I have been thinking, for some time, about writing a novel partially set in the Bank of England, so this was a great chance to do some research and get into parts of the bank you don't normally see. What follows is from some of the notes that I took while I was going around - I thought I would write a blog posting from them that I can draw on later as I work more on the story. I might update this post as I refine my research.
I will write another blog post some time in the future more in
general about my ideas for the novel - which I am doing quite well with
at the moment, in terms of shaping out the story. Suffice to say, it
involves this worker at the bank who meets this strange woman who tells
this story about how her family lost a fortune and how it ended up in
the bank, unjustly. If the Bank of England sounds a bit of a dry
subject - don't worry, my plans for the novel involve sex,
hallucinations, drug taking, possible sightings of ghosts, deceit,
crime, obsession over money, comedy, voyeurism, and plot twist turning
adventure rooted in abuse of historical stories (it is not lost on me
how much money the Da Vinci Code has made - not that I want to write
anything quite that badly written - there will be no albinos ... Audry
Tatou is welcome to play a female character in the movie though).
Unfortunately - though predictably given the security - it was forbidden to take photographs during the visit to the bank.
A couple of months ago I went for the first time to the bank's on-site museum, which was also very useful. It has, as you would expect, a lot of stuff about the history, how it was set up in the 17th century and important characters. There are some great artefacts, such as tally sticks, which used to be these kind of wooden counting sticks. There are also great photographs and paintings. There were good stories about methods used to stop forgers - I think many a forger was executed, probably in nearby Smithfield Market, where they did for William Wallace.
But getting inside the working bank was something else again. I got there at 10am and had to queue for around an hour, entering through the museum entrance, where we were greeted at the gateway by gatekeepers wearing the traditional pink overcoats, waistcoats, and top hats. I am told later that the senior gatekeepers have gold bands on their hats.
After going through an airport style metal scanner we met our tour guide and went through a heavy door into the working bank's main corridors. Apparently most of the ground floor has marble floors, with mosaics. There was a statue of King William III, which the guide said was worth £1.75m. It looked quite heavy.
As well as the guide, we were escorted at all times by a man from security who had a walkie talkie (plot idea for novel: someone on an open day weekend leaves a bug in, say, the governor's office or somewhere ... though they probably screen it for devices after the weekend).
We then saw the front desks, which you get to by coming in through the main entrance on Threadneedle Street. The bank came to its current site in 1734 and wings were added on later. The bank was at first a private bank. The outside, curtain wall has no windows and is eight foot thick.
There is no foundation stone but on the main mosaic in the main entrance hall there is an incongruous red tile. There was a model of the bank from above and I counted eight open spaces.
We then went to a grand staircase off the main entrance hall - it went three floors down from the ground floor and seven floors up. Then we wandered into the garden, which is behind the entrance hall. The guide explained this was the governor's garden and bank staff were not normally allowed in. It was a space for the governor to take guests, and that might be compromised by bank staff "having our sandwiches out there", she said, a little gloomily. It was very beautiful and overlooked by lots of windows - it felt, in some ways, like the design centre of the bank and much more alive than the fortress like walls you see from the outside.
Apparently the bank has its own water supply, which is used for the cooling system. She also said something about how they destroy old notes and you can get the ground up notes to use as wedding confetti.
I think the garden came about when the bank needed to expand in the 18th century. Apparently there were concerns after the Gordon Riots that the position of the original church meant there were fears rioters could get onto its roof and into the bank.
I need to check exactly what happened but I think maybe the garden is where the church was because they knocked it down (or moved it) and could not build on consecrated ground.
There are mulberry trees in the garden, which were apparently chosen because their roots do not extend so far down; the guide said the vaults were "feet" away beneath the garden. There is a statue of St Christopher, which I think might be linked to the moved / rebuilt church. There is also a war memorial.
The guide said that most offices in the bank don't have a view of the garden and you are considered very lucky if you have one. We visited important parts of the bank and official rooms but there is also a suite of modern offices.
From the garden you walk through French doors into the governor's office. There was a football on the mantelpiece with Aston Villa's badge. The current governor uses a modern desk but the original bank's writing desk is also in the room. We then went through to the parlours, used by the governor and the directors. There were portraits of various governors on the walls.
In one hallway there was some steps down to a door which is the governor's own, private way down into the vaults. It was kind of dark, and I think padded with black leather. There was a velvet rope strung in front of it and presumably that it is not the last security arrangement before you get there.
We had a look around the first floor parlour rooms; there was a photograph of the Queen by one window and lots of grand paintings and furnishings and a big alabaster fireplace. We then went through double doors, which were apparently put in place to stop staff from eavesdropping on conversations.
The room we went into after the first parlour room is where the monetary policy committee hold their press conferences about interest rates - which they have set since the chancellor gave this power to the bank in May 1997. The guide notes, however, that seven of those on the committee are appointed by the government - so it is not exactly like they have lost total power. Only two on the committee are independents.
She says that when the Financial Service Authority was set up the bank lost 500 jobs overnight. She said the bank currently had some 1,700 staff, in contrast to the 8,000 in the 1980s. One of the reasons for the lower staff levels is the more advanced IT systems. She adds that there is one department involved in making preparations for the UK joining the Eurozone - which, if it did happen, would mean the loss of several more hundred jobs. Probably not worth sweating on that right now.
(I like the notion of this Euro kind of steering group ... given the political scenario, it seems like a kind of Waiting for Godot set-up and I am thinking that one of the main characters in my novel will work there ... the idea being that - partially because of the fact he has little to do, he is on the brink of a bit of a breakdown).
We then went into the Court Room, which is used for lunches and dinners. There is an oval table, which is used because it makes talking to people easier. (There is the design of a wand, which you see on medical services in the US, but I have forgotten what its significance was there). There were also owls in some of the design features because the designer - had owls at his home in Kent. There was also some device for tracking the conditions at sea ... the idea being that in earlier years the directors would probably own trading ships and would want to follow their progress as best they could.
In the Court Room there is also a desk which used to be owned by William Pitt.
I asked the guide whether she could recommend a basic history book at the bank and she said it would probably be best to contact the museum's curator, John Keyworthy. She is a bit worried by my notepad and when I explain I am a journalist she is even more anxious to say I should check with the press office. I say I am doing background because I sometimes cover city stories.
I did not want to tell her I was gathering material for a novel idea. Standing there in the actuality of the bank, I thought I might sound a bit silly saying that. Still, the visit was very inspiring for the novel idea overall.
After the tour, we were decanted into the museum, where they have a gold bar - encased in protective plexiglass - which you can snake your hand in and lift. It is pretty heavy and the guy from the museum standing next to it (there is also a camera, in case you try to pull a fast one) said it was worth around £130,000.
He said that a few bars which the museum has on display are the only ones the bank actually owns. The rest are owned by the state - around £40bn in gold and other currency underpins the UK's currency. Some other gold is kept there from other countries and so on.
He said the oldest gold they have dates from around 1914. Each bar has a reference on it which can be keyed into a database to get its particulars. He said the government had sold quite a bit of gold, which he indicated, diplomatically, might not have been a great idea as its value was going up again.
After leaving the bank, wandering near Liverpool St with my camera, I noticed this shadowy figure. I posted it onto the Banksy group on Flickr, though I have no idea if it is one of his.