"When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading." - Henny Youngman
Clerkenwell. Ah! Clerkenwell. The
very name conjures up images of .........a clerk and, er, well....a well. All
this talk of wells makes a person thirsty and is only right and proper that
we endeavour to find our own watering holes this Christmas - at the end of which
we’ll be well pissed, well happy and, well, we’ll feel bloody well.
Yes, Christmas is here again and I’m afraid Somerset Maugham summed us up only too well (!) when he said:
Their idea of a celebration is
to go to a pub and drink six beers.
...it’s the fifth Christmas pub crawl.
Clerkenwell grew up as a hamlet serving the 12th-century monastic foundations, St. Mary’s nunnery and the priory of St. John of Jerusalem. The area was fertile meadowland watered by abundant springs and the Fleet river. St. Mary’s drew its water supply from the Fons Clericorum or ‘Clerk’s Well’.
Abstainer: a weak person who yields
to the temptations of denying himself a pleasure.
- Bierce, Ambrose
After the dissolution of the monasteries, St. Mary’s church was rededicated to St. James and survived as a parish church. The monastic land was given to the new tudor nobility, who included the Cavendishes, the Berkeleys and various other earls who built large mansions around Clerkenwell Close.
In 1613, the city of London’s first domestic piped water supply, the New river was opened by it’s promoter, Hugh Myddelton in the fields above Clerkenwell (by Sadler’s Wells today).
In Charles II time as the nobility moved westward, the great houses were abandoned to merchants and craftsmen, particularly during the Great Plague and after the Great Fire. Newcomers to skilled crafts and foreigners such as the French Huguenot refugees, were discouraged by restrictive guild practices within the city here (whereas nowadays they would all be signed by Arsenal F.C.) and settled in Clerkenwell which became a centre for clock- and watch-makers, jewellers and printers. Gin distillers, including Booth’s, Gordon’s and Nicholson’s and brewers such as Whitbread’s profited from the good water supply and the area was rapidly urbanised.
The rediscovery of medieval springs in the 18th-century brought popularity to the area and at least a dozen entertainment gardens sprang up (!).
In London’s expansion after the Napoleonic wars, Clerkenwell’s population rocketed and squalid alleys and courts became notorious areas around the long-polluted Fleet river and Smithfield market. Victorian clearances, which drove broad thoroughfares through acres of slums were here represented by Farringdon road and Clerkenwell road, while in 1862, the new Metropolitan railway alongside Farringdon road brought further demolition.
Poverty and overcrowding combined with political and social dissatisfaction made Clerkenwell a centre of radicalism, the green was a political meeting place and the start of many processions - including several which ended in death and destruction.
1. The City Pride (Fullers)
|So, a fairly sedate,
but pleasant pub (about 20m north of the site of the original Clerk’s well)
to begin with. The well originally supplied St. Mary’s nunnery and, writes
Stow (1603), ‘took the name of the parish clerks, who...were accustomed
there yearly to assemble and to play some large history of Holy Scripture’.
The well site was lost in Victorian times and accidentally uncovered again by workmen in 1924.
A great pint of London Pride (or Chiswick or ESB) is to be found here (in the pub, not the well). The pub is in two areas - the ‘public’ side, where we enter, (floorboards, fairly bright) and the raised ‘saloon’ side (dimly lit, comfy armchairs. - old prints, plaques and the ubiquitous old books provide decoration). Music plays quietly in the background and appears to be circa-1980s. The covered windows allow you to forget about the railway line across the way. Along Farringdon Lane to the next pub. The name ‘Farringdon’ comes from William de Farringdone, a 13th-century goldmith and city worthy. On the right we see an estate managed by the Peabody Trust which was set-up in 1862 by the American philanthropist, George Peabody ‘to ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy of this great metropolis and to promote their comfort and happiness’. No doubt their comfort and happiness is well served today by their being situated opposite ...
2. The Betsey Trotwood (Shepherd
Miss Betsey Trotwood, "David Copperfield", 1849-1850. David Copperfield's aunt - an austere but kindhearted lady with whom he sought refuge after leaving the Micawbers.
A great pub. The lighting is just right, the music (from a jukebox) just the right volume and lifesize models of Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and, er, Victorian bathers decorate the place along with full size prints of music hall characters. Shepherd Neame Best, Master Brew and (for the braver souls) Spitfire and Bishops Finger ales and Hurliman lager is there for the tasting and appreciated by a large crowd. ‘Cream’ ale is also provided, of course. Large windows allow you to watch the traffic on Farringdon Road and to gaze across at the ‘Grauniad’ offices.
Alcohol increases a mild gloom
while creating the illusion of numbing it.
- Wilson, A. N.
Farringdon road follows the course
of the Fleet river. The river, sometimes called the Holbourne, the River of
Wells or Turnmill Brook, rises in Hampstead and flows through Camden Town, King’s
Cross and Clerkenwell, joining the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge.
