diamond geezer

 Sunday, August 21, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet

We're nearly in respectable Clerkenwell, but not quite. There's still one more dive to go, a low-lying depression once called Hockley-in-the-Hole - a name long since erased from the map. Around 1700 this was where the Fleet crossed the northern edge of London, with fields to the north and squalid slums to the south. Hockley-in-the-Hole soon became an infamous resort of the working classes. Here London's low-life gathered in the natural amphitheatre of the Fleet valley to watch and engage in a bit of heavy blood sport. Violent pastimes such as cock-fighting and bear-baiting may have fallen out favour with the middle classes, but local thugs, riff-raff and (especially) butchers flocked here for a quick fix of gore and death, or maybe just a good street brawl.
"Being a Person of insatiable Curiosity, I could not forbear going on Wednesday last to a Place of no small Renown for the Gallantry of the lower Order of Britons, namely, to the Bear-Garden at Hockley in the Hole; where (as a whitish brown Paper, put into my Hands in the Street, inform'd me) there was to be a Tryal of Skill to be exhibited between two Masters of the Noble Science of Defence, at two of the Clock precisely." (Richard Steele, July 1712)

"At the Bear Garden in Hockley in the Hole, near Clerkenwell Green, this present Monday, there is a great match to be fought by two Dogs of Smith-field Bars against two Dogs of Hampstead, at the Reading Bull, for one guinea to be spent; five lets goes out of hand; which goes fairest and farthest in wins all. The famous Bull of fire-works, which pleased the gentry to admiration. Likewise there are two Bear-Dogs to jump three jumps apiece at the Bear, which jumps highest for ten shillings to be spent. Also variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting; it being a day of general sport by all the old gamesters; and a bull-dog to be drawn up with fire-works. Beginning at three o'clock." (early 18th century advert)
About 100 years ago the deep depression at Hockley-in-the-Hole was (at least partially) filled in and the slums were cleared away. Today the ASBO'd classes have moved on, and the area is now more famous as the site of the Guardian newspaper's main offices. The Coach and Horses pub (and the Guardian's car park) now stand on the site of the bloody ring where the dogfights, bullfights and swordfights once took place. It's much more peaceful here now, shielded downslope from the busy Farringdon Road, which is quiet enough for a modern encounter with the lost River Fleet. Stand outside the pub in the middle of Ray Street next to an anonymous-looking metal drain cover and you should still be able to hear the waters of the Fleet rushing along through the sewers, several feet beneath the ground. Well I've heard them anyway, just the once, but this historical phenomenon does rather depend on the weather. And if you're ever riding a number 38 Routemaster along Rosebery Avenue, try looking down from the top deck as you cross the bridge over Warner Street (yes, this really is a proper river valley) and see if you can still imagine thugs and vagabonds in the streets below yelling their support for battling bears, or just beating the hell out of each other for a laugh.
Following the Fleet: Warner Street, Ray Street

Some bits of the Guardian's website you may not have stumbled upon before:
the newsblog (much plagued by ranting drivel from amateur US political pundits)
the Culture Vulture blog (all the latest arty stuff)
the over-by-over Cricket commentaries (for fans of flannel)
the talkboards (the most popular news & politics discussion site in Europe, apparently)
the latest TV ratings (requires registration)
the Guardian stylebook (learn how to write proper)
Ask Jack (your computer's favourite agony uncle)
Notes & Queries (strange answers to even stranger questions)

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