A few days ago, reading a reference to a part of London I once worked in, took me back to my favourite pub there, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, one of the oldest pubs in the City of London. There has been a pub at this location since 1538 but it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and rebuilt a couple of years after that. Its atmosphere speaks to me of another time and another place, and as one would expect, it has many literary connections. The etching below of Ye Olde Cheshire Cat dates from 1887 and is from a collection in the British Library.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is a labyrinth of rooms connected by jumbled up passageways but no one is quite sure which parts are original. Some of its earlier wainscoting has gone, most of the interior wood panelling dates from the nineteenth century, but it is claimed that the extensive vaulted cellars below, belonged to a 13th-century Carmelite monastery which once occupied the site.
The pub looks deceptively small from outside, but once entered you will find nooks and crannies in the rooms both upstairs and downstairs, with open fireplaces in winter. The “chophouse” (restaurant) is on the ground floor and the pub serves an excellent selection of ales, wines and spirits.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Sidney Carton leads Charles Darnay through Fleet Street “up a covered alleyway into a tavern” where they dined after Darnay’s acquittal and today, patrons still enter via the narrow alley by the side.
The interior walls are decorated with plaques detailing the many literary figures that patronised the pub over the centuries. The famous Dr. Johnson lived just down the street and there is a plaque there to him which is not surprising, aone to Charles Dickens whose characters haunt this area of London, but it was a surprise to find the likes of American Mark Twain, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.G. Wodehouse, all regular visitors, honoured in the same way. P.G. Wodehouse famously mentioned the pub in one of his letters when he wrote “I looked in at the Garrick at lunchtime, took one glance …… at the mob, and went off to lunch by myself at the Cheshire Cheese”.
Although Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is very much on the tourist route along Fleet Street down to The Tower of London and the city, it is still ‘the local’ for those who work in the area and anyone wandering in from the street will immediately feel they are in a London pub. There is a buzz, an atmosphere, and an indefinable aura of the past about the place. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson’s cat wandered in looking for the good Doctor.
Having watched every episode of Tony Jordan’s 20-part brilliant evocation of Charles Dickens’ world (Dickensian, BBC 1), it has whetted my appetite for the London of the novels, for the streets and alleyways that he populated with an array of the most colourful characters ever to leap from a page.
The series is a true celebration of a master story teller, where people like Miss Haversham, Nancy, Bill Sykes, Fagin, Jaggers the lawyer, and the Cratchit family, are all cleverly interwoven into a Victorian tapestry, perfect for the small screen. Dickensian carried with it a constant surprise, as there were no hints given as to who would pop up or from which book. And as always, with a BBC production, the location, the settings and the atmosphere are pitch-perfect. And it’s fun trying to remember in which book a character appeared, and in admiring the clever way Jordan has stitched together a new story using these familiar characters.
Although Dickens wouldn’t recognize London should he return today, we are lucky enough to be able to suss out some of the haunts he mentions, the alleyways, streets, pubs and inns, many of which survive, although what the Blitzkrieg couldn’t destroy, the city planners have almost managed to accomplish.
The City of London was once a walled city covering a mere square mile, inside which the Guilds and Liveries reigned supreme – in fact they still do, along with the money merchants, the financiers, the major world Banks and the controllers of a shadowy world of high finance. Established in around AD50, seven years after the Romans invaded Britain, the City, or Square Mile as it has become known, is the place from which modern-day London grew. Walk through the surrounding areas, and with just a little imagination, you can begin to populate the streets with Dickens’ characters. A good place to start from is St. Paul’s Cathedral, built by Sir Christopher Wren, who, while his great church was being built, lived in a house on the other side of the River Thames from which rowed across the river daily, to check on its progress.
The historian Dr. Ruth Richards claims to have discovered the workhouse, the Strand Union in Cleveland Street, that inspired Oliver Twist. This wasnear where Dickens lived as a child, and it is thought possible that he worked with a lot of the poor apprentices from that workhouse during his time at the blacking factory. Most workhouse children were hired out, or apprenticed, to places like these, and if the young Dickens did work with the workhouse paupers, he would have heard tales of the hardship in that establishment, all of which were grist to the mill when it came to writing what is one of the best loved, and most often filmed, stories of all times.
When Pip in Great Expectations arrived in ‘ugly, crooked, narrow and dirty’ London he got off the coach at the Cross Keys Inn on Wood Street, a posting Inn and a terminal for the coaches from the countryside bringing passengers and parcels to the City (read Great Expectations for his description of the nearby Cheapside market and ‘the great black dome of St. Pauls). Little remains of the Cross Keys inn today save a paved area in the nearby churchyard in Wood Street, marked by railings with cross keys on them, the symbol of St Peter, keeper of the gates to Heaven.
This is also the inn where the young boy, Charles Dickens, aged 12 and alone, arrived from Rochester in Kent after his spendthrift father had once again made the family destitute (Dickens senior subsequently spent time at the Wood Street Compter just a little bit further down the road from Cross Keys). From Wood Street, Pip walked along London Wall to the offices of Mr. Jaggers, the lawyer, through narrow streets where the houses are crammed tightly together and jostle for space. You are near Postman’s Park here so a detour to this delightful spot can be recommended and although nothing to do with Dickens, I would recommend a detour to see this very Victorian location.
But it was Southwark, a less reputable area, that haunted Dickens and coloured his outlook and his novels ever afterwards. A portion of the Marshalsea Debtors Prison wall still stands in St. George’s churchyard off Borough High Street, the prison in which the Dickens’ family languished, and his vivid description in Little Dorrit leaves the reader in no doubt of his intense loathing of the place.
The George Inn, just off Borough High Street, has survived, one of the many “rambling queer old places” that the writer described in The Pickwick Papers. A little further along is Lent Street where the writer lived and from where he walked to the hated job at the Blacking Factory in the Strand. The factory that caused such grief to the young man but which gave him so much material for his novels is no longer there: on the site now stands Charing Cross Station.
There is to be another series of Dickensian, and I urge anyone who has not seen the first series to catch up with it and then follow on with the second series. Mr. and Mrs. Bumble we’ve met, Mrs. Gamp and Sarah Peggotty, but there are many characters yet to be given a backstory, characters who lived life on the edges of the tales, like Laura Badger, Ham Peggotty, Mrs. Ticket, and the one remembered by every child that saw the original black and white production of Oliver Twist – Magwitch.
Dickensian is not Tales from Dickens, it is a re-imagining of a Dickensian London peopled by the colourful characters from the novels of one of England’s greatest writers. It is not to be missed