THE INDEPENDENT TRAVELLER: Street of Fame: 1: FLEET STREET: Where the papers are just old news

The press may still call it home, but this London thoroughfare is actually far more important than that.
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Typical newspaper hack, you are thinking, assuming that the rest of the world will find the road christened "Street of Shame" by Private Eye remotely interesting. But ignore all the newspaper connections along the brief one-third of a mile that comprises Fleet Street, and the tourist will find a thoroughfare stacked with history and intrigue.

Queen Victoria, opens the proceedings, gazing sternly out from a monument in the middle of the road. As open-top buses squeeze past - Fleet Street is bang in the middle of the tourist highway - you discover this is the border between the cities of Westminster and London. "Temple Bar formerly stood here" proclaims the inscription, referring to Sir Christopher Wren's gatehouse that once guarded the entrance to the City.

Fleet Street starts here, right beside the scaffold-clad Royal Courts of Justice. Queen Victoria is scowling at 1 Fleet Street, where Child's Bank issued the first banknotes in London in 1729. It is the first of a whole wad of fine banks, and its singular speciality is a collection of rifles in a glass case alongside some sublime marble pillars. Close by, a glimpse into Middle Temple Lane reveals a vision of film-set London, all cobbles and galleries and (thanks to the lawyers) extravagant apparel.

Meanwhile, Prince Albert gazes from his side of the plinth at 194; the numbers run sequentially down the south face to Ludgate Circus, then back along the north side. No 194 has two identities: latterly, Fuller's Ale and Pie House, but the stout neo-classical building is more notable as the Old Bank of England.

The street owes its name to the River Fleet, which flowed from Hampstead to reach the Thames at Blackfriars, a line now followed by Farringdon Street. If the traffic seems intense, bear in mind that the first stretch - as far as Fetter Lane - is part of the A4, the highway from London to the West.

Most of the residents have vacated Fleet Street. At weekends the pavements are as blank as fresh newsprint, but many notable characters are celebrated in stone. The best agglomeration is at St Dunstan's-in-the-West, which narrowly survived the Great Fire of London. Outside, Elizabeth I stands aloof in a niche, while three flamboyant characters in stone cloaks stand frozen in the porch. But the interior is the real draw, an airy octagon that includes an overpowering Romanian Orthodox altar.

So far, most doors are firmly closed to Street outsiders. But at the foot of Chancery Lane, a huddle of half-timbered galleried houses is open for visitors. At no 17, the Street's one genuine tourist attraction is Prince Henry's Room. Complete with fine 17th-century ceiling and oak panelling - and an exhibition about the life of Samuel Pepys, one of the Street's most celebrated residents - it is one of the most exquisite chambers in London.

Though its narrow profile shadows the line of an ancient Roman road that skirted the north bank of the Thames, Fleet Street does not easily reveal views of the river; try the prospect at the top of Bouverie Street, where the Oxo Tower on the South Bank is clearly visible. The eastern end of Fleet Street provides a much better perspective, with St Paul's Cathedral rising above the crowd of modern office blocks.

The characters get interesting east of here. Mary Queen of Scots stands daintily above Val Ceno's pasta bar, while on the south side the journalist and parliamentarian, T P O'Connor, is commended alongside the Halifax: "His pen could lay bare the bones of a book or the soul of a statesman in a few vivid lines."

A lantern swinging above the entrance to one of the many courts that creep away from the street announces Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Tourists trudging from a coach into Dr Johnson's favourite local might persuade you to steer well clear, but in fact this impeccably traditional English hostelry provides decent beer and excellent food.

As with most of the half-dozen pubs along the street, it closes early each evening. The character of Fleet Street changes dramatically as the sun goes down; humanity vanishes. Yet for most of the 20th century it was the one street in the capital, and the country, that was guaranteed to be lively around the clock. All the national newspapers were edited and printed in the vicinity. The most illustrious relic of the days that ended in acrimony, Wapping and Canary Wharf is the old Daily Telegraph building at Peterborough Court, designed by Elcock and Sutcliffe. The 1928 structure uses green and black marble in clean, elegant neo-Classical lines that owe much to Egypt. The huge clock hanging outside adds a rare flash of colour, a blue face made up with shafts of colour that look as though they were lifted straight from the London Underground map.

The hulk is now occupied by the financial giant Goldman Sachs, which has also taken over the beautifully bulbous building adjacent, Mersey House, at 133.

From here, your view of the south side of Fleet Street is dominated by the handsome bulk of Sir Edwin Lutyens' Reuters HQ; journalists work around the clock in Fleet Street still, but the output of this news agency appears on screens rather than news-stands. Samuel Pepys was born in a house on this site.

Almost at the eastern end, a steeple closely resembling a wedding cake pokes into the heavens. Closer inspection reveals this to belong to one of the most remarkable churches in the capital. Christopher Wren completed its post-Great Fire rebuilding in 1680. Four days after Christmas, 1940, a bomb landed at 6.45pm and the church was gutted by fire. The raid revealed hidden Roman remains in the crypt of the present St Bride's, which is the eighth incarnation of a Christian church on this site. Wren topped his version with the highest steeple he ever built. The concentric octagonal drums disappearing skyward provided the inspiration for the first-ever wedding cake - Bride's, get it?

Despite the nearest newspaper being the Express, across the river, St Bride's is also known as the Printers' Cathedral (or the Journalists' Church, depending on your occupation). Half a millennium ago, the first printing press with moveable type in the City of London was established here. The printing industry took hold, then newspapers began: the first was the Daily Courant, which started life in a house "next door to the King's Head Tavern at Fleet Bridge", according to the fascinating museum in the crypt of St Bride's. You also see the foundations, from Roman through Saxon and Norman, of a church that was, and is, at the heart of the capital, clustered in history and culture.

Fleet Street, it seems, is the strand of urban DNA from which the rest of London evolved.

Streetwise: for the west end of Fleet Street, the most convenient Tube station is Temple; walk 200 yards north along Arundel Street, and turn right at the Strand for another 200 yards to Temple Bar. For the east end, take a train to City Thameslink or a Tube to Blackfriars. Buses 4, 11, 15, 23, 26 and 76 run the length of Fleet Street.

Prince Henry's Room and Samuel Pepys Exhibition at 17 Fleet Street is open 11am-2pm, Mon to Sat. St Bride's church is open 8am-4.45pm Mon to Fri, 9am-4.45pm on Sat and 9.30am-12.30pm Sun.

Recommended reading: `Walks of Central London' by David Backhouse, published by Brown Eyed Sheep at pounds 6.50

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