The Fleet’s long history of strategic and economic importance ended by the mid-18th century, by which time it had become a sewer and was built over. Many texts from this time recall it’s last days:
‘To where Fleet-Ditch with disemboguing
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames,
The King of dykes! than whom no sluice of mud
With deeper sable blots the silver flood’
from Pope’s Dunciad
‘Seepings from butcher’s stalls,
dung, guts and blood,
Drown’d puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats and turnip-tops, come tumbling down the flood.’
from Swift’s City Shower
The arching-over of the river provided 18th-century London with it’s own ‘urban myth’ - subterranean pigs: ‘A fatter boar was hardly ever seen than one taken up this day, coming out of the Fleet ditch into the Thames. It proved to be a butcher’s near Smithfield Bars, who had missed him five months, all of which time he had been in the common sewer...’ - the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’, 24th August 1736.
In 1846, the Fleet blew-up, it’s rancid and foetid gases bursting out into the street above. In Clerkenwell three poorhouses were swept away in a tidal wave of sewage.
3. The Little Litten (Freehouse) Right, whereas the last two pubs have featured good draught beer, this one concentrates more on lager and bottled concoctions including ‘Bitter and Twisted’, ‘Craic - the spirit of the Irish’ (similar themes?!) and ‘Red’. Bass, Courage Directors and ‘Litten Best’ are available but may suffer in comparison to earlier beers. The pub advertises a ‘DJ and dancing most nights through December’ and a privilege card is available. From reading this, as you may expect, the pub attracts large crowds.
En route to the next pub, we turn right at the end of Corporation Row (named after a workhouse built to serve a ‘corporation’ of parishes) - note the view of St. James’ church - and past the site of the ‘House of Detention’. Prisons on this site date back over 300 years. Originally built to relieve Newgate prison as a house of detention for those awaiting trial, the prison suffered an explosion in 1867 when an unsuccessful attempt was made to rescue two Fenian prisoners. The explosion killed four passers-by and wounded many others. One of the men involved, a 27 year old Irish patriot, Michael Barrett, suffered the last public hanging in England before a crowd of nearly 40,000 people on Tuesday 26th May 1868 outside Newgate Prison. Barrett went to his death, in public, knowing that he would be the last to do so - legislation for all future executions to be carried out inside prison walls had already been passed through Parliament but was not due to receive royal assent until three days later (the ‘luck of the Irish’!). Thirteen of the underground cells are now restored and open to view.
Down Sans Walk and into Sekforde Street (In the 19th-century the site of a ‘crippleage’ for girls handicapped by work in the area’s numerous clothing sweatshops) to...
4. The Sekforde Arms (Young’s)
A lovely traditional ‘local’ here. Are there any poor Young’s pubs? Ordinary, Special and Winter Warmer on draught and bottles of Ram Rod provide a warming tonic after the lengthy (5 minute) walk from the last pub and plush seating allows you to settle your weary limbs for the stagger to the finishing line.
Two more to go!
As we head towards Clerkenwell Green, we can see the church of St. James more clearly.
The church was rebuilt in 1788-91 by James Carr, a local architect who modelled
the spire on St. Martin-in-the-fields and it was described as looking like ‘a
lost and unhappy cousin of the Wren family’. The church has an interesting
upper gallery (built for charity children in 1820) and a fine organ by George
Pike England, but that’s another story.
Clerkenwell Green was once the centre of the ‘village’. In the 17th-century it was ringed with grand houses and trees, the last of which blew down in 1796. By the 18th-century it had lost its grass, but still had a pound, pillory and watch-house and a turnstile at the entrance to Clerkenwell Close. During Victorian times it was a well-known centre for political meetings and in 1887 it was the departure point for the march of protesters to Trafalgar Square which ended as Bloody Sunday (the dispersal by police and soldiers of a Socialist demonstration in which two people died). The pop group U2 were so moved by these events that they....sorry, wrong Bloody Sunday.
He finished his half-pint . .
. with the slowness of a man unable to see where the next was coming from.
- Jacobs, W. W.
5. The Crown (Nicholsons)
A nice pub to come to at this time of the night, a little up-tempo after the Sekforde, with a younger crowd. A dark, ‘wooden floorboard’ interior with 1980s music may inspire some as may Adnams and Tetley (& possibly a few more) beers on draught. A pub has stood here since the 17th-Century and the present building was built in 1855.
"I envy people who drink. At least
they have something to blame everything on."
6. The Three Kings
The place to end the night on a high. A noisy, lively, bustling boozer where the punters drink Marston’s Pedigree, Old Speckled Hen or Theakston’s Best and pray that the papier-mache fish don’t get them. The music is loud, the atmosphere infectious, the papier-mache pictures and mobiles gaudy but appropriate.
And that’s that. There is so much to discover about this area that it would take about 20 pubs (and an early morning start) to cover it all, so shall we say 11:00 tomorrow? Come back! Another time perhaps.
Farringdon station is just down Turnmill St (which takes it’s name from a series of watermills that stood here, by the river Fleet and which was notorious for whoring and villainy in the 19th-century) and Christmas is just around the corner. By now we should all feel like Super(wo)men and ready to tackle the rigours of the festive season with Kryptonite-defying power.
Tested and approved by A. Laverty Snr. (63)
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