Finding the Blue Lion
“I thought that by telling the story of this one place, the sort of place most people pass by without ever knowing its history, we might also tell the story of London.”
—Stella Donati to Walter Kaczmarek, Chapter 11
When I set out to write Coronation Year, I began with a single question: what would it have been like to live through the preparations for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II? I then asked myself if there was a plausible way for an ordinary person, someone with no connections with royalty or the preparations for the occasion, to have their life changed in a really fundamental way by the events of June 2nd, 1953.
I first looked for answers by watching film coverage from the day, not only of the ceremony itself but also of the jubilant crowds that lined the miles-long procession route through central London. What must it have been like to have seen the queen in her gold coach on Coronation Day? I then began to wonder about the stories of those who actually lived and worked in the buildings along the route, and what their experiences of the great day might have been.
My next step was to examine the route itself, building by building, with the help of historic maps, some of them official souvenirs, along with more modern tools such as Google Street View. I was looking for an ancient building that was modest in scale, attractive but not eye-catching, and most importantly felt friendly and welcoming.
At the same time, I also began to imagine the characters who would be at the centre of my story. I can’t remember, now, when Edie first appeared to me, but she quickly became as familiar as an old friend. Edie was alone, and freighted with responsibilities that left her weary; the building had been in her family for centuries, I decided, and she had been left with the honour and burden of caring for it. Like the young queen, she had been handed responsibilities for which she had never asked. Like Elizabeth, Edie was determined to do her best no matter what.
Before I had found the precise location of my building, I had decided it had to be a hotel—if not in reality, then at least within the confines of my imagined world. This suited the plot of my book, vague though it still was, as well as the nature of the characters I was developing: people who were surrounded by others, yet felt perpetually lonely; people living in a hotel even as they longed for a place to belong and feel like home.
The difficulty in finding such a building, I soon realized, was that most of London’s truly ancient buildings had been lost before 1953 to successive waves of redevelopment as well as the Blitz, and this was especially true of the streets chosen for the processional route. Medieval London existed, then and now, in few visible remnants (the Staple Inn on High Holborn is a rare example), but it also lingered on beneath more modern facades (such as the remnants of the original buildings of Cloth Fair). Today we tend to think of truly old buildings as charming; earlier generations, by contrast, were just as likely to regard them as outdated and unattractive, and had few reservations about slapping on an exterior layer of brick or masonry to ensure their home or place of business matched its younger neighbours.
With that in mind, I focused my search on streets that had not been substantially altered in their orientation since, at a minimum, the 16th century. I spent some weeks researching the buildings along Haymarket, known since the Georgian period for its theatres; but when I decided, while experimenting with various plot points, that my building had to be situated on the outward, pre-ceremony part of the processional route, I had to look elsewhere. This had the effect of constraining my search to a stretch of Northumberland Avenue only a few hundred metres long, for much of the first portion of the processional route ran along the Mall and the Victoria Embankment where nearly all the buildings were government offices or historic royal sites such as St. James’s Palace.
Since pandemic travel restrictions were still in place, I resorted to obsessive street-level searches via Google Maps, with frequent discursions to the National Library of Scotland’s Map Images website, which accurately layers historic maps over their modern equivalents. This allowed me to compare, with little more than the swipe of a cursor, the 1951 Ordnance Survey of London with a map of the same streets as they are today.
Because OS maps are so detailed, often including the name and nature of businesses and public buildings, I was able to find places that, within a few years of the events of Coronation Year, were operating as public houses (typically abbreviated as “PH”) or hotels. And that is when I found the building that would become the Blue Lion.
I might so easily have overlooked it, for it did not sit directly on the processional route, but rather was set back at an angle where the short and rather narrow Northumberland Street meets the much grander Northumberland Avenue. Today, and for many decades now, the famed Sherlock Holmes pub occupies the building at the end of Northumberland Street—would you believe I visited it once, many years ago, never imagining it would become (though much changed) the setting for one of my books?
The building that houses the Sherlock Holmes dates to the 1850s, and while it was briefly a hotel in the early decades of its existence I decided upon an alternate history for the site. Instead, I imagined a far older building hiding beneath its Victorian exterior. It had once been a farmhouse, set apart in fields some distance from the city itself; it later became a coaching inn as London grew beyond its ancient walls. This same inn had survived the centuries since, its medieval exterior disappearing behind a fashionable Victorian facade a hundred years before the events of Coronation Year.
It was called the Blue Lion, possibly as a way of creating a connection with the grand Howard family who, if related to Edie’s ancestors, certainly had no notion of their humble cousins’ existence, nor of the hotel itself. Its care and ownership had been passed down through the centuries, and it was a welcoming, well-loved place that never quite managed to become prosperous. It was the sort of hotel that felt, to those who could overlook its shortcomings (never enough hot water!), very much like home.
I had found my place, and if I closed my eyes I could very nearly see it, but I needed to visualize its exterior in far more detail than I could conjure on my own. To my great good fortune, I didn’t have to look far to find someone who could help.
For nearly the entire time I was at work on Coronation Year, my husband and I were also working with the Toronto-based firm CAB Architects as they designed and supervised the renovation of our 1920s-era house. One of the partners in the firm, Charisma Panchapakesan, is not only a very fine architect but also a very talented artist, and after getting to know her over some months, and seeing her creative mind at work, I was bold enough to ask her if she would help me bring the Blue Lion to life.
What followed was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in my career as a working novelist, for after a number of long conversations with Charisma, and my bombarding her with any number of photographs and historic maps and descriptions of my imagined version of the Blue Lion, she created the illustration of the Blue Lion that is reproduced here.
What I found especially fascinating about the process was her very 21st-century approach to creating the illustration. She began with photographs, taken at more than one angle, of the building that houses the Sherlock Holmes. These she uploaded to a computer tablet equipped with a stylus that can be configured as a pen, pencil, brush, or any other tool an artist might choose to employ. Using these tools, she minimized modern and extraneous elements (for instance nearby street furniture, advertisements, and modern architectural additions such as double-glazed windows) and revealed the unadorned structure beneath.
Only then, referring to my descriptions from a draft of the book, did she add in the details that made the Blue Lion instantly recognizable to me. Everything is there, just as I imagined: the slightly too-grand pediment above the front door; the hanging sign with its rampant lion; the ancient stone plaque with its date of 1560 only just visible; even the flowers at the windows, the celebratory bunting, and the pot of primroses on Jamie’s windowsill are included. Looking at the illustration, I can’t help but hold my breath and wait for Edie to open the front door and welcome me inside.
Charisma’s illustration, to my mind, is the perfect embodiment of a place that, in many ways, became a character in Coronation Year as well as a setting for much of its events. It now seems so real that I wish it were possible for me to walk along Northumberland Avenue, turn onto Northumberland Street, and discover the Blue Lion waiting for me. The next time I go to London, I may just try.