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

Climbing St. Brides

I tried to climb the spire of Wren’s St Brides Church Fleet Street today and failed. I’d read in ‘Lights Out for the Territory’ by Iain Sinclair how he’d managed to find a small unlocked door that led up the spire, which is the second tallest after St Paul’s. Today the door was locked. I tried to speak to the church warden through an intercom but he simply said, “It isn’t safe”. So I was denied one of the great views of the city and headed down into the crypt instead.

I’m doing a vague mapping of the area using William Kent’s ‘Lost Treasures of London’ (1946) as my guide. Kent’s book is an inventory of World War II bomb damage to the city, a sad list of loss and destruction. It’s my aim to see what else has fallen to the peacetime blitz of urban planning.

I’ll be posting more here as I go along.

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The Sacking of Barnard Park

10am this morning. A liberal littering of bright blue bin-liners. Cast iron bin tossed on its side yards from its base. Smashed glass of white, brown and green everywhere, but particularly on the path and around the swings. This is a usual scene in Barnard Park on a Sunday morning when I take my son to the playground. He loves picking up the broken glass and putting it in the bin. Last Sunday there was a large pink plastic elephant on a metal platform, probably lifted from outside a shop somewhere, smashed and partially burnt, offered up as a ritual sacrifice. Toddlers sat and played on it nonetheless. The sandpit has been emptied, not by the slack-jawed teens but by the council, they got tired of extracting the shards of broken glass. What they’ve left is a 3- foot deep empty concrete pit with metal barriers around the perimeter chained together at intervals of a metre or so, perfect for the mangling of a toddler. Even the malicious yobs sucking down alcopops here at night couldn’t devise a more lethal kiddie trap.

The scene this morning was relatively peaceful though. No motor-scooters hurtling by the playground gates at full-throttle. The building site next to the Lark in the Park pub resting from the job of building a block of ‘luxury apartments’. All the kids are excited by the presence of a real-life ‘Cranky Crane’ dominating the skyline and they can compare their own plastic ‘Scoop’ against the real thing chucking up mud six days a week. Be interesting to see how the new residents of Barnard Park will take to the weekly sacking of the space beneath their luxury windows. Will the estate agents include it in their advertising pitch, “the authentic inner city experience, prime views of feral youths burning out stolen vehicles.” One violent rape and one attempted murder (a random stabbing at four in the afternoon) within the last year. A bouncer at The Elbow Room across the way in Chapel Market shot after refusing someone entry last week. A teenager beaten unconscious on Barnsbury Estate opposite the park. Tony Blair lived about fifty yards away from the swings.

The kids love it though, and so do we. The view from Barnsbury Road down over Kings Cross should have its own blue plaque. There’s talk of reclaiming the concrete football pitches – in two and a half years I haven’t seen a single match played there, only dog training. The chain-link fencing is routinely pulled down and left contorted with sharp rusting spikes jutting out at all angles. Grassed over there would be a long sweep of green down to the One O’Clock Club (a prime piece of the park fenced off to be used for two hours a day and not at all weekends and autumn-winter). In summer with the water plaything on it’s packed with screeching kids and sunbathing parents. In the London borough with the least amount of greenspace, we have to appreciate what we’ve got.

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Walking the Finsbury Forts

I stumbled across an article on the web the other day. Think I was looking for something on Old Merlin’s Cave Tavern and found this piece on the Architectural Association site that makes reference to a chain of Civil War defences that cut across the old borough of Finsbury:
“Waterfield Fort was at the top of St John’s Street, exactly where Spa Green Estate stands today, linked eastwards by trenches running along Sebastian Street to a huge fort at Mount Mills off the Goswell Road. Westwards, the lines cut to New River Head’s circular reservoir and on to Mount Pleasant, east of Black Mary’s Hole and another city dump. In between, a covered walkway was cut up the hill that is now Amwell Street, to Islington Pond, which would soon became the extant reservoir in Claremont Square.”

The author, Guy Mannes Abbott, makes the link between this system of fortifications that stretched eastwards through Shoreditch and Whitechapel to Wapping built to protect the fledgling English Revolution and the Utopian aspirations of the municipal architecture of Berthold Lubetkin built in the old London borough of Finsbury:
“The forts mark an area known for its spas and radical reformers and which, in the seventeenth century, Wenceslaus Hollar represented in a series of etchings showing extensive earthworks. They protected an area that would become the site of the largest and most ambitious plan ever for the social regeneration of London and which remains a paragon of what could be achieved with social housing. Spa Green, Bevin Court and Priory Green just north of Finsbury are all positive manifestations of a politically committed and revolutionarily ambitious approach to collective works, but – conscious of what there was to fight for – Tecton also produced a plan for an elaborate system of defences and network of communications with uncanny echoes of the Civil War forts.”

