An evening perambulation of the wells and springs of Clerkenwell

We gathered at the NFT bar for the sake of expediency. Pete, Cathy, Dave and Nick. The ground between the South Bank and the beginning of the trail of wells and springs was also full of interesting diversions and a few more water references.

We first detoured through the courtyard of Somerset House with the fountain playing in the sunset. Then we headed along to the Old Roman Spring Bath in Strand Lane that I’d found by accident on a lunchtime wander. Through a half-open gate and down the Surrey Steps into Strand Lane, an anachronism, blocked off at either end. We peer through the basement window into the Roman bathing chamber fed by springs on Hampstead Heath according to S.P. Sutherland.

We moved along the Strand and I pointed out that St Clement Danes had a holy well in its grounds (now beneath the law courts) where pilgrims bound for Canterbury used to stop for a drink.
“Where were they coming from?” someone asks.
“Over there”, I gesture towards Trafalgar Square.
“And then they’d head on to Dartford Services”, adds Nick.

We duck through a door on Fleet Street into the otherworld of the Temple. Oddly, beside me, none of the group has ever been here. It’s one of those London sites so obvious that many people give it a miss when they can’t find the entrance. We wander the lanes and make for the Templar Church sadly too late for the talk by Robin Griffiths-Jones the Master of the Temple on “The Da Vinci Code – Facts and Fictions”. This church was one of many common features in both Dan Brown’s potboiler and ‘The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail’, the similarities of the two books sparking a legal row that played out over the road in the Royal Courts of Justice.
We linger for a while enjoying the peace of this city within a city. The group want to explore further, but we’re constantly frustrated by looked gates and closed doors.

We exit and head along the lanes behind Fleet Street towards Bride Lane. Up through a vast 80’s development boasting a gigantic lump of rusting sculpture and we find the back of St. Brides. My book, ‘Old London’s Spas, Baths and Wells’ by S P Sutherland (1915), refers to a pump that dispensed water from the holy well, located in the eastern wall of the churchyard. Nick gives me a bunk-up to peer through an iron grate, which scratches the palms of my hands. Then he spies water marks on the wall below a small metal plate. It’s inconclusive.

We move on past the Friday-night-full pubs that spill out onto the pavement. Nick has been told about some engraved friezes in the modernist beast of the Daily Express building. We tailgate a departing employee and last barely 30 seconds before being nabbed by security. We ask about the friezes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about he says.”

Into Shoe Lane, this is just a functional route into Clerkenwell. We cross Holborn viaduct and into Ely Place, with St Etheldreda’s hosting a plush party in the crypt. Through a small wooden door in the wall at the end and we stand in the twilight of Bleeding Heart Yard. Outside the entrance to the posh-nosh The Bleeding Heart restaurant I recount the story of Lady Hatton who danced with the devil here one night, next morning she was gone except for her still warm heart pumping out blood over the cobbles.

On to Saffron Hill, one of my favourite lanes that head up to Clerkenwell Road. I’ve frequently walked at night up Shoe Lane, Saffron Hill, Herbal Hill to Rosebery Avenue without seeing a soul. Tonight is no different. There are a few drinkers in The One Tun and I capture a group photo of the walkers outside. The One Tun has a long board proclaiming its great antiquity and links to Charles Dickens. (I wonder how many pubs in London claim to have been frequented by Dickens? Nearly as many as those that claim Dr Johnson as a former patron and fringe towns where Dick Turpin was alleged to have holed up). He probably sank a few in here whilst he was writing Oliver Twist as he placed Fagin’s den here on Saffron Hill. It was a dodgy old place back then. Now it’s all design studios and loft apartments. We find a piece of 1950’s municipal architecture at the end which we argue about. Nick loves it, Pete has an affection, Dave can see its merits, I think it was built to just about last 40 years and should be pulled down to make way for a Saffron plot, Cathy thinks we’re hilarious (on one of her blogs she lists ‘geeks’ as an interest).

We cross the road and duck down into Farringdon Lane. It’s always just that bit darker down here. The Clerk’s Well is marked with a blue plaque on the front of no. 14-16. You don’t have to be an etymologist to decipher this one. No room for Clerics to perform their Mystery Plays on the pavement now, although Radicals will gather round the corner on the Green for Mayday.
We don’t linger long and head up the banks of the Fleet. There are a few calls for a food stop which I’d scheduled a bit further along the route. A detour is mooted but nobody wants to miss out on Spa Green and the view back from the corner of Rosebery Avenue.

We slide along Bowling Green Lane, where boozers have been gastropubbed and come to the Spa Fields, now a grubby playground but once the site of dramatic political gatherings; most notably a large mustering in 1816 of the followers of Thomas Spence which resulted in the leaders of the meeting being charged with High Treason. The old Borough of Finsbury is again a political battleground as the Islington branch of the Independent Working Class Association lead the fighback against the sell-off of community assets to Council backed property speculators.

We make a nod towards the site of the London Spaw, another of the popular resorts of the area that survived as a pub and is now somesort of restaurant. It attracted poorer customers than its more celebrated neighbours, who could drink the water for free but had to pay for the home-brewed Spaw Ale. “Poor Robin’s Almanack” reported in 1733:
“Now sweethearts with their their sweethearts go
To Islington, or London Spaw;
Some go but just to drink the water,
Some for the ale which they like the better”

The tower blocks of St John’s, Goswell and City Road line up in the sky in front of us. Markers in the night. No.6 Lloyds Row where the actual spring for the Islington Spa was found has been wiped out, the whole street seems to consist of a car park and the entrance to the Spa Green Estate with its Tunbridge Wells House in reference to the moniker of ‘New Tunbridge Wells’ that the spa earnt in theC18th. How influenced was Lubetkin by the location’s illustrious past? I’ve written on this blog before about how it was reported to have also been one of Cromwell’s Civil War forts. Fort, pleasure garden, utopian housing scheme, sink estate. Quite a history. The exterior is clad in netting and scaffold, a lick of paint, lipstick on the gorilla.

