Another London Walk

London

I’m researching the next Bryant & May novel, and decided to set it around a misunderstood and less visited part of Central London. It forms a rough square from Chancery Lane, along Holborn and up to Roseberry Avenue, and is the home of London’s gold and diamond merchants, so it’s Clerkenwell/Holborn/Hatton Garden.

For a long time this was the largest centre of its kind in the world, forming a trading nexus with Antwerp and Paris. Here was a large Jewish community and an Italian settlement, and it was also the home for London’s watchmakers, jewellers and fountain pen manufacturers.

I started my walk by heading for the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office, where all of North London’s mail is taken. This was once the site of Coldbath Fields Prison, but I remember there used to be an immense Victorian hotel nearby with narrow windows, tiny rooms and gables. This has been torn down to make way for an astoundingly ugly, cheap-looking hotel, and I pity the poor tourist who wakes up here on his first visit to the capital.

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I tried to locate the Clerkenwell House of Detention, where I’d performed stories for the Clerkenwell Festival, but it seems not to be open to the public anymore. This is a shame, as the vaults of the Clerkenwell House Of Detention are all that remain of the 1847 prison, demolished at the end of the nineteenth century to make way for a school, which in turn has been converted into flats. It’s one of the most disturbing underground buildings I’ve ever entered, and it must be impossible to live near it and not be aware of what lies below the streets. You can see the Fleet tributaries through nearby drain covers, and follow the chain of wells from King’s Cross down through Farringdon to the river. It’s a perfect setting for a murder mystery.

But for me the area has other connections. My parents met in The Griffin pub on Clerkenwell Road, having worked at the nearby engineering firm of Griffin & Tatlock together. My father bought his wedding ring from a friend in Hatton Garden, and my mother always took me to the circus in the basement of Gamages department store at Christmas. My first fountain pen came from one of the local suppliers, as did my first typewriter. The neighbourhood is peppered with small chapels and churches – and pubs like the Gunmakers.

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Dickens famously pointed out that in this area even the snowflakes were covered in soot, ‘gone into mourning for the death of the sun’, and I suppose there’s something about the low level of light that mutes the shades of brick and concrete,  and depresses those of us who suffer through the purgatorial month of February. The geography of Farringdon and Clerkenwell matches its weather, being perverse, willful, confusing and unsettling. The roads are never less than atmospheric, so they make fertile ground for the creation of dark tales. Add to that mix the stories of murders and hangings associated with Smithfield, the animal bones washed down from the butcheries on the riverbanks, and half the job is done for you.

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Heading down through Hatton Garden, where the early morning sound is of bristle brushes being wielded – for this seems to be the last area of London where the locals are happy to sweep the streets themselves – I headed past the HQ of St John’s Knights Hospitallers, now open to the public (although sadly not on this occasion). Hatton Garden had no public diamond and gold outlets until the 1970s, but operated a very closed shop. Now the jewellers sell directly to the public, but still manufacture in the rooms above their shops.

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IMG_1332Walking along through Holborn to Chancery Lane, I looked in on Waterhouse Square, vaguely recalling a monument to Chuck Dickens tucked in a corner of what was once known as Furnival Inns. This was the home of the Prudential Insurance at Holborn Bars, a Grade II listed building in a square built between 1879 and 1906. It’s now the home of English Heritage. And there he was in the corner, under a soft glowing light on a chilly sleety day, like a benevolent and welcoming guide to an inhospitable January city.

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12 comments on “Another London Walk”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Very nice walk today, Admin. Great photos and the place and street names come tumbling out of memory from the dozens of books read, including The Water Room. And looking at your photos, I can hear the street sounds, leather soles on varying surfaces, the contained echos of doors and voices in the courtways, the passing of vehicles, and feel the weather. I switching to tea this morning.
    Atmospheric.

  2. stephen groves says:

    Hi Chris,

    That’s the building with the cherubs climbing round it on the front right hand corner.

    ALL BEST
    STALKY

  3. Matt Brown says:

    Check out Brookes Market, the tiny pedestrian square round the back of the Pru building for a creepy, murdersome vibe. No one ever goes there, it’s permanently in the shade of the Pru and the plain trees, Chatterton committed suicide there, and there’s a lifesize statue of Christ emerging spookily from a wall: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5042/5276832524_5c5685a344_z.jpg

  4. Rick D says:

    thanks for yet a magical mystery (writer) tour! And damn you for making me wish I was following you around London — but not in a stalkerly manner…

  5. Roger says:

    “an immense Victorian hotel nearby with narrow windows, tiny rooms and gables.”
    A Rowton House actually, built as lodging houses for poor or vagrant working men.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    The Gunmakers looks like a good pub and I would assume that the fountain pen makers (huzzah!) and the watch makers and jewelers were joined at some point by the makers of fine guns. What a lovely walk and I love these archways.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    It seems to me that Coldbath Prison was where the suspect in the Maul and Pear Tree case was held and “committed suicide”.

  8. Lee Ann says:

    Thanks Roger, reading about the Rowton Houses was so interesting.
    I loved walking the streets of London, and wondering what their history was.

  9. admin says:

    Thanks for the tip about the Rowton House – I remember a friend of mine in catering had been lodged there – the rooms were miniscule and sinister.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Aren’t you making a slight error about tourists – your kind of tourist – when you say they would be upset on finding their hotel was located over a former prison? I think it would be fascinating and I’m about the most squeamish of your readers.

  11. Vivienne Cox says:

    Another place sometimes available on Open Weekends is the Marx Memorial Library on Clerkenwell Green. The basement is full of copies of the old Daily Worker. One day I’d like to have another look at these and enjoy the cartoons of fat bankers carrying away bags of money that seemed to feature every day in my childhood. What changes?

  12. Helen Martin says:

    I looked at the statue emerging from the wall and must say that it is very strange. Is there a connection between it & Chatterton’s suicide?

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