Clerkenwell, named after the clerks’ well in Farringdon Lane, was once a village in the countryside where Londoners flocked to taste the healing waters of its spa. Just beyond the reach of the City with its strict rules and regulations, Clerkenwell has long been the home of radicals and revolutionaries, Quakers, non-Conformists and libertarians, as well as criminals and those living outside the law.
By the 18th century, the area teemed with artisans and craftsmen, who set up workshops here to serve the wealthy city dwellers. Clockmakers and watchmakers, jewellers and engravers, printers and bookbinders, brewers and gin-distillers all flourished. From the 1850s, large numbers of Italians settled in Clerkenwell to work as street musicians, organ grinders, ice sellers, artisans producing plaster figures, scientific instruments and barometers, giving this part of the world the nickname ‘Little Italy’. St Peter’s Italian Church on Clerkenwell Road is the oldest church for Italians in London.
Charles Dickens used the rookeries, allies and slums of Clerkenwell as backdrop for several of his stories. Clerkenwell Green is where Oliver Twist fatefully picks Mr Brownlow’s pocket under the tuition of his friend, the Artful Dodger. The charming terraced houses, converted warehouses, cobbled streets and narrow alleyways of Clerkenwell are now home to thriving craft, design, architectural and creative industries.
Our circular walk through historic Clerkenwell starts and ends at Farringdon Station.
1. Leave the station and head up Turnmill Street. Take the first right into Benjamin Street. Walk alongside St John’s Church gardens.
2. Turn left into Britton Street. Just ahead of you is the modern wing of the Goldsmiths Centre, established as workshops and studios for jewellery making, gold and silversmithing. It is funded by the Goldsmiths Company, one of the City’s medieval guilds, set up to control the quality of craftsmanship and protect trade. The Goldsmith’s Centre runs the Bench Café, which is open to the public. Walk up Britton Street, passing the Ochre showroom and the tiny and historic Jerusalem Tavern pub with its wonky green painted paneling and bench seats. The Jerusalem Tavern has had several incarnations around Clerkenwell since the14th century and was the drinking hole of the likes of the writer Samuel Johnson, satirist William Hogarth, actor David Garrick and the young composer Handel on his visits to London. Locally, quart bottles of beer were called ‘Jerusalems.’
3. Turn left on Clerkenwell Road, passing award winning Grimshaw Architects, famous for their high tech designs such as the Eden Project. Cross over and walk into Clerkenwell Green, once the heart of Clerkenwell village. To your right is Craft Central, a not-for-profit organization set up 25 years ago to ensure a future for craft and design in Clerkenwell. The Middlesex Sessions House to your left dates back to 1782 and was once one of the largest and busiest courthouses in England. Convicts were sentenced here for transportation to Australia. They were led straight from the courthouse onto boats on the river Fleet that flowed just behind the Session House. When they reached the Thames, they were loaded onto overcrowded and disease- ridden prison ships called Hulks before being sent down under.
37a Clerkenwell Green: the Marx Memorial Library
Clerkenwell Green was the focal point for radicalism in the area. In 1838, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, agricultural workers who had campaigned to set up a Union, were welcomed home by a mass rally on the Green when returned from their forced extradition to Australia. The Chartist movement, who called for the right for everyman to have the vote and for MPs to receive a wage, held their protests here. With such a strong association with the rights of the ordinary man and woman, it was from here that first annual May Day parade marched off in 1890.
Across the square is a flat-fronted Georgian house where Lenin edited the revolutionary newspaper Iskra during his exile from Russia in 1903. The building, originally a school for the children of Welsh artisans who worked in Clerkenwell, was already associated with the socialist Twentieth Century Press and the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement William Morris, who was a benefactor. Today, number 37a is the Marx Memorial Library, stuffed with thousands of books and papers on the history of the Labour Movement. Lenin drank beer and discussed revolution at the Crown Tavern and is said to have met Stalin for a pint here in 1905. To the left of the Marx Memorial Library is the Lesley Craze Gallery, a showcase for contemporary jewellery, metalwork and textiles.
