Riceyman Steps

3.59pm, Sunday 1 April 2012

Except there’s no such place as Riceyman Steps.

In 1923 Arnold Bennett published the novel Riceyman Steps, and although the story is set in an anonymous zone between Kings Cross and Farringdon – maybe we could dignify today it with the name of north Clerkenwell – the story was actually inspired by a second hand bookshop he frequented in Southampton.

This week’s Friday Photo is of Gwynne Place, linking Kings Cross Road to Granville Square which is at the top of the steps.  This part of Kings Cross Road was once the home of Nell Gwynne and has often had a less than wholesome reputation.  The neighbourhood today is very different from the time that Bennett was writing; four bedroom Georgian terrace houses are now about £2.5 million each, but Bennett knew it as a very different area.

The Square had once been genteel; it ought to have been picturesque, but was not.  It was merely decrepit, foul and slatternly.  It had no attractiveness of any sort.  Evolution had swirled round it, missed it, and left it.  Neither electricity nor telephones had ever invaded it, and scores of windows still had venetian blinds. All men except its inhabitants and the tax collector, the rate collector, and the school attendance officer had forgotten Riceyman Square.

386px-Gwynne_place_riceyman_steps_1924aThe steps themselves are relatively unchanged from 1924 when this photo was taken.  However, the church glimpsed at the top of the steps was demolished in the 1930s, and the courtyard at the bottom has been subsumed into an access road for the more recent Travelodge.  But this is one of those elusive places where you may encounter that sense of an eternal London which transcends history.

And in one of those strange instances in which life does imitate art, as you leave Granville Square you may come across the council estate built between 1930 and 1933 to replace some of the squalid housing described by Bennett.  As you pass by you just might notice the name of one of the buildings.