Visit Clerkenwell, London’s vibrant urban village

Clerkenwell is London’s hub for creativity with a strong sense of community thanks to the many creative businesses that settled here .

A 10-minute walk due north separates St. Paul’s Cathedral from the urban village of Clerkenwell. Once the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, Clerkenwell is now home to a community of creative young professionals.

Who were the Knights Hospitaller?

The very name evokes romantic notions of chivalrous knights. The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, more commonly known as the Knights Hospitaller and later the Order of Malta, was a religious military order founded in Jerusalem in the 11th century.

The order’s original mission was to care for the sick and poor pilgrims in their hospital in Jerusalem, that is why they were called Knights Hospitaller. They combined that humanitarian task with defending the Holy Land during the Crusades.

Clerkenwell is London’s hub for creativity with a strong sense of community thanks to the many creative businesses that settled here .
Priory church

From Jerusalem, the order spread throughout Europe. In Clerkenwell, a Norman baron and his wife founded the Benedictine nunnery of St. Mary’s and the Priory of St. John of Jerusalem in the 12th century. Thus it became their European headquarters.

Why is the area called Clerkenwell?

The area that developed around the nunnery and priory received its name from the Clerks’ Well located next to the nunnery. Clerks -inferior clergy- used to perform miracle plays around the well in the presence of the king and queen and their court. By the 13th century, the plays had lost their ecclesiastical spirit.

Clerks’ Well was the most famous among the many freshwater wells in the area. Some were said to have healing properties and attracted people searching for cures for their ailments.

If you walk around the area, you will not be transported back in time to the Middle Ages. There’s precious little medieval architecture left.

Clerkenwell is London’s hub for creativity with a strong sense of community thanks to the many creative businesses that settled here .

Would you believe that the original well was rediscovered by accident in 1924? It was covered by new buildings after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The well is now inside the basement of the office building located at 14-16 Farringdon Road.   

The evolution of Clerkenwell

Clerkenwell experienced a population growth after the reign on Elizabeth I. By 1619, noblemen and gentlemen had moved to the area, and it became a fashionable place to live.

The medicinal properties of the many wells attracted the public, so a number of houses of entertainment sprung up around the wells.

The rural setting was gradually overtaken by the urban growth brought about by the construction of the Regent’s Canal to the north (1812), the New North Road and the North London Railway in the 1850s.

Clerkenwell was traditionally associated with breweries, distilleries, clock making and printing, mainly during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

Clerkenwell is London’s hub for creativity with a strong sense of community thanks to the many creative businesses that settled here .
Playful architecture

The area was badly hit by bombing during World War II. As a result, people moved to other neighbourhoods, away from destruction.  Neglect was inevitable, as was the construction of housing estates and buildings for light industries in the 1950s and 60s.

Clerkenwell’s urban regeneration began when Clerkenwell Green was declared a conservation area in 1969. Slum clearing took place well into the 1970s.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, craftspeople took over the warehouses. Later, these premises were converted to hostels, offices, apartments and hotels. The loft-living trend came here to stay.

Today, Clerkenwell is London’s hub for creativity thanks to the many creative businesses that settled here. And it has a strong sense of community as well.

What to see in Clerkenwell

The Museum of the Order of St. John and St. John’s Gate is where you should start your exploration. The crypt of the original church consecrated in 1185 can be see only with a guided visit.

Clerkenwell is London’s hub for creativity with a strong sense of community thanks to the many creative businesses that settled here .
The medieval crypt

St. James Church on Clerkenwell Close. This church was built in 1792 on the site of the 11th century nunnery. It sustained bomb damage during the war but was restored.

There isn’t a patch of green on Clerkenwell Green, but still, go see it.

Fans of Zaha Hadid’s work can see the office of her architectural firm. Obviously not open to the public, but at least you can see the front door! (10 Bowling Green Farringdon)

Jerusalem Tavern (55 Britton St.) There have been several taverns on this spot. This one dates form 1720.

Take a moment to breathe deeply at the Cloister Garden.   

Clerkenwell is London’s hub for creativity with a strong sense of community thanks to the many creative businesses that settled here .
Cloister garden

The hustle and bustle of Smithfield Market is a stone’s throw away.

Any of the pubs, gastropubs and restaurants. Clerkenwell has earned a reputation as the gastronomic hub of London.

An urban village

It’s hard to believe that Clerkenwell is an urban village in the heart of London. Unlike other boroughs, there are no big monuments, palaces or popular attractions. It’s where history coexists in harmony with the pace of modern life. It’s a place of old stones and young spirits.

Hidden London: Museum of the Order of St John

London is one of my favourite cities to visit. I never stay in the city but I go for the day when we come to England to visit family. I have seen the major sights– mind you, there’s always something new to discover- so I try to explore new areas for me. This time, I visited Clerkenwell.

If you’ve been following my travels, you know that I’m very keen on History and love to visit old places. Clerkenwell is steeped in history. It dates back to medieval times and the Order of St. John, the Knights Hospitallers, founded a priory here in the 12th century. The Order had been founded a century earlier in Jerusalem to care for sick pilgrims to the Holy Land.

museum of the order of st. john, london
The archway is one of the precious few remaining original structures

Little remains of the massive priory nowadays, only St. John’s Gate, where the Order’s museum and headquarters are located, and the Priory Church. What is actually original is the 12th century crypt, which is one of the few Norman structures still standing in London. The original church was destroyed centuries ago. The later building was destroyed in the 1941 Blitz and rebuilt in the early 60’s. The church is not used for religious ceremonies but for the Order’s.

museum of the order of st. john, london
The altar was replaced with seats for the highest authorities

I recommend doing a guided visit to St. John’s Gate because it’s the only way you’ll be able to see the historic rooms.

I was late for the 11.30 tour thanks to my inability to orient myself and calculate distances. I apologized profusely. The kind receptionist took me to where the tour party was and said that, indeed, it is not terribly easy to find this place.

I missed the Chapter Hall, having joined the tour in the Old Chancery. Here, a collection of the Order’s silver from Malta and Naples is on display. The Council Chamber, still in use, is located over the archway. It has an 18th century fireplace from its days as a printing shop (after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century the buildings had many owners who put them to different uses.)

museum of the order of st. john, london
One of the rooms with a collection of furniture and Oriental tiles

We then went down the original Tudor oak spiral staircase – very steep and narrow- and out into the street to visit the Priory Church. The modern streets belie the history of Clerkenwell: this vibrant area was part of the medieval monastery.

The Remembrance Garden, adjacent to the church, covers a part of the original cloisters. It is an oasis of tranquility: birdsong, squirrels, medicinal plants and herbs (a nod to the Order’s mission), some tourists, office workers eating their lunch. It is a lovely place to sit and contemplate life. Or eat a sandwich.

museum of the order of st. john, london
The lovely garden

This was the end of the visit. We returned to St. John’s Gate. I roamed around the galleries, learning about the past and the present of the Order. Nowadays, they don’t obviously have a military role but a humanitarian one. The St. John Ambulance was created in 1877 to provide civilians with healthcare as the British Red Cross took care of soldiers only.

Nowadays, the Order of St. John is a charitable organization with presence in over 40 countries. It provides ambulance and care services, clinics and first aid training.

museum of the order of st. john, london
A Furley Stretcher

There is no admission charge to either the Order’s museum or the church but a contribution is suggested and appreciated.

Museum of the Order of St. John’s website

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