4. Turn left into Clerkenwell Close. Look up at the Wren style spire of St James’ Church up ahead. Follow the road as it bends around the churchyard. This was once the site of St Mary’s Nunnery, one three medieval religious foundations close by, and one of the richest in England. Some of the 300 Protestant Martyrs who were burned at the stake for heresy at Smithfield by the Catholic Mary I, are buried in the graveyard. As a result of this mass execution, the Queen was nicknamed ‘Bloody Mary’.
Keep straight on down the hill, passing the Peabody Estate and Pear Tree Court on the left. The Peabody Estate, built in the mid nineteenth century, in the trademark barrack-like style in white Suffolk brick, replaced slum housing. It was intended to house the ‘respectable’ labouring classes, but left the former, less desirable, tenants homeless. Pear Tree Court is thought to be the site of Fagin's lair, 'a foul'd and frosty den, where vice is closely packed' in Oliver Twist.
5. Climb up the steps ahead to Bowling Green Lane, named after the score of bowling greens that were once here as the sport was hugely popular with Londoners in the 17th and 18th century. Turn right and walk past international architect Zaha Hadid’s design studio. At the end of the street on the left is Spa Green, where tea and pleasure gardens once flourished. This was a popular place for recreation and entertainment with bear pits and streets performers. A dance theatre was opened at nearby Sadler’s Wells in 1683.
6. Turn right onto Clerkenwell Close, alongside the now converted Hugh Myddleton School. This was the first London Board school to be built in the ‘Queen Anne’ style, now synonymous with the design of Victorian schools. The school was built on the site of the Middlesex House of Detention, one of Clerkenwell’s several prisons. Follow the road as it bends past the Clerkenwell Workshops in one of the area’s converted warehouses. This was originally the London Board Schools stores and later became artisan workshops. The recent gentrification of Clerkenwell has created smart offices for design, architecture and new media businesses with the lovely Clerkenwell Kitchen on the courtyard.
7. Turn sharp left onto Sans Walk and walk all the way to the end. Turn right on to the Woodbridge Street. This charming cluster of streets is lined with early Victorian terraced houses with colourful window boxes. Notably these houses still have the lamps that every household was obliged to light after dusk before the days of street lamps.
A typical Early Victorian House in Clerkenwell
8. Turn right onto Sekforde Street, once part of the Sekforde Estate. The streets housed dye works, featherbed factories, a brass foundry, a wallpaper factory and the white painted Finsbury Savings Bank where Charles Dickens was reputedly a customer at number 181/2. Turn left at the Sekforde Arms pub into a continuation of Woodbridge Street. Pass the Calvinist Woodbridge Chapel and Clerkenwell Medical.
9. Turn right into Aylesbury Street and immediately left down Jerusalem Passage. Look out for the plaque high upon the building on the corner to commemorate Thomas Britton, the famous ‘musical coalman’ who, in 1678, converted his attics into a miniature concert hall. His chamber concerts were the talk of the town and attended by the likes of the composer George Frederick Handel and diarist Samuel Pepys.
10. Emerge into the cobbled St John’s Square with the Modern Pantry on your left. The cocktail lounge of the Zetter House Hotel is in a grand mansion, set back on the right. the left of the square is what remains of St John’s Priory, the home of a wealthy monastic order that once occupied a ten-acre site across Clerkenwell, the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, known as the Knights Templar. The Priory suffered over the years: it was burned down in 1381 by a mob during the Peasants’ Revolt and was finally dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. Traditionally churches of the Order were circular in construction and this one was once no exception: the cobbled stones laid in the pavement outside delineate the original perimeter of the circular church. Through the arched entrance is the Priory Church and below is the original Norman Crypt dating back to 1140. Of interest are the marble tomb of a Knight Templar and the stone effigy of the medieval Prior, William Weston, who is said to have died of a broken heart on the day of the dissolution of the monasteries. Step into the medieval medicinal garden still planted with St John’s Wort, used for healing wounds, lavender, and other medicinal herbs.
