The tour I went on, began in the chapel, which was largely saved during the Blitz, due to the huge oak door (fortunately closed at the time) which absorbed a substantial amount of bomb impact. You can see on the photo below (left) that the door still hangs there today as a reminder, albeit about half the size.
As I mentioned, the Charterhouse still houses 'the Brothers', and two of them showed us around on the tour I joined, and it really did feel like we were being let in on a secret, a true hidden London gem, as we saw the Great Hall where they eat together each day (and have done for over 400 years), the only surviving part of the old 14th century Norfolk Cloister where the monks had their cells, courtyards, corridors and of course sprinkling the whole thing with the site's incredibly rich and intriguing history.
As far as I know, tours take place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and every other Saturday and cost £10. If you are able to join one, I can highly recommend it. It seems as well, that plans are afoot to open a more permanent museum in a few years time, which is great news.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.