London Fleet Street walking tour

{ Posted on by }
Categories : Travel news

Recounting a visit to London's Fleet Street in the 1700s, the Scottish lawyer, diarist and author James Boswell wrote that the assault on his senses had left him "agreeably confused". Standing directly above the subterranean river Fleet in the central reservation on Farringdon Street, I think I know how he felt …

I'm on the inaugural "immersive tour" of Fleet Street entitled Hawkers, Harlots and Hacks. The tour is the brainchild of the young, affable Dr Matt Green. Together with a small troupe of historians, musicians and actors he aims to reinvigorate the city tour as we know it.

We find Green in Stationers' Hall Court, a small courtyard just off Ludgate Hill. He is holding a musical triangle and an iPad. A crowd of about 20 have gathered on the cobbles. "You are about to discover how printing was transformed from a medieval mystery into a mind-moulding instrument of mass-communication," he proclaims theatrically.

He dings his triangle and a bald man in period dress emerges from the basement steps of Stationers' Hall. Wynkyn der Worde is the first of many historical caricatures we encounter over the next couple of hours. The apprentice of William Caxton (the first Englishman to print books in London), Wynkyn inherited the business in 1495. "I am going to make a torrent of ink run through ze streets of London," he declares holding a fresh, slippery octopus in one hand and his script in the other. "I will drown out all ignorance … I will be ze father of Fleet Street!"

And he was. By the time of his death in 1534/5, Fleet Street was synonymous with print and publishing. But broadsheets were still a long way off. Pamphlets "throbbing with sedition" were in circulation, despite the best efforts of Sir Roger L'Estrange, the booming, bewigged licensor of the press, who we meet on more than one occasion.

Politics and religion were a no-no for the presses, so "execution print" (gory details of hangings, drawings and quarterings) and quasi-scientific pamphlets thrived. "It was the age of discovery," Green tells us. "A rhino had been spotted propping up the bar in the Bell Savage Inn on Limeburner Lane; A True and Perfect Description of an Elephant, became a bestseller. The Athenian Mercury, a successful agony-aunt newspaper first published in 1690, attempted to answer questions such as: 'If I rub my cat hard enough, why does it glow in the dark?'"

We're taken to the site of the Daily Courant – Britain's first daily newspaper (now a Leon restaurant on Ludgate Circus). From here, we cross the buried waters of the Fleet, once clogged up with dead dogs, raw sewage and suicide victims. "This is the primordial ooze out of which the newspaper industry rose," explains Green. On then, to the shady alleyways off the main thoroughfare where we encounter a siren whose lines are drowned out by – you guessed it – a siren.

Mid-way through the vignette, a regular stumbles out of the nearby Old Bell Tavern, looks on completely baffled before staggering off in the direction of St Bride's, Sir Christopher Wren's "journalist's church".

Outside, two musicians sing a 1790s dirge for an unfortunate newspaper boy.

On Fleet Street, we leapfrog into the 20th century as historian Mr Brown takes over the tour. Brown doesn't project quite as well as Green, but we stick with him as he describes the "complete meshing of office life and tavern life". He points out two art deco behemoths: the Daily Telegraph and the Express buildings.

We learn a little of the deadline-dodging tactics of Fleet Street's finest but personally, I think we should have propped up a bar and ordered some G&Ts. It was 4pm: in the old days, most journos would still be on lunch ...

But we still have several characters to meet, including Hodge, Dr Johnson's beloved oyster-eating cat. Then it's back again to the 18th century, where we witness a libel case against Daniel Defoe, whose mocking rant has landed him three days in the pillory. A bucket of squidgy tomatoes appear and we all get to aim for the poor actor's head as he languishes in the stocks.

Our penultimate character, the radical reformer Richard Carlile, has got lost in the back alleys of Fleet Street, so we hurry on to meet Lord Alfred Northcliffe who, in 1896, began publishing the Daily Mail.

"Fleet Street is a storytelling place," he tells us between drags on a liquorice cigarette. "It tells stories; great stories; true stories. It tells the story of our great English nation. And stories are more powerful than facts."

In journalistic terms, Fleet Street is a shadow of its former self – not a single newspaper operates from that address any more. There are no hawkers or rhinos to be seen. Only the stories brought so vividly to life by Dr Green and his troupe remain.

• The next Hawkers, Harlots & Hacks tour is on Saturday 1st September at 3pm and lasts around two hours. Tickets are ?12.50 + booking fee via the website. It will run on a fortnightly basis after that alongside their Coffeehouse Tour. They also run private tours based on 17th and 18th-century London.

Related posts

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.