Charles Dickens. Royal Exchange. London Tours. Leadenhall Market. Diagon Alley.
Go left into Hart Street, where a brief history of St Olave’s Church is displayed on the north wall. Continue ahead, admiring the colourful frontage of the Ship Tavern on the left, then go right along Mark Lane, and just after the ancient tower of All Hallows Staining (c.1320), veer left along Star Alley. Follow it as it sweeps right onto Fenchurch Street, where you turn left. Take the first right to pass through Fen Court, an unprepossessing throughway where several gravestones and table-top tombs bring to mind Dickens’s comments on the area in The Uncommercial Traveller: ‘Rot and mildew and dead citizens formed the uppermost scent…’
Turn left onto Fenchurch Avenue, and as the gleaming modernity of the Lloyd’s Building looms over you, go left along Lime Street, then right into Leadenhall Place to keep ahead into the exquisitely ornate:-
Leadenhall Market, which was designed in 1881 by the architect Horace Jones. Dickens mentioned the market’s predecessor in Pickwick Papers, Dombey and Son (1847–48), and also in Nicholas Nickleby when Tim Linkinwater dismisses life in the country with the observation that ‘I can buy new-laid eggs in Leadenhall Market any morning before breakfast’. Despite the presence of numerous modern enterprises found on many a British high street, the market still retains some of its more traditional businesses such as fishmongers and butchers. In recent years the market has featured in the Harry Potter films as Diagon Alley.
Having continued ahead through what is without doubt London’s most beautiful Victorian market, go over Gracechurch Street and keep ahead into St Peter’s Alley. On the right is:-
St Peter’s-upon-Cornhill, the church of the ‘great golden keys’ as Dickens called it in The Uncommercial Traveller. Indeed, those keys still surmount the gateway to the peaceful churchyard in which local office workers while away their weekday lunch hours. The surroundings have changed beyond recognition since Dickens described the churchyard in Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) as having ‘… a paved square court, with a raised bank of earth about breast high, in the middle, enclosed by iron rails. Here, conveniently and healthfully elevated above the level of the living, were the dead, and the tombstones; some of the latter droopingly inclined from the perpendicular, as if they were ashamed of the lies they told… ’
Follow the alley as it bends right and at its end turn left along Cornhill where, in A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit ‘went down a slide… twenty times in honour of its being Christmas-eve’. Continue, passing on the left the Church of St Michael, after which take the second left into Ball Court, where the everyday noise of the traffic is reduced to a murmur. Continue, passing the traditional city eatery of Simpson’s, which has been expanding the midriffs of city gentlemen with its mutton chops and roast beef dinners since 1757. Hurry through the gloomy passageway to the left, out of which go left again.
It was within this maze of alleyways that Dickens placed the counting house of A Christmas Carol’s Ebenezer Scrooge. In this quaint, atmospheric backwater of twisting passageways and dark courtyards, time appears to have stood still, and it is not difficult to conjure up images of Scrooge’s neighbours ‘wheezing up and down, beating their hands on their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them’.
Further along the alley on the right you arrive at a ‘very good old fashioned and comfortable quarters, to wit, the George and Vulture’, a true landmark of Dickensian London. This charming old hostelry became Mr Pickwick’s London base following the lawsuit brought against him by his landlady Mrs Bardell. Its main entrance is situated on the next right in St Michael’s Alley. A well-polished brass nameplate, on which you can just about discern the name by which Dickens would have known it, ‘Thomas’s Chop House’, adorns its outside wall. A timeless aura permeates its snug atmospheric interior, where portraits and photographs of Dickens, together with likenesses of many of his characters and scenes from his novels, adorn the walls.
From the George and Vulture, go right along St Michael’s Alley, then right through the arched brick passageway of Bengal Court, pass through an enclosed courtyard and keep ahead, turning right along Birchin Lane. On arriving back on Cornhill, go over the crossing, off which bear left, then first right into Royal Exchange Buildings. Opposite the bust of Paul Julius Reuter (1816–99), ‘founder of the world news organization that bears his name’, go left through the gates and step inside the:-
Royal Exchange. An information board provides a detailed history of the building, which was founded in the 16th century by city Banker Sir Thomas Gresham. Queen Victoria opened the present building in October 1844; it was recently restored to its 19th-century splendour, and now houses exclusive shops.
Once inside, ascend any of the corner stairways and make your way round the walkway to view the canvasses by several Victorian artists, including Lord Leighton, that show the ‘rich and varied history’ of the City of London. References to the Royal Exchange are to be found in many of Dickens’s works, including Sketches by Boz, A Christmas Carol, Little Dorrit and Great Expectations (1860–61).
Having passed through the Royal Exchange, descend the steps of its magnificent portico and pause to look over at the sturdy, grey bulk of the Bank of England, which is mentioned several times in Dickens’s novels. Bear left from the steps, cross Cornhill, and keep ahead through the narrow Pope’s Head Alley to arrive at Lombard Street.
It was here that Dickens’s first great love, Maria Beadnell (1811–86), lived. In those days, the city hereabouts was residential as well as mercantile, and innumerable merchants, bankers, businessmen and their families lived in this bustling quarter. Maria’s father, George, was manager of Smith, Payne and Smith’s Bank at No 1 Lombard Street, and the family lived at No 2. It is not known how the 18-year-old Dickens met the dark-haired, dark-eyed and much admired Maria, but by 1830 he had fallen head over heels in love with her. She was 13 months his senior, capricious by nature, and for four years she toyed with his feelings, even – there is evidence to suggest – agreeing to a clandestine engagement. Maria’s family, whilst welcoming the poor young reporter into their home, never considered him a serious suitor for their daughter – her mother never even managed to learn his proper name and referred to him as ‘Mr Dickin’ – and sent her out of his way to finishing school in France. When Maria returned, her attitude towards him had cooled considerably and, as their relationship entered its final throes, Dickens would walk to Lombard Street in the early hours of the morning just to gaze upon the place where Maria slept.