Tucked away in the heart of London is a Dickensian gem known to few Londoners and even fewer tourists as Kumar Sampat Iyengar discovers on a recent visit.
Over the years, visits to London have ranged from hectic work meetings, plays at the West End, a Wimbledon second week or often just chilling out with friends visiting the odd art gallery or spending lazy afternoons with a book in Hyde Park. A few weeks ago, I told myself I must set out, in what was to be Dickens' 200th birth anniversary on February 6, to find some little allusion, maybe a quaint reference, to something genuinely Dickensian perhaps little changed and certainly not recreated.
Of course, The Old Curiousity Shop is a tourist attraction, but to me, it's been just that-a tourist attraction! Then there is the only surviving London house of Charles Dickens on Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, where the famous writer spent a brief two years between 1837 and 1839. But the rooms and décor though carefully chosen and arranged are all recreations.
So, where did one go to dream up Dickens' immortal characters like David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Mr. Pickwick or even Mr. Micawber who was the eternal optimist (modelled on Dickens' own father) forever “waiting for something to turn up”! Did I have to satisfy myself by looking at a well-preserved garret window of little Charles' bedroom, or a fragment of a grille from the notorious Marshalsea Debtors' prison in Southwark where John Dickens, Charles' father, was incarcerated while the young Dickens worked in a blacking factory? All interesting memorabilia, fascinatingly preserved at the Doughty Street rooms but was there even a vignette left of Dickens' London?
I had all but given up hope, when I bumped into an old journalist friend of mine and we decided to have a pint together at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, a favourite watering hole for newspaper people in the pre-Murdoch era.
My friend Mike is an old hack and combines a delightful talent for a neat turn of phrase with a sharp nose for interesting anecdotes, skills honed as a features editor with one of Britain's best loved newspapers in the old days.
We got talking of Charles Dickens and I shared my disappointment at not really being able to get a whiff of the world of Dickens. “But at The Cheese, you are in a part of Dickens' world,” averred Mike. “How so,” I asked.
“This is all part of the Wine Court area where the legal fraternity walked down Ludgate Hill from Old Bailey for their liquid refreshment. In fact, there's a reference to the tavern here after the court scene in ‘Tale of Two Cities',” said Mike. It was then that Mike had a brainwave. Much of Dickens' writings refer to the legal profession, mostly quite acerbic, based on his unhappy times as a solicitor's clerk, working in the Temple area across the road to where we were quaffing our bitters. Now the Temple area has changed little since the time Dickens spent there, so why not walk across to the Inner Temple area and soak up the ambience, said Mike.
We did just that and lo and behold!
There we were barely yards away from busy Fleet Street into a cobbled alley past the Temple Church (featured in the film ‘Da Vinci Code') down the steps through some cloisters into the Middle Temple. The area with its winding alleys and gardens feels like a village. We go past the Elizabethan Middle Temple Hall and into Fountain Court. It is approaching dusk and the Victorian street lamps are being lit as we walk into the Fountain Square. You realise you are being transported back in time, all of 150 years since little seems to have changed here.
The sparkling fountain still the same as “…it sparkled and laughingly its liquid played music and merrily the idle drops of water danced and danced”, as Tom meets his sister Ruth, in Charles Dickens' novel, Martin Chuzzlewit .
Off to work
Based on his time as a solicitor's clerk at Ellis and Blackmore, Dickens wrote: “There is yet in the Temple, something of a clerkly monkish atmosphere which public offices of law have not disturbed and even legal firms have failed to scare away….”
You can picture the young Dickens, through the words of Tom in Martin Chuzzlewit , how he must have felt about going to work in The Temple. “….he turned his face towards an atmosphere of unaccountable fascination, as surely as he turned it to the London smoke… until the time arrived for going home again and leaving it, like a motionless cloud behind.”
Although the London smoke-thankfully-is no longer around, one sees what Dickens meant as you explore the Temple area, an area of calm amid the bustling Fleet Street area.
I had at last found my piece of Dickens, unchanged, atmospheric and so very evocative. As I sat dreamily gazing at the fountain with its tinkling sound of gurgling water, I couldn't help going into a reverie that in a few days time, 200 years ago, was to be born one of the greatest literary geniuses of the 19th century, who must have sat on many an evening at one of the benches here (maybe the one I was sitting on!), contemplating his stories as he dreamed of a life far away from the legal profession which appeared so drab to him as a youngster barely out of his teens.
Thanks Mike, I owe you one
You realise you are being transported
back in time…