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In Old Clerkenwell

June 22, 2014
by the gentle author

In St John’s Path

At weekends, when the crowds throng in Spitalfields, I sometimes walk over to Clerkenwell. Apart from those carousing in Exmouth Market, the place is like a ghost town on Saturday & Sunday, leaving the visitor free to explore the streets in peace – as I did yesterday with my camera.

There is a particular ramshackle quality to this quarter of London that especially appeals to me, where every street is either winding around a corner or sloping away down the hill, or both. Many of my formative experiences as a writer occurred in Clerkenwell, since from 1990 I rented a tiny office in Clerkenwell Close for ten years or so, and went there every day to write. When I could not write, I wandered the streets which became familiar to me as the urban landscape of my contemplation and, over time, I learnt something of their history too.

I wander around Clerkenwell and I think about the Mystery plays performed by clerks on the Green in the medieval era, about how the Close still follows the former cloister of the Priory of St John, about Wat Tyler addressing his rebel force upon the Green, about Oliver Cromwell’s house in Clerkenwell Close that had orchards down to the Fleet River, about the monstrous Middlesex House of Detention where thousands met their deaths, about Joseph Grimaldi playing at Sadler’s Wells, about Charles Dickens sitting with his reporter’s notebook in the Court House, about Vladimir Ilyich Lenin having a drink in the Crown, about Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps and George Gissing’s The Nether World - two magnificent Clerkenwell novels – and, more recently, I think of Colin O’Brien photographing car crashes in the Clerkenwell Rd.

In Britton St

St John’s Gate, where Hogarth’s father ran a Latin-speaking Coffee House

Old Court House, Clerkenwell Green, where Dickens served as a cub reporter

Door at the rear of the Court House

On Clerkenwell Green

St James, Clerkenwell, by James Carr 1792

At the rear of the church

The church gates

In Pear Tree Court

In Amwell St

In Wilmington Sq

In Clerkenwell Close, where Oliver met the Artful Dodger in ‘Oliver Twist’

The old wall of the former Middlesex House of Detention

St James Clerkenwell

Farmiloe Building, St John St

In Passing Alley

Finsbury Savings Bank, Sekforde St since 1840 – customers included Charles Dickens

Sekforde Arms, since 1838

Sekforde St

Sekforde Arms

In Hayward’s Place

Woodbridge Chapel

Gleave & Co, Watch Repair Supplies, Albemarle Way

In Herbal Hill

In Back Hill

The Castle in Cowcross St since 1830

Coach & Horses in Ray St since 1808

Clerkenwell Fire Station, formerly Britain’s oldest 1872- 2014

Our Most Holy Redeemer, Exmouth Market

In Exmouth Market

Exmouth Arms since 1825

In Cafe Kick

Farringdon Tool Supplies, Exmouth Market

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In Fleet St

In Mile End Old Town

In Old Stepney

20 Responses leave one →
  1. June 22, 2014

    Wonderful photos, this is an area of London I used to enjoy visiting. Valerie

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    June 22, 2014

    The Sekforde is an old haunt.
    I understood it was under threat – I hope that’s not true?
    The Castle is unique – it’s the only pub in the country to be a pawnbrokers – courtesy of Charles II, who was short of readies one evening …..
    No mention of the “DovE” or the ST Paters’ I note – I love St paters as a pub, unfortunately their beer doesn’t agree with me, oh dear ….

  3. June 22, 2014

    You are an extraordinary preserver of place. ~ Your photographs document forever the presence and dignity arrayed upon these streets. ~ Thank you, again, for your consciousness and artistry.

  4. June 22, 2014

    Another set of superb photos, Gentle Author: you have deftly caught the specific character of this fascinating district.

    For a year in the mid-1980s I would get off the train at Holborn Viaduct each weekday morning and walk through Smithfield market and the dense network of Clerkenwell streets to City University, where I was studying journalism. In those days there were still one or two clock and watch-repairers carrying on the local trade in tiny old workshops.

    The Sekforde Arms, in your pictures, was closed for a while and under threat; happily the pub has been reprieved.

  5. June 22, 2014

    Love the photos of woodbridge chapel – still in regular use for worship – founded by John Groom, the charity worker who did so much for disabled children. JG was a Clerkenwell man. Would love it if you did a post all about him sometime!

  6. Libby Hall permalink
    June 22, 2014

    When I worked in Clerkenwell in the 60s it often had a timeless, peaceful quality that I loved. It is lovely now, all these many years later, to find that the Gentle Author is still able to record that feeling. Gentle Author, gentle Clerkenwell.

