John Vane: Fleet Street ghosts and renewals

John Vane: Fleet Street ghosts and renewals

I walked the length of Fleet Street the other sunny evening asking myself what I was looking for. Part of the answer was ghosts: ghosts of a newspaper industry long since dispersed and transformed; older ghosts of a London that formed and functioned around the River Fleet.

My excursion was prompted by the endeavours of Fleet Street Quarter (FSQ), one of London’s blossoming Business Improvement District organisations. The FSQ has the ambitious goals of putting the area “back on the map”, making it cleaner and greener and more fun to work and play in. It wants a return to office working and to attract more visitors. In this, its mission is aligned with that of the City of London – whose territory the FSQ’s falls into – and other parts of central London, as the core of the capital’s economy hauls itself from the wreckage of Covid-19.

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How do you best renew this piece of London, which stretches from below High Holborn to just short of the Thames from the steps of St Paul’s to Chancery Lane?

Its younger ghosts are still visible, inscribed on the sides of buildings and, in the case of the “black Lubyanaka” Grade II* listed art deco Daily Express building – long since abandoned by the publication that gave its name – taking firm physical shape, though even that is in the process of becoming a part of something larger and newer. As for the waterway, that still flows from its source on Hampstead Heath into the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge but is now almost entirely below the ground, including Ludgate Circus, where one end of Fleet Street begins.

There is, then, a need to explore all avenues and options, to revitalise on several fronts. Last month, FSQ announced development investment of up to £5 billion is in the pipeline. It’s run a public realm experience survey, helping it to work out how to make the streets and green space more appealing. They’d like to perk up the retail and hospitality components, getting the place to buzz a little louder.

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There’s also office innovation going on as the so-called “flight to quality” continues and companies look for the most flexible and agreeable workspace. The New Street Square scheme, between Shoe Lane and Fetter Lane has existed since 2008, but it’s now adapting and upgrading. Similar evolutions are underway on Chancery Lane.

The area as a whole is an intricate weave of alleys, avenues and courtyards, with legal firms, Old Bailey, Dr Johnson’s house, Cliffords Inn, a bit of King’s College and a Vidal Sassoon academy in Ave Maria Lane all forming part of the rich mix.

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Other remnants of the newspaper age survive in the forms of St Bride’s church, where hacks meet their maker, and the El Vino wine bar. Ye Old Cheddar Cheese, a Grade II listed pub, hosted the launch of Nicholas Boys Smith’s book No Free Parking and more recently updated its yellowing roll call of monarchs.

These splendours of the past will surely be features of the future too. What else will that future hold?

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Categories: John Vane's London Stories

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