The Coach at the bottom end of Ray Street, off Farringdon Road, is a delightful gastropub. It is a great improvement on its predecessor, the Coach and Horses, which once served employees of the Guardian when the newspaper occupied a nearby building. Yet Coach and Horses itself was a huge improvement on what used to be there.
In the late 17th and 18th century, the spot was known as Hockley-in-the-Hole, the site of a notorious bear and dog baiting arena, which also featured bare knuckle fights. What took place there is well described by an advert for events of 27 April 27, 1700, described as “being a general day of sport by all the old gamesters and a great mad bull to be turned loose in the game place with fireworks all over him and two or three cats tied to his tail and dogs after them”.
It was regarded as the lowest of low entertainment, yet attracted an unusual mixture of high and low life, including Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels. John Gay, also a customer, mentions it in The Beggar’s Opera, when Mrs Peachum says to Filch: “You must go to Hockley-in-the-Hole and Marylebone, child, to learn valour”.
In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens has the Artful Dodger, after a pickpocketing foray, moving “across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; then into Little Saffron Hill; and so into Saffron Hill the Great, along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels”.
All the evidence of bear baiting and the like has long since gone, yet the Fleet River, which used to flow near to it, has not gone away. It is merely covered up. If you check there is no traffic coming, step a yard or two into the road outside The Coach and put your ear near the drain, you can hear the flow of the Fleet at the point before it joins the main sewer en route to Farringdon Road and the Thames.
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