    Here are a few photographs of Clerkenwell that I took all those years ago.

    http://www.ipernity.com/doc/libby.hall/album/679855

  7. June 22, 2014

    Wonderful to see these familiar places! It certainly is a good area for writers, as I found out myself :-) And I always stop by Ray Street to listen to the Fleet passing underground. There is something surreal in imagining that ancient river flowing underneath my feet.

  8. Juliet. Shipman permalink
    June 22, 2014

    Let us hope the greedy developers do not get their hands on this historic and atmospheric corner of London

  9. Jude permalink
    June 22, 2014

    Beautifully shot photos as ever… But particularly pleased to see an ironmongers, how they used to be! Not seen one for years, mores the pity.

  10. frank hadley permalink
    June 22, 2014

    Many thanks for posting these wonderful pictures you are right about the weekend to see the real clerkenwell, you have captured super scenes that would go unnoticed in the working weekday. you make clerkenwell look more like a village . keep up the good work showing us that there is more to london that meets the eye.

  11. June 22, 2014

    Really loved this post, very good photographs and informative text, capture what Sundays used to feel like in London, although I know not photographed on a Sunday. Makes me want to go up on a Saturday and follow your trail.

  12. June 22, 2014

    Not to forget Dr Johnson, long before the Dictionary, working for the Gentleman’s Magazine in St John’s Gate. And before Passing Alley was bowdlerized it was Pissing Alley and still often is. And to keep the tone lavatorial, there’s Leystall Street, which the French would translate as rue de Pissoir. And on it goes. A wonderful photographic guide to an exceptional area.

  13. stan rondeau permalink
    June 22, 2014

    G A you missed the main picture,Clerks Well, in the 1940s when I started work in
    the building next to it there was just an iron door in the wall.
    Now there is a shop front type window to look down onto it,well worth a photo,
    perhaps you could include it on your next stroll.
    Wonderful pictures brought back lots of memories, thank you.

    Stan R

  14. Pauline Taylor permalink
    June 22, 2014

    Your photos GA prove the point that nothing captures the atmosphere of a place like black and white photography, these are great. Sadly I don’t know any of these areas that you capture so well but my grandparents must have known many of them, and I feel a strong connection now thanks to you! I look forward to more.

  15. June 23, 2014

    Gentle Author you are the next Samuel Pepys, recording everything and everywhere in London!

  16. June 29, 2014

    Thankyou for a wonderful journey and photographs.

  17. October 21, 2014

    Dear GA,
    When you have the time, might you be inclined to concentrate on the ‘Little Italy’ area of Clerkenwell ? My father arrived from Italy in the 1920s and based himself there. Later he married my mother at St Peter’s Church and they set up home in the area. I remember my grandmother talking about ‘Back Hill’ and ‘Saffron Street’. I’m sure your Italian readers would love to see/read your take on ‘Little Italy’.
    Bru
    Surrey

  18. December 8, 2014

    Dear GA, Wonderful photos, very evocative. I agree with Bru above, perhaps you could work your magic and write a little something about Little Italy.

    My grandparents settled there in Little Saffron Hill, they came from Atina in Frosinone. What a difference in surroundings. What an alien environment the grey dirty streets of Clerkenwell must have seemed, compared to the Atina they knew and loved so much. There they had been beautiful open vistas of the verdant Val di Comino, a valley encircled by tree clad mountains with a backdrop of the magnificent Abruzzi mountains beyond.

  19. Sean C permalink
    July 16, 2016

    Great Photos and a very informative text that informs people who may not know the area about its very working class and sometimes very rough past.An area of London I love.my Family had lived in the area since 1595 until the late 20s when my grand father moved to Tottenham to escape the dwelling houses. Hard to believe now that up until the 60s, Tottenham was considered a nicer place to live than Clerkenwell. Whilst gentrification hasn’t ruined Clerkenwell ,it sticks in the throat a bit that my grand dad escaped a slum,yet 2 generations on I can only dream about being able to afford to live in the area. All the old Dwelling Houses along St John Street now being sold for fortunes is hard to bear as well…But progress stops for no man.
    Brilliant site :)

  20. Joyce M permalink
    December 21, 2016

    Did my nurse training at Gt Ormond St , loved the area was just there in Oct and walked around Hatton Garden Ely Place and Clerkenwell on a Sun , was so nice and quiet then brought back memories. Also was ther during week and saw Leather lane mid day market is now all food not a lot of merchandise like 30 yrs ago. Love the Fryers Delight fish and chips still on Theobolds Road glad to see it still there

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