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

Black Mary’s Hole

I decide to go back into Black Mary’s Hole to take some photos. I enter from Grays Inn Road via Elm Street and discover that the ominous looking block sprouting military sized satellite dishes on the roof is in fact the offices of the Serious Fraud Squad (a building they appear to share with ITN). The offices are illuminated by strip lights, a swivel chair turned to face the window with a bulging folder sat half open. I wonder if this is the infamous George Galloway file.

Luckily the basement office stacked high with old IT gear belongs to the neighbouring building. Two fellas are sat there feet up. I move along a little down Gough Street, flash off, too far away to get a good picture. It’s freezing. A guy walks down the middle of the street with two dogs. This is a desolate dark lane. The office that I snap has a semi-deserted carpark beneath – a skip full of broken office furniture. It doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to see the murder of John Etheridge that took place here in 1766. Etheridge was driving cattle through the area and one of his bullocks strayed into a field belonging to William Floyd. Thomas Plymmer came out of the smith’s shop, struck him once on the nose, he collapsed and died.

From the top of Phoenix Place I look out over the lights of the huge carpark that house the post office vans of the Mount Pleasant sorting office. My great aunts Edie and Ethel worked here when they returned from South Africa in the 1920’s. The tower blocks on St John’s Street Goswell Road shimmer in the background, roughly on the spot of the old madhouse, the historic symmetry is instructive.

This dark pit between Calthorpe Street, Kings Cross Road, Farringdon Road, Grays Inn and down to Clerkenwell Road keeps drawing me in, night and day. It retains a medieval feel, even after William Floyd’s fields have given way to a roughly surfaced carpark and the sorting office has been dropped on Sir John Oldcastle’s orchard. C20th street lighting fails to illuminate the damp blackness that rises from the Fleet beneath the pavement. Alleys and lanes proliferate. There is an absence of people on the street after dark, you earn your passage through here and it stays with you.


The scene in Muratori on Kings Cross Road is one to catch. Faces alive. The waitress has the floor, animated, arms waving, she’s holding court, all the blokes in post office drag having their hearty dinners laughing. It’s like an Edward Hopper painting injected with mirth.

This morning, going up Mount Pleasant the covers start to come off the back of the infamous Grays Inn Buildings. It’s starting to look like just another block of luxury flats, a long way from it’s days as a notorious den of drugs and anarchists.

BS Johnson in High Wycombe

Did a classic walk in from Wycombe to Wooburn last week, along the River Wye. We’d gone down to do a talk to the Fine Art students at BCUC and I’d had this urge to walk home, chart the changes taking place to the area where I grew up as they manifest themselves along the river which gave the area it’s purpose and its identity.
But before I got onto the river I couldn’t resist a diversion to Gordon Road where BS Johnson satyed as an evacuee. Somebdoy contacted me via this blog to point out the long descriptions of Wycombe in his novel ‘Trawl’.
I started reading him because he lived in Claremont Square, Islington, just down the road from me, the top of Penton Mound. He writes about night-time schleps around Islington in ‘Albert Angelo’.
It’s another reference in my ‘autopobiography’.

You can read about the walk here: http://remappinghighwycombe.blogspot.com

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‘Walking Class Heroes’

Found the site of The Pedestrian Council of Australia whilst researching Walk to Work Schemes.
They promote a national Walk to Work Day. Their aims and objectives are pretty tame but at least it’s a start. I’m not really aware of anything similar in the UK apart from Sustrans who advocate cycling. The Ramblers only promote recreactional walking which is more or less true of Transport For London’s walking initiative.
http://www.walk.com.au/pedestriancouncil/page.asp

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Pedestrian Culture

Pedestrian Culture
I went straight to this blog after I found yet another new route for my daily plod to work – how many more variations can there be on a walk from Penton Mound to the South Bank. This one goes from the end of Grays Inn Road along High Holborn down the alley next to Pendrals Oak into Lincolns Inn Fields (where I found a cluster of black cabs and white stretch limos last night), Portugal Street, Aldwych. A classic.

The reason I visited Pedestrain Culture is that this very idea is frequently on my mind during my walks – how, by making walking part of your functional routines, could transform daily life, and naturally by extension if people do it on mass our cities and town would be quite different places. Put simply – walking can change the world.

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Boots

My trusty walking boots have finally expired. It’s a big deal for someone who plods around as much as I do. I must have been to about 20 shops trying to find a replacement looking for something cheap, comfortable and sturdy enough to do about 3,000 miles of pavement.

Shops seem to cater for mountaineers, hill walkers, jungle trekkers, light trekkers, travellers, but not urban walkers. Our needs are quite different and the whole thing left me quite perplexed. Eventually wet feet got me down and I ended up with a pair of cheap Reeboks from Lilywhites.

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Farringdon Road


farringdon road
Originally uploaded by soapbox.

At almost the same place on Clerkenwell Road this morning and again at 9.30pm I got a definite trembling in my hip. Like a mobile phone vibrating in my pocket, except my phone was turned off in my bag.
I have been getting strong impulses to go a particular way on walks to and from work. Impulses I can’t refuse. Last night I was virtually pushed away from my usual route along Fetter and Leather Lane, my legs just wouldn’t permit me to go that way. I ended up being drawn beneath the Blade Runner office blocks of Shoe Lane and into Farringdon Road. I took photos on my phone and sent them to my sister with cryptic clues as to the location. She was allowed to use The London Compendium and the A-Z.
Tonight though I had no problems taking a minor deviation down Hatton Garden, one of London’s most alluring streets. In daytime there’s a mixture of builders, jewellers counting the diamonds rings in their shop windows, young couples looking for engagement rings and great hunks of men in dark suits providing protection. The transactions that take place in this non-descript looking Lane must run into the millions. But twenty yards away in Leather Lane street traders knock out bargain priced designer copies and cheap bags of dried fruit. At night Hatton Garden is full of mystery.
Walking down there my head was still spinning from all the conspiracy sites I’d been reading about the London bombings. They’re rubbish of course but they’ve tuned me into the malevolence I sensed abroad in the city after 7th July. It’s still there. It’s not just the nutcases with bombs in their backpacks but the shooting of that poor lad at Stockwell Station by the Police and the sanctimonious droning of Tony Blair.
Of course the conspiracy theorists and the establishment always forget about the power of the street, the unpredictable force of the mob, the echoes from the past pulsing up through the pavement.