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Legal Eagles at the Inns of Court

Soak up the atmosphere of these hidden alleys and squares that featured in many of Dickens' novels.

Distance 1.5 miles (2.4km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient 49ft (15m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Paved streets and some cobbled alleys

Landscape Alleyways and buildings of architectural interest

Suggested map AA Street by Street London

Temple tubeHolborn tube

Dog friendliness Not allowed in many streets

Public toilets Lincoln's Inn Fields

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1 Turn left at the exit to Temple tube and up a set of steps. Turn right into Temple Place. At the end go left into Milford Lane then, after a few more paces, go up another series of steps, into Inner Temple. Turn right by the Edgar Wallace pub into Devreux Court, walk under the archway and go down the steps to Fountain Court.

2 Bear left under an archway into Middle Temple, past a small fountain and garden and up the steps, then bear right through some cloisters to reach the Temple Church. Go through an archway to the right of the church, then left through another archway and along a cobbled alley to Fleet Street.

3 Turn left along Fleet Street and cross at the pedestrian lights. After the Old Bank of England pub turn right into Bell Yard and continue ahead on the path that runs alongside the Royal Courts of Justice. Turn left and then right into New Square and follow the avenue of trees.

4 Take the path on the far right along Stone Buildings and, ahead, go through the gates that lead to Chancery Lane. Cross this road and turn right into the street called Southampton Buildings. After just 20yds (18m) this veers sharply left, past the London Silver Vaults. Cross High Holborn and pass through a gateway to Gray's Inn on the right. A few paces further, after Gray's Inn Hall, turn left into Field Court.

5 Continue to the end then turn right and go up the steps into Jockeys Fields. Bear left along Bedford Row and take the second road on the left, Hand Court. Just past the Bunghole Cellars at the end, turn right along High Holborn to reach Holborn tube.

The compact area highlighted here between Temple and Fleet Street is home to some fine buildings that survived the Great Fire of London. Not only that, but to walk through this great legal institution is to take a step back in time. Charles Dickens, who was a keen walker and often covered 20 miles (32km) in a day, was a frequent visitor to the area and used it as the setting for some of his novels.

Born to parents who lived beyond their means, Dickens first saw the darker side of life when his father was imprisoned for debt. He went to work in a shoe-blacking factory and it was this experience that formed the basis of his views on the injustice of poverty and that broadened his scope and insight. At the age of 15 he spent a year as a solicitor's clerk in Gray's Inn. Later he mastered the art of shorthand and took a job as a reporter on the Morning Herald before producing a series of pieces for monthly and weekly publications, writing these under the pseudonym of 'Boz'. Dickens used his articles to highlight social issues and the plight of the poor. These short pieces also allowed Dickens to develop the technical skill that he would use to great effect later.

His novels were initially serialised in this way too and Victorian readers, especially the lower middle classes, couldn't get enough of him - they would eagerly await the next instalment, just as many people today follow 'soaps' on television.

You'll see when you reach Fountain Court how little it can have changed in more than 150 years. The place is particularly atmospheric at dusk when the Victorian street lamps are alight. It is here that Tom meets his sister Ruth, in the novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1843): '?the fountain sparkled in the sun, and laughingly its liquid played music and merrily the idle drops of water danced and danced'.

Further on, the Middle Temple, with its winding alleys and gardens, feels like a village. Based on his time as a solicitor's clerk at Ellis and Blackmore, Dickens wrote: 'There is yet, in the Temple, something of a clerkly monkish atmosphere which public offices of law have not disturbed and even legal firms have failed to scare away?' In Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens describes how Tom felt about going to work in the Temple: '? he turned his face towards an atmosphere of unaccountable fascination, as surely as he turned it to the London smoke ? until the time arrived for going home again and leaving it, like a motionless cloud behind'. Although the London smoke is no longer around, you'll see what Dickens meant as you explore this little area of calm away from the busy City streets.

While you're there

The Elizabethan Hall in the Middle Temple dates from the 16th century. It has a fine example of a double hammerbeam roof. Visitors are allowed in the hall and gallery from 10am to noon and from 3pm to 4pm. In the gallery are glass cabinets with antiquities that include books once owned by the poet John Donne, a 16th-century book of practical arithmetic, and a tiny clay pipe excavated in a nearby street in 1951.

Where to eat and drink

The Old Bank of England pub was a subsidiary branch of the Bank of England until the mid-1970s, when it became the flagship pub for Fullers. It's a grand affair with chandeliers and high ceilings and some surprisingly cosy corners. London Pride is on hand pump, as is a range of wines served by the glass. The Bunghole Cellars is a Davy's Wine Bar with sawdust on the floor, where ale is served by the half-gallon.

What to look for

While you're walking to the bar of the Old Bank of England pub, spare a thought for those whose lives were cut short. The vaults and tunnels below the Old Bank and the nearby buildings are where Sweeney Todd is reputed to have butchered clients, the remains of whom were served as fillings in the nearby pie shop of his mistress, Mrs Lovett.

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