Our regular page revealing a trio of lesser- known stories from EC1.
1. SLOUGH HOUSE
In real life, spies are based in the imposing MI6 building in Vauxhall. But fictional spooks tend to have less conspicuous headquarters. John le Carré’s George Smiley operated out of the “The Circus” in Cambridge Circus. Universal Exports, the cover for James Bond, was tucked away near Regent’s Park.
Now the secret agents have arrived in Clerkenwell – although they’re not exactly the best of the best. Slough House is the fictional HQ in Mick Herron’s thrillers, which are being adapted for TV. Based near Barbican tube, it’s an MI5 dumping ground for members of the Security Service who’ve messed up. Exiled to Aldersgate Street, EC1, the hope is these misfits will resign and go quietly. Herron’s books – including Slow Horses, Real Tigers and Spook Street – feature the slobby Jackson Lamb. He’s a slightly comical character, although he also has to save the day. If you’re intrigued by espionage in EC1, head to Furnival Street. The Chancery Lane deep-level shelter was a network of tunnels controlled by the Inter Services Research Bureau branch of MI6 during the war. It was later a telephone exchange, though may have housed a secret MoD war bunker in the Eighties. The tunnels are now decommissioned – the only clue is a non- descript fire exit.
2. THE BIRD
‘The Bird of Lincoln’s Inn’ was a largely forgotten London haunting – that is, until the mystery was recently investigated by The Fortean Times. Lincoln’s Inn is associated with the legal profession, of course, so it’s no surprise that two victims of the spectral bird were barristers. But the first was a poet, Lionel Johnson. He’s best known for his work “The Dark Angel” (1893). A premonition, perhaps?
On 16 May, 1901, a pair of Daily Mail journalists provided the main account. After Johnson fled in terror, they were tipped off and staked out the rooms at 8 New Square overnight. Within an hour, doors started opening and slamming by themselves. By 2.45am, the ghosthunters had had enough. When they left, they discovered claw marks in the chalk dust they had scattered on the floor. In 1913, the feathered fiend struck again – and this time two young lawyers died in separate incidents. They were found with large claw marks on their arms and neck. Witnesses described a man “fighting a shadowy bird-like creature”. The Fortean Times speculates that the vengeful spirit may have something to do with the area’s grisly history of executions. But the ‘Bird’ has been quiet for the last century – now it’s just pigeons at Lincoln’s Inn.
3. ROSETTA STONE
This issue, we’ve featured the Mail Rail, the underground postal service that ran for nearly 80 years from Mount Pleasant to other sorting offices all over London. The network wasn’t used just for moving post, however. During the First World War, it came in handy for something else – hiding the nation’s precious artworks and treasures. Luckily, work on the tunnels had already started by 1914 and was completed in 1917. Then everything came to a halt, as the war effort meant materials were scarce.
It took until 1927 for the first letters to roll down the tracks but in the meantime, some bright spark in the War Office had the genius idea of using the empty tunnels as a safe for “our valuables”. Among them was one of the most famous objects from the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone, an Egyptian carving from 196BC (found in 1799 in a town called Rosetta). It’s so significant because, thanks to it being written in three different scripts, it enabled us – finally – to decipher hieroglyphics. The stone basically brags about the pharaoh’s great achievements. No such thing for our leaders these days, hem…