London: noisy, crowded, constantly swept along with the tide of history. Except for a few pockets of tranquility that can take you back in time to the childhood of Charles Dickens, or even further back, to the first productions of Shakespeare’s plays.
The Inns of Court still function today as professional barristers’ associations, and all barristers in England and Wales must belong to one of them. Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple, Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn, however, are more than dry institutions. Step through their gates (if you can find them – you’ll need to know the hidden gateways in their walls) and you find yourself in quiet squares of historical buildings from the 16th to the 19th century, mere feet away from bustling Holburn or Fleet Street.
The 13th century Gray’s Inn has a strong literary pedigree. Slip through a passageway next to the Cittie of Yorke pub, and you’re in Grays’ Inn’s South Square, opposite the Elizabethan Gray’s Inn Hall. The hall was the venue for the first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s early comedy, The Comedy of Errors, at Christmas 1594.
Last week I was in the audience for a brilliant new production of the play, by Antic Disposition, in the same elegantly-panelled hall. I think Shakespeare would have enjoyed the frenetic, slapstick pace that the performers gave this tricky play, not to mention the accomplished live jazz band. The portrait of Elizabeth I’s spymaster Francis Walsingham, looking down with unamused disapproval from the wall, was a reminder that not all members of the Inn appreciated the ‘base and common fellows’ who made up the itinerant acting companies of the day.
Outside, across South Square, is the window of the office where the 15-year-old Charles Dickens sat, his sharp eyes no doubt picking up everything and noting it down, for later use in the many depictions of lawyers in his novels.
The Inn has a wonderful garden with lawns and roses, which you can glimpse if you take the other entrance, off Jockey Fields. The Inn has been unfortunate in the loss of several buildings to fire and bombing, including the 13th century chapel and the 16th century library. However, it retains an atmosphere of secluded antiquity which makes it well worth a visit.
Grays’ Inn is taking part in Open House London on September 18, with tours including the Hall and Library.
Photo: Scott Rylander