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In Old Clerkenwell

September 22, 2017
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.

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

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21 Responses leave one →
  1. September 22, 2017

    A fascinating, lovely district. And La Rocchetta! You’ve brought back to me a memory of lunch there with two beautiful women (one of them later had the terrible misfortune to divorce me – she worked on Cowcross Street at the time, having been bombed out of Bishopsgate).

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    September 22, 2017

    Ah, the “Sekforde Arms” is still open?
    I’d heard horrible rumours of its’closure – phew….

  3. September 22, 2017

    very deserted!

  4. September 22, 2017

    I was in Scotti’s cafe this morning and Alberto told me that there is a plan to pedestrianise Clerkenwell Green, suggested by Islington Council. This will have a dramatic effect on the businesses that rely on vehicular access. Scotti’s regulars include many cabbie’s and couriers. Losing easy on street access and parking will kill the cafe and restaurant, as well as the others in the area. It’s great to have this vision of the summer day with lots of office workers lounging on a traffic free Green, but most days aren’t like this. The cold, wet days, the winter and spring months, these are when loyal regulars come into play and make a business viable. The council either doesn’t understand the knife edge that these businesses exist on, or doesn’t care. Please take the time to object to this plan and keep some wonderful and vital parts of London’s heritage alive. Thank you.

  5. September 22, 2017

    I am currently working on the renovation of the Seckforde Arms where the original shop front is being restored, and grained of course , by Chris Dyson and co ,
    Come see the painted ceiling when all is done and a pint in the bar ..

  6. Leana Pooley permalink
    September 22, 2017

    This is so interesting that it made me want to drop everything and rush to explore Clerkenwell for myself.

  7. Helen Breen permalink
    September 22, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, wow, this looks like a very upscale neighborhood to me. Many buildings appear to be updated, especially the windows.

    And just the thought that Dickens roamed around there – the Old Court House looks well kept.

    Thanks for sharing Colin’s photos….

  8. September 22, 2017

    Agreed. There is still a vaguely rackety air about Clerkenwell. I love the way the Close still echoes the original form, unlike Bartholomew Close which has sadly lost that feel, especially with the new development. When I first came to London I used to wander around when it was shabby and filled with watch and clock makers and strange little businesses. Glad it is thriving.

  9. Christina Wiedemann permalink
    September 22, 2017

    Thank you for this article and the wonderful pictures. Brings back so many memories of the time we lived in Clerkenwell some time ago.

  10. September 22, 2017

    Your photos are so wonderful I felt like I was there, and felt more than a little sad when it ended. Sigh

  11. Sonia Murray permalink
    September 22, 2017

    What strikes one as remarkable is the cleanliness of this neighborhood today. I’d love to see pictures comparing pubs such as The Castle today with images of a hundred years ago. Shiny versus grime, the well dressed versus sad and shabby. What a contrast that would be! We have come a long way up the ladder in a century of progress.

  12. September 22, 2017

    My practice Chris Dyson Architects is responsible for the complete restoration and renovation of the Sekforde Arms
    The reopening is scheduled in time for Christmas 2017
    The overall restoration incorporates some excellent work by Ian Harper and many other good trade and craftsmen from Spitalfields

  13. September 22, 2017

    This is a really lovely post, I love walking around the city at the weekend. I’ve worked in Clerkenwell for the last 3 years, and keep finding little things I haven’t noticed before. A few weeks ago I randomly found Amwell Street – and something about it really caught my attention. I ended up Googling it and writing about it, and wondering why I’d never heard about it before.

  14. Jo N permalink
    September 23, 2017

    You’re so talented, your photos are almost as good as your writing. In both cases, you have a wonderful eye for capturing the beautiful, in or among the mundane.

  15. September 23, 2017

    ‘Old’ Clerkenwell represents a fortunate survival. Move a fraction north, to the Spa Fields/Rosomon Street/Myddleton Street area and check out images of what was so wilfully and wantonly destroyed by post World War II ‘planners’.
    By the way, the stone plaque to the right of the back door of St James’ Church is worth inspection; a particularly gruesome murder.

  16. September 23, 2017

    Am intrigued by the coffee shop by Hogarth’s father in law. Thought this was painter Thornhill.

  17. Andrew Whitehead permalink
    September 23, 2017

    Lovely pictures of a an engrossing corner of London, once a bastion of the left. Look hard, you can still find an echo of those times.

  18. Roger permalink
    September 27, 2017

    Fantastic photos many memories.
    Does anyone remember a corner shop called W Burts Cabinet Makers place on the corner of Rosoman St, it was opposite a big Printers factory called Temple Press.
    If anyone does do they have any photos of it or where I could find any, I think it closed in the late 60/ mid 70s. I’m willing to pay for photos.
    Thank you Roger
    My Phone No is 0744 9135669.

  19. Julie permalink
    October 2, 2018

    Landed upon this wonderful page and was thrown back to the early 90s when I lived as an LSE graduate student from the US in Rosebery Hall, around the corner from Exmouth Market. I could almost see my younger self wandering down the lanes of Clerkenwell, completely enthralled with this mysterious and lovely new place – one of the best years of my life lived in your amazing city!

  20. Jane permalink
    November 16, 2020

    Brilliant photos, of the area I work in, which really capture the atmosphere that can be found there.

  21. Saira Holmes permalink
    August 22, 2022

    Interesting – thank you. My ancestors (GGG grandparents William and Elizabeth Speaight) lived at 30 and 31 Rosoman Street from the 1770s – circa 1810s. I would be fascinated to find any photos of the buildings before they were demolished in the 1950s. British History online has one.

    Just a thought for people trying to get images of old streets and buildings – The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings has a large archive of old buildings and streetscapes. They might be able to help. They have a website with a link to their archive.


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