11. As you leave the building turn left, towards Clerkenwell Road. Cross over and walk down to St John’s Gate straight ahead of you. Craft Central is on your left in the beautiful old Penny Bank building, originally a branch of a Victorian bank that was established for working class people, opening late in the evenings and accepting saving deposits of less than a shilling. St John’s Gate was the original entrance to St John’s Priory, and dates back to 1504. Inside, the Museum of the Order of St John tells the fascinating story of the Knights Templar: crusader knights who fought to protect the Holy Land in the 12th century. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the gateway became a drinking tavern, among other things. William Hogarth spent much of his childhood here as his father ran a rather unsuccessful Latin speaking coffee shop inside the gate. It was also where Edward Cave’s published his pioneering monthly The Gentleman’s Magazine, with the illustrious Samuel Johnson as a contributor. St John’s Gate is now the headquarters of St John Ambulance Association, set up by the Order of St John in 1877 to train ordinary people in first aid in a newly industrialised Britain where workplace accidents were commonplace.
12. Carry on down St John’s Lane and duck left into Passing Alley. At the end, turn left again out into St John Street. Cross the Clerkenwell Road and walk up St John Street.
13. Turn right into Great Sutton Street. The Modus furniture showroom is on the right. Look out, on the right, for a small alleyway called Sutton Lane, decked with the tables and chairs of the J&A Café. Wiggle along the passage all the way to the Clerkenwell Road and turn left, heading towards the Vitra Showroom.
14. Turn right at the lights into the busy Goswell Road. Flanking the left hand side is the Le Corbusier influenced Golden Lane Housing Estate. Ahead looms the iconic Barbican Centre, a classic example of the post-War Brutalist style of architecture: the term was coined in 1953 from the French ‘beton brut’, which mean raw concrete.
15. Before the Barbican tube station, turn right into Carthusian Street. Then turn right again through the black gates to explore Charterhouse Square, the site of a medieval Carthusian Monastery. Walk past the terrace of historic houses and the Charterhouse Chapel, the chapter house of the Carthusian Priory built in 1414. After the dissolution of the monasteries, Charterhouse became a private mansion. An endowment led to the creation of a school, hospital and almshouse for pensioners.
16. Walk straight on through the gates. Tucked away down an alleyway on the right is the charming French restaurant, Café du Marche. A few doors down is the atmospheric Fox and Anchor pub, one of a handful in Smithfield that is allowed to open for the market traders, serving pints from the early hours of the morning.
17. Ahead of you is Smithfield, once an open, grassy expanse on the banks of the river Fleet, known as ‘Smooth-field’. It has been London’s main livestock market for a thousand years. In medieval times, it was the setting for jousting and knights’ tournaments as well as a place of execution and revolt. Famously, it is where, on 15th June 1381, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, Wat Tyler, was pulled from his horse, stabbed and killed when he came to Smithfield to meet King Richard II. William Wallace, leader of the Scottish rebels, was convicted of treason in 1305, dragged through the City by heels of horse from the Tower of London to Smithfield, where he was hung, drawn, quartered and beheaded. Wallace's head was the first to have been placed on a spike on London Bridge for all to see; a gruesome fate that became a tradition for all those executed for treason.
Cross over and turn left to walk down Grand Avenue, cutting through the centre of London’s centuries old meat market. In Victorian times, the market thrived: a noisy 5000 cattle, 30,000 sheep a week trampled through the city. Animals were herded daily from the green fields of Islington down St John Street to the market for slaughter. The chaos of the market was described by Dickens in Oliver Twist, when Oliver was taken through by Bill Sykes early one morning: ‘the bellowing and the plunging of the oxen, the bleating of the sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, the oaths, a bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses’. Though live animals are no longer brought here for slaughter, the meat market still happens daily.
18. Cross over Long Lane, past the Butchers Hook and Cleaver pub. Look for Cloth Fair on your left, where merchants would gather in medieval times to trade cloth during the annual Bartholomew Fair. Shortly afterwards, to your left is a Tudor archway, leading to St Bartholomew’s Church, the oldest surviving Norman church in London. Keep going round the square and note the plaque on the wall commemorating the Scottish rebel William Wallace who was executed here. On the corner is St Bartholomew’s hospital, the oldest hospital in London, founded in 1123 by a courtier of Henry I.
19. Carry on looping round and cut back through Smithfield market up the Grand Avenue again. Cross into St John Street and turn left into Cowcross Street, named after the heyday of the livestock market. At the end of the street is Farringdon station.
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