I doubt that Riceyman Steps would be the first title you thought of if I challenged you to name something by Arnold Bennett, even though it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1923. You’d be more likely to come up with one of his stories set in the Five Towns, and to think of him as a Northern writer. Riceyman Steps, though, is a London novel, set in a specific and still recognisable part of Clerkenwell. But how much of it still stands? Join Arnold and me on a little tour and we’ll find out.
On an autumn afternoon of 1919 a hatless man with a slight limp might have been observed ascending the gentle, broad acclivity of Riceyman Steps, which lead from King’s Cross Road to Riceyman Square in the great metropolitan industrial district of Clerkenwell.
The real Riceyman Steps is now called Gwynne Place and leads up from King’s Cross Road to Granville Square (Riceyman Square in the book). The buildings at the top, the backs of numbers 33 and 34 Granville Square are just the same as in Bennett’s day.
Riceyman Steps, twenty in number, are divided by a half-landing into two series of ten.
Actually there are fifteen steps below the half landing and eleven above, but let’s not quibble.
The man stopped on the half-landing… Below him and straight in front he saw a cobbled section of King’s Cross Road.
Sadly, what you now see looking down is the back view of the Travelodge Hotel.
On the far side of the road were, conspicuous to the right, the huge, red Nell Gwynn Tavern, set on the site of Nell’s still huger palace.
All that’s left of the Nell Gwynne Tavern is this plaque marking the site of Bagnigge House, Nell Gwynne’s summer residence. The carving on it says: “This is Bagnigge House, neare The Pindar Wakefeilde 1680”. It’s set into the wall of number 63 King’s Cross Road and is obscured by the bus shelter that’s been sited in front of it. Thanks, TFL.
Conspicuous to the left, red Rowton House, surpassing in immensity even Nell’s vanished palace, divided into hundreds and hundreds of clean cubicles for the accommodation of the defeated and the futile at a few coppers a night.
Rowton House has been replaced by a Holiday Inn, which at least provides the same looming red presence, though you’ll be paying more than a few coppers a night for its rather more salubrious cubicles.
Nearer to the man..lay the tiny open space (not open to vehicular traffic) which was officially included in the title “Riceyman Steps”. At the south corner of this was a second-hand bookseller’s shop and at the north an abandoned and decaying mission hall; both of these abutted on King’s Cross Road.
None of that has survived, which is a shame as the secondhand bookshop was Henry Earlforward’s shop, where the tragic story plays out. I did have hopes that the odd red brick building on the north side, mysteriously left standing when the Travelodge was built, would turn out to be the mission hall, but it was actually built in 1924 when fire destroyed the previous buildings on the site.
Riceyman Square had been built round St Andrew’s in the hungry forties. It had been built all at once, according to plan; it had form. The three-storey houses (with areas and basements) were all alike, and were grouped together in sections by triangular pediments with ornamentations thereon in a degenerate Regency style.
I think I’ve caught Arnold out here. Those pediments are typical of houses on the Lloyd Baker Estate, built between 1820 and 1840. They line neighbouring Lloyd Baker St and Lloyd Square, now gentrified almost beyond recognition.
But the houses in Granville Square aren’t in the typical Lloyd Baker style. Thy were the last to be built, in 1839 and standards had slipped. The pediments which Bennett describes were never there.
St Andrew’s Church had architecturally nothing to recommend it. The churchyard was a garden flanked by iron rails and by plane trees.
St Andrew’s (actually St Phillip’s) stood in the centre of Granville Square until 1936 when it was demolished, probably to nobody’s great regret. The churchyard garden hasn’t changed.
I was hoping to find some interesting remnants of the Clerkenwell Mr Earlforward and Mrs Arb saw on their Sunday walk but there’s not a lot left.
In a few minutes they were at the corner of a vast square – you could have put four Riceymans into it – of lofty reddish houses, sombre and shabby, with a great railed garden and great trees in the middle and a wide roadway round.
“Look at that,” said Mr Earlforward eagerly, pointing to the sign. “Wilmington Square. Ever heard of it before?”
I’m not sure why we should be so impressed with Wilmington Square, but anyway, here it is.
Coldbath Square easily surpassed even Riceyman Square in squalor and foulness; and it was far more picturesque and deeper sunk in antiquity, save for the huge awful block of tenements in the middle.
I was looking forward to the squalor and antiquity of Coldbath Square, but it’s all been swept away or tidied up.
They were passing through a narrow, very short alley of small houses which closed the vista of one of the towering congeries of modern tenement-blocks abounding in the region. The alley, christened a hundred years earlier, “Model Cottages”, was silent and deserted in strange contrast to the gigantic though half-hidden swarming of the granite tenements. The front doors abutted on the alley without even the transition of a raised step.
Another disappointment, as Model Cottages is now full of contemporary houses. I did find a doorway which might be the one where Mrs Arb borrowed a copy of the News of the World to check her advertisement, though.
Luckily St James’s on Clerkenwell Green didn’t disappoint.
They got to the quarter of the great churches.
“Would you care to go in?” he asked her in front of St James’s. For he desired beyond almost anything to sit down.
“I think it’s really too late now,” she replied.
But St John’s Priory Church was not so fortunate.
There were no seats round about St John’s. Mr. Earlforward stood on one leg while Mrs. Arb deciphered the tablet on the west front.
‘“The Priory Church of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, consecrated by Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, 10th March 1185.” Fancy that, now! It doesn’t look quite that old. Fancy them knowing the day of the month, too.’
I found the tablet, but now it also records the destruction of the church in 1941.
He was too preoccupied and tortured to instruct her. He would have led her home then; but she saw in the distance at the other side of St John’s Square, a view of St John’s Gate, the majestic relic of the Priory. Quite properly she said that she must see it close.
And so must we, ending our Clerkenwell tour.