In my first book, The Sleepless Man, I needed our hero to be ambushed and fairly roundly beaten up by the opposition. There are plenty of places in London where someone can get jumped and take a beating, but when you introduce a new hero you want to do it somewhere fairly historic, so I introduced my hero Ed Quill to one of London’s most historic ambush sites: Nancy’s Steps…
‘These stairs are part of the bridge; they consist of three flights. Just below the end of the second, going down, the stone wall on the left terminates in an ornamental pilaster facing towards the Thames. At this point the lower steps widen so that a person turning the angle of the wall is necessarily unseen by any others on the stairs who chance to be above him, if only a step.’
The modern London Bridge is almost new, rebuilt after the original was sold to an American oil magnate in the late 1960s (creating apocryphal rumours that he thought he was buying the rather more impressive Tower Bridge.) The ‘old’ Bridge was built to replace the monstrous structure that had come before: the medieval, stone and wood nightmare laden with houses, shops, and even a church. Attempts to modernise the bridge by demolishing all shops and residences failed and by the end of the 18th Century tenders were taken for a ‘new’ bridge to replace it.
John Rennie’s London Bridge opened in 1831, constructed from Haytor granite. A young Charles Dickens used to look out at the river from London Bridge when he visited his father at the Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison, just a little further down what is now Borough High Street. It was a period of Dickens’ life that gave him many of the characters he would use in his later novels… and one of the locations.
Under the south end of the Bridge, on the Cathedral side, just after the vaults that would later house the Mug House pub and London Bridge Experience, there are one of the last remnants of Rennie’s Bridge: a short set of steep, white granite steps with wicked looking sharp edges. They’ve been cut short by the rebuilt modern version of the bridge, but the twist on the steps still exists, and the whole set of stairs is deftly tucked away by a hard dog-leg.
It’s here that Charles Dickens’ ‘tart with a heart’ Nancy has her fate sealed: Fagin’s spy Noah sees her conversation with Oliver’s guardian, Mr. Brownlow, and reports back to his master, who engineers her death at the hands of the brutal Bill Sikes. In the musical, it’s the site of her murder. The double blind bends make it a perfect place for mugging and ambush. In the modern day, it’s also a popular shelter for the homeless of Southwark on cold or wet winter nights.
In The Sleepless Man Ed Quill is ambushed there 30 seconds after he leaves The London Bridge Hospital with a very strange, living jacket…
“The Sleepless Man” is available on Amazon for Kindle!