Once the hub of UK national newspapers, Fleet Street, after breaking its 300-year bond with the press when Reuters moved to Canary Wharf in 2005, now looks like any other street in London.
Yet many journalists – including those who have never worked there – still retain a strong connection to the area. And for those saddened by the great exodus of the 1980s the Ghosts of Fleet Street tour aims to bring back the spirit of the past.
It is run by journalism history expert Dr Matthew Green, who begins the tour at Ave Maria Lane, near to St Paul’s, before leading his audience down Ludgate Circus, through the old gates of London, over the unseen river Fleet and into the former heartland of the newspaper industry.
Accompanied by five performers, Green attempts to bring Fleet Street back to life – circus animals, floating corpses and prostitutes replace Pret-a-Mangers, coffee shops and bankers.
Green, who has completed a PhD at Oxford University on the birth of London’s mass media, can not only recite his well-researched script off by heart, but knows the industry’s history inside out and takes awkward questions into his stride.
The tour begins at Stationers’ Hall, the recent setting for the British Journalism Awards. Where else? For it was here that the industry was born, Green explains.
As well as getting a potted history of the 600-year-old building, we meet the eccentric Wynkyn de Worde, one of the founders of the popular printing press in London.
It doesn’t take long for Green to get political. He shows us a glimpse of the 17th century London under statutory regulation – when the boisterous Sir Roger l’Estrange censored journalistic output – and the free ‘brave new world’ that followed when l’Estrange started his own paper.
Green makes no secret of where he stands after the Leveson Report: Yes, some of the things the News of the World did were wrong, but any form of regulation underpinned by the state would be “the start of a slippery slope”.
He later reveals that it was only after a significant loosening of state censorship that London’s first daily newspaper – the Daily Courant – was launched in 1702.
Founded at the bottom of Ludgate Hill, overlooking the Fleet river (now Blackfriars Road) – clogged with “sewage, dead dogs and suicide victims” – the title started a “news storm” that soon spread to neighbouring Fleet Street.
It is impossible not to feel disappointment as Green leads us over the river and onto the legendary street itself.
Relics of the former newspapers are still there – old signs for the Telegraph and Express, pubs and St Bride’s Church – but there is, sadly, little to differentiate it from other streets in the area now.
The Ghosts of Fleet Street tour makes a commendable effort to change this and to resurrect the old world of journalism – if only for two hours.
Press Gazette has two pairs of tickets to give away for the next tour. To be in with a chance of winning click here.