"London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather . . . fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river . . . On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery Bar ought to be--as here they are--mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goathair and horsehair worded heads against walls of words and making a pretense of equity, as players might . . . " --Charles Dickens, Bleak House NOT ON MICHAELMAS, but several days after Boxing Day, on a N damply warm December morning, I found myself exploring that part of London portrayed so vividly in Dickens, Thackeray and more lately by John Mortimer in Rumpole of the Bailey. I confess that it was more than a passing interest that led me there. I, too, am a member of that noble and ancient profession, one specialty of which is tripping on slippery precedents, having first inherited my mantle at the District of Columbia Bar.

The city's fog is long gone--pollution controls and the demise of the coal fire have taken care of that--but legal London remains, in many respects, much like it was in centuries past.

On the banks of the Thames within a five-block radius stand the structures of the law, majestic piles of ancient stone from which many men and women have, from the dim recesses of the past, provided the great traditions of English and American law. These buildings, in separate groupings, are called the Inns of Court; and the first to be established, Lincoln's Inn, is said to have existed in its present site since 1422. Three other Inns--Grey's Inn, Middle Temple and Inner Temple--evolved in succeeding centuries.

As I wandered through the shadowy twisted alleys, the narrow cobbled lanes and the maze of courtyards, I could see the living history of the law swirling around me. Swathed in their flowing black gowns and topped off by white powdered wigs, brigades of barristers, like vestiges of the 18th century, wended their way in great, flapping dignity toward the Law Courts on the Strand.

History is everywhere. Middle Temple Hall, a cavernous ceremonial hall, was opened by Queen Elizabeth I in 1576, and was the site of the first presentation of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" in 1601. Eighteenth-century novelist and playwright Oliver Goldsmith lived in the Middle Temple for the last nine years of his life, and his grave is on the grounds of the ancient Temple church--first built by the order of the Knights Templars in 1185. It is the only example of a round Romanesque church in England, and one which miraculously survived the Nazi bombings.

Throughout the years, law students have trained for their craft in the Inns. In times past, the Inns' great halls were the sites of dinners that were a part of the schooling; one had to (and still must) eat a certain number of dinners with colleagues in order to qualify for the bar. During the Middle Ages, these dinners hardly were the tame affairs they are today. The gambling, drinking and general celebration lasted well into the small hours of the morning, and disturbed many of the respectable members of chambers. They were so rowdy, in fact, that at one Inn, iron spikes (still present) were added to the top of wooden doors--to thwart, as the story goes, carousing lawyers who got out of hand.

Today the Inns function as the organizations that control the legal education of barristers. They also house the barristers' chambers. In England, barristers are the lawyers who argue cases in the courtroom. Another kind of lawyer, the solicitors, do not appear in court. They draft contracts, handle other legal paperwork and provide support to the barristers. A client in search of legal help first goes to a solicitor who chooses the barrister if one is needed.

Generally, aspiring barristers must read the law during their undergraduate university years. Afterward, they must spend one year at the school of law of one of the Inns of Court. When a final exam is passed, they are "called to the bar" of the inn where they studied. Solicitors spend a year at a college of law, but not at an Inn of Court. They must pass the solicitors' finals, but they are not called to the bar.

Legal London also echoes a grimmer aspect of the evolution of English law. It was in the serene Inner Temple Garden with its rose bushes that Shakespeare in "Henry VI" placed the beginning of the bloody War of Roses. Lincoln's Inn Fields, today a green oasis in the stark gray stone surrounding it, once was alive with muggers, mobs, gypsies and other Londoners down on their luck. Pity the elegant lady or gentleman who tried to cross without guards.

And at the place where the Strand becomes Fleet Street, at the perimeter of legal London, there once was a gate separating the City of Westminster from the City of London. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1672, it was called the Temple Bar. A versatile piece of architecture, the gate served as a popular exhibition space for the severed heads of traitors tried in the Courts nearby. During the 15th to the 17th centuries, these unlucky individuals were drawn and quartered alive, and sometimes the heads were stolen by rowdy crowds.

As I made my way south on one of the cobbled lanes, I took a left at Fleet Street and climbed up Ludgate Hill, named after an ancient warrior king, Lud, and upon which towers the extraordinary St. Paul's Cathedral. But before reaching the top of the hill, I made a left on Old Bailey Street to the Old Bailey--London's Central Criminal Court and formerly the site of Newgate prison, until 1858 the place for all the hangings in London.

Since it was the Christmas season, the building officially was closed. But I received an unexpected treat--a personal tour of the Old Bailey by an official, who wished to remain nameless but who clearly was proud of the history and tradition in those cold stone walls. A Canadian lawyer and his wife had wandered in as well, and off we went.

We started in the bowels of the building. In the last re-excavation of the site, they found remnants of an old Roman wall, possibly one surrounding the perimeter of Ludgate Hill. In the basement, too, is a corridor that was part of Newgate Prison, where those fated to hang walked their last steps. This is known, appropriately, as Dead Man's Walk. There is reputedly a ghost who haunts those halls and has terrified more than one guard into quitting his position.

On to the courtrooms. Silent, dark, the ghosts of prisoners at the dock and of judges and barristers in black silk and white wigs seemed to float through the dim rays of the cloudy dusk. The highlight was Courtroom Number One, the main courtroom for the most important trials in England. The great scenes from "Witness for the Prosecution" and other courtroom dramas are placed here.

On we went, into the private chambers of a judge, where we saw his robe, wig and pictures of the wife, child, dog and boat on his desk.

The last round was to the Sheriff's Flats, where the sheriffs of the surrounding shires have living quarters. The lord mayor of London also lives in Old Bailey, and his chambers are opulent. We wandered through halls resplendent with oriental rugs, elegant wood carvings and mantels, flags and numerous pictures of patron royals. We ended our trip at the Lord Mayor's entrance--presided over by a very large tiger-brown tabby, called Tibbs. His master, the doorway guard, told us Tibbs can sense the ghosts.