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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.