So after work in the fading light I headed off to see what traces remained. I approached the forts from the south, across the wobbly bridge and round St Pauls. The towers of the Barbican Estate stand like sentinels challenging the medieval monastic complex of the Charterhouse across Goswell Road. If we’re looking for the spirit of rebellion and utopianism it’s written here on the names of the blocks that make up the Barbican: Thomas More House, Milton Court, Defoe House, Cromwell Tower, Bunyan Court, Mountjoy House after a Huguenot refugee, Willoughby House after Catherine an upholder of the new Protestantism.

Progressing northwards through the concrete I feel a tangible sense of anticipation. Leading off either side Gee Street, Bastwick Street, Pear Tree Court, straight rows of unforgiving slab-like structures. This landscape gives little away. Draws you in then repels you.

The Old Ivy House marks the corner of Seward Street, the sort of pub you’d only go into if you were desperate for a pint. The estate over the road is a red-brick construction of towers and walkways. The gloomy entrance to Seward Street stinks of stale piss and grime. A street sign on the back of the pub heralds the site of Mount Mills, a significant point on the “Utopian enclosure”. The view is far from utopian, grubby backs of houses, iron fire escapes, air-con vents, a hexagonal building juts out unnaturally and the road curves around it. Opposite a new gleaming block of flats with glass-brick lift-shaft/ stairwell. Mount Mills is now a new-laid tarmac carpark. I look back to the pub and the trendy coffee bar (coffee@goswell road) from higher ground. The mound. What was also a plague pit, windmill, public laystall has given way to Mini Cooper, Audi, tall TV aerials, private parking.

Looking east along Lever Street there is a noticeable rise in the road roughly adjacent with Mount Mills, it drops the other side towards Central Street. On the other side of Goswell Lever Street becomes Percival Street which leads into Skinner Street where the old Merlin’s Cave Tavern stood. Mannes Abbott sees the story of the construction of these defences being fundamental to the English identity and the narrative of the island. What more potent national mythology than the Arthurian legends, commemorated in the same streets.

Sebastian Street is immediately darker, tree-lined. Modernist buildings of the City University becoming a row of Georgian townhouses. A contemporary source described a trench dyke running along here to St. John’s Fort. I pass through Northampton Square with its bandstand. Crows squawk, they would have feasted on the carrion tossed into the ditch.

I exit on Wyclif Street. Another reference to radicalism.

Kids in hoodies riding BMXs whiz across St John St. Spa Green Estate that occupied the site of Waterfield Fort commands the high ground that marks the final approach to the Angel tollgate. This was bandit country in those days, the Angel Tavern did a brisk trade with travellers wanting to avoid progressing through the open fields in the dark.

I can smell a wet muddy fragrance. Kids play noisily on the football/ basketball court. The block facing St John Street is Tunbridge House, probably a reference to New Tunbridge Wells which was another name for the Islington Spa pleasure grounds that were here in the C18th. Do the kids see this as the Utopia Lubetkin designed, or a ghetto? One 18 year old threw himself to his death from a ninth floor window of a council block down here last week.

It’s dark and I’m put off walking through the estate. Its defences still in operation. From Rosebery Avenue you can see how Spa Green rests in a hollow. The wave of the outside wall recalling a fortified line. The Thames Water HQ opposite seems to continue the wave motif on the other side of the road, two grand municipal buildings complementing each other except that one has been converted to house the well-healed rather than the socially excluded.

Punters from the Sadlers Wells spill out onto the pavement. Up Amwell Street and I try to imagine it as a covered walkway as described in the article. It’s echoes Elizabeth Gordon’s speculation that a tunnel ran from the base of Amwell Street into the heart of Penton Mound where Merlin lived in a cave.

I pass on a pint in Filthy McNasty’s as it’s too packed and noisy. Three rosy cheeked pleasure seekers announce “Here it is”, and for a second I think that they too are looking for St. John’s Fort. “Filthy McNasty’s, s’posed to be really good.” I get a bottle of Polish Lager from the cornershop instead.

You can read “rebel city” here: http://www.g-m-a.net/docs/c_forting.html