My piece on the last two journalists to check out of Fleet Street in the Sunday Magazine of The Hindu
It was summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and one half of London’s Fleet Street was awash in sunshine. Long shadows fell on the other. I could see St. Paul’s looming large at the end of the street, but that could wait. It was Saint Bride’s Church that I was looking for.
Famously called the Journalists’ Church, it is still dubbed the ‘spiritual home of journalism’ in the United Kingdom. Still, because Fleet Street, once the hub of the newspaper industry in London and the U.K., is today just a term used collectively for the British press.
The Street has gone pale for decades now, and in August, the last two journalists working on Fleet Street left the building. They had been working at Sunday Post , a DC Thomson publication, which lately closed its London offices.
Darryl Smith, a Fleet Street journalist with 25 years of experience, and Gavin Sherriff, with over 30 years of work, became celebrities. After all, they were the last two to leave the Street, which has a history that dates to the Roman era.
It was in the early 16th century that the Street became associated with the printed word. Wynkyn de Worde, a publisher and printer, set up the first printing press on Fleet Street in the yard of St. Bride’s Church. Why the church, you wonder? Simple. Fleet Street was where the clergy, among the most literate of all classes, lived.
As I steppedinto St. Bride’s Church, all was quiet. There was an exhibition in the Crypt, and what an eye-opener that turned out to be. The Crypt itself was discovered after the Church was bombed during the time of the Blitz (World War II) and the floor of the church was destroyed. The Crypt was excavated in 1953, and it is said that many skeletal remains of those who perished during the Great Plague of the 17th century are contained there.
There are old gravestones, coffins and some engravings and sketches worth a look. One of the exhibits that caught my attention was the front page of The Evening News with headlines about the bombing of the church.
Having taken in the history of the church, I continued walking on the Street to stop at a blue plaque — the first London and English daily newspaper The Daily Courant was published in a house near the plaque way back in 1702. The first issue of the Courant was brought out on March 11 that year. That marked the beginning of the newspaper industry on the Street.
My next stop was the famous Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub that came with huge recommendations. This historic pub, the signage says, was rebuilt in 1667, making it among the oldest in London. The pub finds mention in A Tale of Two Cities as does Fleet Street. Stepping in, I found a dark entrance lit by golden lamps, a fireplace and wooden benches. I ordered my ale and walked down to the cellar full of surprises — old wooden barrels, caskets and vintage bottles all adding charm to the place. To think this was the pub that Sydney Carton leads Charles Darnay to “down Ludgate-hill to Fleet Street, and so, up a covered way into a tavern.” Travel guides invariably recommend a visit to this pub, and although Fleet Street hacks perceive it as “touristy”, the pub is a great experience. I, for one, loved the fries that came wrapped in paper reminiscent of old newsprint.
Talking about pubs and Fleet Street, you can’t help but talk of Michael Frayn’s definitive Fleet Street novel, Towards the End of the Morning (first published in 1967). In his introduction, Frayn writes of how the Street “had its own characteristic smell”. “I can catch the delicious ghost of it in my nostrils now, and at once I’m back at the beginning of my career, struggling to conceal my awe and excitement at having at last arrived in this longed-for land.” He goes on to say that it is not just the smell of newsprint that the Street signified, but the “warm beery breath from doorways with titles above them as familiar as the mastheads on the papers themselves...” Every paper had its own go-to pub, according to Street experts. Printer’s Devil for The Mirror , King and Keys for Telegraph , and so on.
For Sherriff, who calls himself the last Fleet Street chief reporter, the go-to pub was always Cock Tavern. Over email, he tells me, “I remember my early days when all the pubs were full of journalists exchanging gossip. Today we do this via Facebook, Twitter, etc.”
Ask Smith, the other journalist who said goodbye to Fleet Street, about his favourite pub, and he reveals, “It will probably make some of the old journalists who worked on the Street in the past 314 years choke on their real ale if they knew that one of the last two journalists on the famous old Street never had anything stronger than a lager shandy. That said, I did like The Punch Tavern, just because of the history of the place. It has been open 200-odd years (at least) and still has the same frontage as you walk in. I love the history of some of the buildings on Fleet Street. When you see old photos you can make out all the same buildings today, even if they are now sandwich bars, bistros and financial institutions.”
During my walk on the Street, I stopped at an address that said 72-78 Fleet Street (Chronicle House). It is now full of offices; wealth management firms, recruiters, and costs lawyers, among others. I went online and found an old image that says Chronicle House was marked as a public air raid shelter during World War II.
But change is at the heart of all life, and Fleet Street is no exception. After all, River Fleet, which gives the Street its name, is today just a sewer. The character of the Street has seen constant flux, and naturally so. No man ever steps into the same Street twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man, with apologies to that great philosopher Heraclitus.
Savitha Karthik is a freelance journalist, blogger and content writer
based out of Bengaluru.