The London Explorer No. 1



For your delectation, a slender book in my possession, priced 2/6d, Peter Jackson’s ‘The London Explorer’ contains more of his wonderful oddities about London from the author of the much-loved ‘London Is Stranger Than Fiction’ column that used to run in the Evening News. Here are Jackson’s remarks on the district of Clerkenwell. Remember, these books reprinted the columns in the 1950s, and I have a horrible feeling that most of the oddities presented in them have now been smashed to bits by the developers.But I thought I’d dip into the two volumes over the next few weeks, and as we have a few Londonheads out there, you might be able to provide some clues about what happened to the things mentioned in the strips. So let’s get a bit interactive here.

After each post from the books, I’ll pose one of the questions taken from Jackson’s pages. If you already own these wonderful books (still cheaply available secondhand) don’t answer! And one day I’ll compare the facts in the books by going around London and seeing what’s still there. Until then, here are some parts of Clerkenwell that may or may not still be there…

Clerkenwell is named after a well, referred to in 1174 as the site where scripture plays were produced. It was built over in 1857, forgotten, then rediscovered in 1924. The book says ‘it can be seen by applying to the library in Skinner Street’.

Clerkenwell is the site of the ‘famous Exmouth Street daily book market.’ Yes, it was until six years ago, when the hundred year-old market vanished with the last sale of the stall holdings.

Clerkenwell is the home of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, and the circle of stones in the road outlines the nave of their priory church, destroyed by Wat Tyler. ‘It can be seen through the railings of St John’s Church’. Not any more, it can’t, because the church was bombed in the war. But is the ring still there?

Clerkenwell has an old stone tablet which tells us ‘4 Furlongs 205 Yards From Holborn Barrs Down Holborn Up Snow Hill Cow Lane and Through Smithfield’. Well, Snow Hill is still there but Cow Lane has gone, and Smithfield is about to be redeveloped. What we need there is a real market for fresh meat and fish, not more ‘retail opportunities’. Is there tablet still around?

And the question: Why are there stone pineapples on Lambeth Bridge?

13 comments on “The London Explorer No. 1”

  1. Vivienne says:

    I thought that little chapel off St. John’s Square was connected to those knights. I visited once on an Open House day, but can’t remember mention of stone ring, so must be wrong. There is still Cowcross Street. Alas, don’t know anything about the pineapples- time for another wander.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    I seem to remember that the pineapples were a last minute addition to the bridge’s décor, but why I no longer have a clue.
    So, I’ll go with this: Money was running thin toward the final months of finishing the bridge and a call was put out for cash donations to finish it all up. One of the major company’s answering the call was located in Hawaii and it insisted that pineapple’s – it’s chief export product – be added as topping to the bridge as a way of promoting it’s chief export.
    For a while many of these stone pineapples were stolen, but being stone proved to be totally inedible and had a somewhat negative impact on sales of the actual imported fruit.
    How’d I do? How’d I do?

  3. slabman says:

    Generally pineapples are a symbol of hospitality and prosperity. They were at first so precious in Europe that there’s a portrait depicting Charles II receiving one as a gift. It’s thought that the Lambeth Bridge pineapples are a tribute to John Tradescant the younger who was supposedly first to grow them in England

  4. snowy says:

    Slabman has the oft’ told tale to a tee.

    Pineapples were once so rare that they could be rented by the day as a centrepiece for a table.

    It was very difficult to get the fruit to set and even harder to get it to ripen. Various techniques were tried, direct heating, [killed the fruit], indirect heating, [the flues caught fire and the fruithouse burnt down] and vast mounds of horse manure, measured in the tonnes, [labour intensive, stank and could still catch light spontaneously].

    It has been questioned if the decorations are actually pineapples, or pinecones. It can be hard to work out, because old varieties of pineapple were pointy, the barrel shaped variety [preferred by canneries], were popularised later.

  5. Colin says:

    Because the man from Del Monte said ‘yes’

  6. Roger says:

    Generally pineapples are a symbol of hospitality and prosperity. They were at first so precious in Europe that there’s a portrait depicting Charles II receiving one as a gift. It’s thought that the Lambeth Bridge pineapples are a tribute to John Tradescant the younger who was supposedly first to grow them in England

    Actually, the significance of that pineapple is that it was grown in a royal hothouse- the first one grown in England and it was Tradescant’s successor, John Rose, who did so.

  7. M@ says:

    Looking forward to this series.
    The stone circle is still there. It’s readily visible in St John Square opposite Zetter, and you can see it on Google sattelite view.

  8. jan says:

    Regarding the well in Skinner street it is in fact visible outside the library now – or the last time I looked admittedly about a decade ago!- The well is encased in glass like the well at Sadlers wells that is light up in all different colours. You can walk down a spiral staircase I think to the level of the SKINNER STREET well it looks like a sort of monster biro. Its very interesting that lots of London’a oldest theatres have a well or access to a nearby well as water fountains were an important part of a lot of theatrical performances. Wells were important to in the gardens which became centres of entertainment and “health resorts” in the 17th and 18 Centuries. The Hampstead Wells, Bagnigge Wells in Kings Cross and the wells down at Vauxhall being probably most famous. I have an interest in Holy wells and the transfer of belief in Pagan water sprites into Christian Holy sites and Mapping out the location of Londons Wells and water sources can be enlightening. Of course amoungst the other other older buildings in most countries that include a water source are ancient Churches where flowing water which fed the font and passed beneath the body of the church – usually flowing toward the altar. A spring or underground stream seemed to carry some importance. Whether this was because of the transmutation of Pagan holy sites into Christian churches automatically included the inclusion of this water source or because there is in fact some release of energies by running water that was appreciated until Medieval times I don’t know. Interesting topic though.

    Also good stuff about the pineapples my fingers were itching to type the word Tradescant but you had all beaten me to it! Interesting about the pointed pineapple being superceded by the barrel shaped variety cos of the canning industry an early example of the industrializartion of food production I suppose. As I labouriously type this Waitrose will trying to source and sell the pointed tip version preferably on a free traid basis. Also once you have crossed that bridge and head down toward Lambeth you ve got the gardening museum just about opposite the old Met Police laboratories. The gardening museum is based in a deconcescrated church and I might be mistaken but I think Captain William Bligh might be buried in the church yard there. Right I ‘ve got to stop I’m p****ing myself off now. talk about BORING

  9. jan says:

    Whilst I am in dribbling mood. I’ve just read the above through and apart from the usual few errors I remember now that to access the well which is outside the library and clearly visible if u do want to go inside it the key is held inside the library itself.

    Also the gardening museum cross LAMBETH BRIDGE at the roundabout just beyond take the exit heading inland NOT also the south side of the Thames and the museum is on the nearside/left just be4 the railway bridge. Right will stop again

  10. admin says:

    Excellent! According to Jackson, Tredescant is buried there, which seems unlikely.

  11. Vivienne says:

    no, that could be quite likely as the museum is in a church, hard against Lambeth Palace. I have sat in the garden to eat a sandwich, but not yet visited the museum. My aunt tried to introduce me to plants by giving me a tradescantia, which promptly died – neglect or overwatering I don’t know. But it made his name stick in my mind. I was only about 6 so haven’t let this worry me too much.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    There’s so much about water and churches/pagan sites that I’m going to check out Aachen when I’m there to see if there are any water references in regard to that ancient site. The matter of water and theatres bemuses me, though. Are theatrical productions thirst generating or are spa visits so boring that entertainment needed to be provided?

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