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Discovering Islington’s rich heritage on walking tour

St John's Gate St John's Gate

Sunday, January 6, 2013
11:53 AM

It’s easy to forget whilst scurrying to and fro on the daily grind, that every inch of Islington is steeped in heavyweight history that has helped shape the nation.

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Guided walk stuffGuided walk stuff

From ancient orders of knights to left-wing protests, plague pits, bombings and more, the goings on in what used to be a country retreat outside the capital have had repercussions on a scale that belies its diminutive stature as one of London’s smallest boroughs.

So to have your own dedicated expert to take you through the historic lanes and alleyways is an insightful experience – and that’s exactly what the Clerkenwell and Islington Guides provide.

They put on at least three walks a week, come rain or shine, and it was a bitterly cold December day when the Gazette headed out to Clerkenwell for the Radicals, Religion and Rivers Tour.

There’s no need to book – anyone fancying a bit of history gathers outside Farringdon station at the appointed hour to meet the guide.

St James's ChurchSt James's Church

There are several expert escorts on rotation – on this occasion the walk was led by Dafydd Wyn Phillips, an affable Welshman with an encyclopaedic knowledge of almost everything.

He began by delving into Farringdon’s past, once a den of vice and iniquity on the banks of the river Fleet and regaled us with the tale of how The Castle became the only pub in the country to have an alcohol and a pawn shop licence (the Prince Regent was once financially embarrassed there and the landlord kindly lent him some money).

From there we wandered up to St John’s Gardens and saw a house specially commissioned for TV executive Janet Street-Porter.

Along Britton Street Mr Phillips told us how to tell if a house was pre or post 1720 in construction (it’s if the windows are flush to the wall) and we saw an old Gin distillery, situated to make use of the water from nearby Spa Fields.

Next stop was the well in Farringdon Lane that gave the area its name (Clerken being the old English plural for the clerks who used to populate the area).

It’s locked away in the basement of an unlovely ’80s office block, but part of the original water source that slaked the thirst of peasants in the Middle Ages is still visible.

Clerkenwell Green has a particularly rich history, although a distinct lack of grass despite it’s monicker.

Charles Dickens used it as the setting for Oliver Twist’s ill-fated first theft, while the grand former Middlesex Sessions House at the south of the square used to settle legal matters in the 1700s.

But Clerkwenwell Green will forever be associated with radicalism, from the Peasants Revolt, the chartists and a demonstration by the London Matchgirls against their poor working conditions (apparently leading to the term to “strike”).

Latterly the green has communist associations – in 1902, Vladimir Lenin moved the Iskra (Spark) newspaper headquarters there and it is said Lenin met a Joseph Stalin in the Crown and Anchor pub (now known as The Crown Tavern).

The Marx memorial Library, in a former Welsh school on the green, keeps that tradition alive.

Just up the road the former nunnery of St Mary’s, once the 12th wealthiest in the country, was dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1500s and became St James’s Church – final resting place of clown Joseph Grimaldi’s wife.

Another grave is a grisly reminder of Clerkenwell’s bloody past – in 1834, Johann Steinberg stabbed his wife and four daughters to death before killing himself.

A shocked public raised the cash to give the victims a proper burial in the churchyard – while Steinberg himself was buried elsewhere, as someone who commits suicide can’t be put in consecrated ground.

Round the corner, and the former Clerkenwell Prison, now luxury flats, was the site of a bombing in 1867 by the Irish Republican Brotherhood in an attempt to free one of their number from jail. The break was unsuccessful, but 12 people were killed and one of the perpetrators, Michael Barrett, was the last man to be publicly hanged in Britain for his part in the plot. The name St John dominates this part of Islington, referring to the order of the same name which began in Jerusalem in the crusades and is now known worldwide via St John Ambulance.

There is a museum dedicated to the history of the knights and in St John’s Gate, one of the few physical remains of the monastery still standing, Clerkenwell has a stunning medieval feature.

The walk lasted around two hours, but Mr Phillips crammed in enough information to fill a mighty leather bound tome and dished out enough facts to look smart in front of friends for many a year. And for just over a fiver, it should be everyone’s New Year’s resolution to learn a bit more about this intriguing borough. Visit www.CIGA.org.uk for more.

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