I am often grateful that my books are set in London because – if you lift your eyes above the gaudy street-level additions and accretions – many buildings and views remain much as they were in Sam’s day. But yesterday I went to a place that is literally unchanged since Sam was there in 1827, in “Portraits of Pretence”: the vaults in Pennington Street in Wapping, east London. Back then these vaults were a bonded warehouse for wine and spirits as part of the London Docks (St Katharine Docks did not open until the following year), and every legally traded (plenty was not…) drop of alcohol in the world went through them. Vaults were best for this because they were easier to secure than a building above ground, and – in the days before heating and aircon – they were able to maintain an almost constant temperature.
Partly as a marketing ploy and mostly out of curiosity, I contacted the development company that now owns this building and much of the land around it and asked whether I could possibly toddle along and take a peek into the vaults. And yesterday I did just that. As soon as we went down the stairs into the vaults, I was amazed: they are completely unchanged. Of course they have functional strip lighting now – in Sam’s time it would have been swinging lanterns casting eerie shadows – and the floor is clear of the sticky residue that used to drip from the barrels, but the form is still absolutely the same:
And look at this marvellous original brickwork:
I cannot tell you what a shiver went down my spine when I thought, “Sam ran through this very passageway, looking for his friend Ben.” And then I remembered that I made them up. But they’re real to me, and yesterday I spent a wonderful hour in their company.