We turn into Rosebery Avenue, we find the highpoint of the mound, opposite Sadler’s Wells which is the most obvious of the other wells on our tour. The hunger is starting to bite in and we want to make sure we make it to Muratori before it closes at 10. We cut round past the front of the old HQ of the Metropolitan Water Board and the New River Head. Down Merlin Street where I hit Pete with E.O. Gordon’s theory that the Penton Mound that rises here up Amwell Street was Merlin’s observatory and he dwelt in a cave at its base. There was a Merlin’s Cave Tavern hereabouts till the early 80’s.

I have to make a dash into St Helena Street and run off expecting the others to carry onto the caff, but they scamper up the street behind me. There was allegedly a spring in the garden of No.3 St. Helena Street that belonged to Bagnigge Wells. St Helena Street has been reduced to alleyway, no number 3 that we can see although some Georgian houses do back on.
In Lloyd Baker Street we lose Nick but carry on to look at the block of LCC flats named after Nell Gwynne who was associated with Bagnigge Wells on nearby Kings Cross Road. Nick catches up with us. He’d gone round to No.3 to have a look over the wall for signs of a spring or a well but without luck.

Muratori is open and half-full. We get a long formica table by the window and peruse the ‘chips with everything’ menu. This place doesn’t disappoint. I’ve been wanting to come in for ages. It’s full of fruity banter between tables, friendly staff, TV showing CCTV images of Farringdon Road.

We emerge at 10.15 to complete the tour of the wells and springs. Over the road, down Calthorpe Street then into Phoenix Place where we stand locked in a stare with a young fox that clambers atop a wall a few yards away. We try to go into the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office carpark but a friendly chap stops us. So we hit him for a bit of local history. This roughly cleared site with a deep hole in the middle was once part of the post office but was bombed during the war. I looked this up and find that the parcel section was completely destroyed by a single bomb on 18th June 1943. This must be one of the last major bombsites in London. Not for long, he tells us, they’re going to build a new sorting office here and sell the other one off to a hotel chain or something. He runs through the owners of the brilliantly lit offices that back on from Grays Inn Road (I’ve speculated about these before on this blog). ITN, Channel 4 (news), News International, looking down on a bombsite.

We move on round the corner into the depths of Black Mary’s Hole. The origins are obscure. Either a well in the gardens of the convent of the Blessed Mary that became Black Mary after the Reformation; or more literally that a black woman called Mary used the dispense the water from the well. One writer, Chesca Potter, theorises that it could have been dedicated to the Black Madonna (still worshipped in Poland Nick tells us) who is a manifestation of the much older lunar goddess Black Isis. She also took a medium to the site who believed it to have been a sacrificial pit. This would tie-in with the likelihood that the area was used for pagan worship as Druids were known to have worshiped streams and wells – the river Fleet that runs nearby was known as the Turnmill Brook and the area is rich with springs. There is something about the darkness of this spot that adds to the plausibility of this idea. I’m sure there were more than a few believers in the heyday of Grays Inn Buildings site just above the hole.

Up along Grays Inn Road and I take the fellas over to admire the architecture of the London Welsh centre, which has a hint of Arts & Crafts about it mixed with mock-Baronial. There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about this place. A venue for committee meetings, afternoon bingo, jumble sales, a village hall dropped in from the valleys. There is a lively function on inside, a lady wanders out and wonders what we’re looking at. We present her with our thoughts on the architecture. She’s just here for the monthly tango night and heads off home.

We’ve one last location to clock. Off we slip behind the Travelodge into St. Chad’s Place. Whiff of municipal men’s loo (visible through a broken window for voyeurs) and the pumping disco St. Chad’s Place bar, if I’d ever wondered what the word ‘bling’ meant then here it was heaving and lolling around inside. St. Chad is the patron saint of medicinal springs, the patron saint of our walk. Again this spot is marked by myth and legend, that the water sprung up through the ground on the spot that Edmund Ironside defeated King Canute. It opened as a medicinal spring and resort in 1772 had its heyday then was demolished when the Midland Railway carved up this vale.

We emerge through a dark narrow archway on Kings Cross Road, just along from the site of Bagnigge Wells at No. 63. The others head off to the station and I turn home up Pentonville Road acknowledging Penton Rise (Penton translates from Celtic as rising ground or spring; Henry Penton was the name of the developer who built the first houses here. Coincidence?) and Hermes Street as further references to water and springs as I pass them. As I stop in the corner shop near my flat to buy a bottle of beer, I realise that I’m completing the circuit. Opposite stands White Conduit House, a spring that served the Charthouse down in Smithfield and then became a pleasure garden with a maze in the garden. The spring and the maze, again signs of Druidic worship. It’s was renamed The Penny Farthing long ago, long after it gave birth to cricket and the MCC, and has been closed for the last year or so. I peer through the dusty window. The place has been gutted, a toilet stands alone in one corner surrounded by signs that this old pleasure ground and spring is about to come back to life once more, whilst I’ll be moving on from Penton Mound out east to Leytonstone.

Bibliography:
The London Compendium, Ed Glinert, 2004
The River of Wells, Chesca Potter, 1995
Inns and Taverns of Old London, Henry C. Shelley, 2004
Old London’s Spas, Baths and Wells, S.P. Sutherland, 1915

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  1. Pingback: London Streets Named After Fictional Characters | UnilagMusic UK

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