'The raw afternoon is the rawest, and the dense fog is the densest, and the muddy streets are the muddiest, near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden headed old corporation: Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.' Charles Dickens, Bleak House.
Following in the steps of Charles Dickens and in the very capable hands of our guide, Owen, Ipswich Society members enjoyed an excellent day exploring Legal London in an intriguing area around Aldwych, tucked out of everyday sight behind alleys, facades and gates. The day was not at all as foggy as Dickens describes in this excerpt from Bleak House, but the complexity of how the Inns of Court and the legal system in general operate was fascinating learning for us all.
We started with morning coffee at the George on the Strand, founded as a Coffee House in 1763. Beamed and narrow, with arches and steep stairs, we had very friendly service here and also a first rate lunch later on in the day.
Owen explained that barristers belong to one of the four Inns of Court: Middle Temple, Inner Temple, Lincoln's Inn or Gray's Inn, which all sit on the boundary of the cities of London and Westminster - looking and serving both ways. They can best be described as similar to Oxbridge colleges - originally people lived, studied and worked in these establishments; they have halls for communal dining, libraries, gardens and chapels.
Firstly, we visited Middle Temple, seeing the garden with Fountain Court, standing under the mulberry tree mentioned in Martin Chuzzlewit, admiring the magnificent plane trees, wisteria, lawns and peacefulness. Middle and Inner Temples once stretched all the way to the Thames and Owen was superb at bringing to life the history and characters who walked these ways, such as Dr Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Dickens himself and John Mortimer's Rumpole.
We visited Middle Temple Hall, just being laid for lunch (lunch can be pre-booked here by anyone - see their website for details). This grand hall, built about 1570, has an impressive double hammer beam roof and a fine oak screen. Elizabeth I came here in the early 1600s to see a production of Twelfth Night, a production in which Shakespeare himself was one of the players. The 29 foot-long high table, made from single oak planks was a gift from her. A lantern and table top were said to come from the Golden Hind.
The Hall is a place where experienced lawyers and students meet to discuss points of law over meals and students have to attend a certain number of dinners in their hall as part of their training. A would-be barrister, once having got his or her law degree, has to do bar professional training for a further year, then a year's pupillage and then get a place in a set of chambers. Work is allocated by the Chief Clerk of a chamber and the young barrister looks to build a reputation so that work does come his or her way. The law is not necessarily a highly lucrative profession â€“ students are often poorly paid and, for example, barristers working in criminal or human rights fields, can get paid a lot less than those working in tax! Over recent years, women have become much more equal in terms of becoming barristers and having access to the legal hierarchy.
Other sights seen were Pump Court, the Temple Church (of, amongst other things, Da Vinci code fame), and Dr. Johnson's buildings. This was followed by a brief visit to the Royal Courts of Justice, which hears High Court civil appeals, for example high-profile libel cases, and family disputes. The Leveson enquiry was also held here. Over lunchtime, we had time to revisit the Royal Courts and also the RAF church of St Clement Danes.
After lunch, we took a short coach trip around the area to see the Central Criminal Court, commonly known as the Old Bailey, and various other interesting buildings: former newspaper offices on Fleet Street, the church of St Dunstan in the West, old pubs and bars, the Stock Exchange, Smithfield meat market, Gray's Inn, St Paul'sâ€¦ the vibrancy of history, ancient and modern, all around us.
Alighting at Lincoln's Inn, where Dr John Donne was once chaplain, we stood in the garden and viewed its buildings, including the huge hall and the stone built garden hut with a memorial to William Pitt the Younger. Lincoln's Inn had a reputation for taking in orphans and legend has it that, were a baby to be left at its gates, the child would be brought up within the Inn and most likely have the surname of Lincoln. (Owen mentioned that he is careful about this tale when showing round American visitors!) Almost, then, at the end of our tour, we passed Ede and Ravenscroft, where barristers' wigs are sold (still made from horsehair) and gowns of wool or, for QCs, silk (hence the phrase, 'taking silk').
So many interesting stories, explanations and anecdotes from our guide made this such a rich tour, full of enjoyable and extremely satisfying learning. Together with our driver, Gavin, who had some difficult London driving to do for us and the superb organisation of the whole day by Barbara Barker, this was a day to be remembered. Thank you for all of it.