Alison Jung finds rich history, one-off shopping and legendary pubs close to the City
Historic Clerkenwell is a great part of London to explore if you are doing business in the City and have some time to spare, with Farringdon only three stops from Liverpool Street on the tube – it’s also a short distance from King’s Cross and Angel to the north, Holborn and Covent Garden to the west, and the river to the south. Begin at Smithfield Market – one of England’s oldest and largest wholesale meat markets, it was designed by Tower Bridge architect Sir Horace Jones in 1868.
You can enter the complex through its central arcade, which links the two market buildings with vivid cast iron construction and glass windows. Inside, the white of the butchers’ coats contrasts with the lurid reds and pinks of the produce as customers and traders look for the best deals of the day. The market opens Mon-Fri at 3am and ends by midday, but you will need to be an early bird and arrive by 7am for the full experience. Otherwise, it’s worth simply walking through the arcade and reading the signs on its walls that document Smithfield’s lively past and present. Visit smithfieldmarket.com
St Bartholomew the Great church
From here, it’s a couple of minutes’ walk to Cloth Fair, home of St Bartholomew the Great Church. One of London’s oldest, it was founded in 1123 by the monk Rahere as an Augustinian priory and remains an active parish. The exterior shows the many additions and restorations made to the church during its lifetime and includes an original 13th-century archway leading to the churchyard.
Inside you can find the tomb of Rahere, as well as fantastic examples of Norman architecture, which is perhaps what has made the church a popular setting for many films. St Bart’s was the scene of the fourth set of nuptials in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral (when Hugh Grant’s character gets thumped at the altar by Duckface) and has also appeared in Shakespeare in Love and The Other Boleyn Girl. Open to visitors (except during services) Mon-Fri 8.30am-5pm, Sat 10.30am-4pm, Sun 8.30am-8pm. Entry is £4. Guided tours by appointment or after the 11am Sunday service. Visit greatstbarts.com
St John’s Gate
Next, head north via Hayne Street to Charterhouse Square. Here, beside the Malmaison hotel, you’ll see the London Charterhouse, a landmark of the area dating back to 1371, known for its history as a monastery, a Tudor mansion, a school building and an almshouse. It is currently part of the campus of Queen Mary University of London, as well as the Sutton’s Hospital in Charterhouse.
Walk west down Charterhouse Street to St John Street. Up the road lies St John’s Gate, the former entrance to the Priory of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, which was built in 1504. Today, it is the headquarters of St John Ambulance, which has turned the building into a museum. After undergoing an extensive renovation, the museum is set to open to visitors from this month. Go inside and you’ll find original 14th-century architecture and exhibits tracing the history of the old Order of St John, or head across Clerkenwell Road to the priory church to see its 12th-century crypt and exhibits about the priory itself. Tours are available Tues, Fri and Sat at 11am and 2.30pm, with the galleries open Mon-Fri 10am-5pm (10am-4pm Sat). Visit sja.org.uk
The site has many other notable connections, including being the original home of The Gentleman’s Magazine, a sometime workplace of English author Samuel Johnson, and a previous address of the Jerusalem Tavern. The pub is one of London’s oldest, dating back to the 14th century, though it has occupied many different spots over the years. Today you can find it on Britton Street in a former merchant’s house and clock workshop from the 18th century – just walk through the gate and to the left up old St John’s Path. Visit stpetersbrewery.co.uk
Cross Clerkenwell Road to the area’s centre, Clerkenwell Green. Don’t be surprised by the lack of vegetation – it has had no grass for more than 300 years and survives today as a residential and business area (it was also the pick-pocketing site in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist). Here you’ll find the Marx Memorial Library (marx-memorial-library.org), the building from which Lenin published the Russian social democratic newspaper Iskra, or “The Spark”, during his exile in London – the venue has housed a collection of radical publications and journals since 1933. If that’s your thing, you can visit between 1pm and 6pm Monday to Thursday.
Somewhat more light-hearted is the lively Crown Tavern, to the right of the library. Rumoured to be the first meeting place of Lenin and Stalin, today the pub is a popular lunch and after-work gathering place – on a summer’s evening the outside seating area is packed with workers from the many media and architectural firms based nearby. Beers range from its Cask Marque ales to Belgian strawberry Fruli, while the menu offers classic pub grub. Visit thecrowntavernec1.co.uk
Head west to Farringdon Road, then north to Exmouth Market (on the way you’ll see the Eagle, said to be London’s original gastro pub). This trendy pedestrian street is home to numerous bars and eateries – enjoy some table-football fun at Café Kick, or satisfy your cravings at the aptly named French eatery Sweet Boulangerie and Patisserie.
Independent shops line Exmouth – step into EC One for some one-of-a-kind jewellery, browse Brill’s broad CD collection, or drop by Clerkenwell Tales to satisfy any literary urges. Space EC1’s quirky lava lamps and knitted hot water bottle covers make memorable gifts. Outside, stalls sell an array of delicious food from 9am to 6pm Monday to Saturday, with the widest selection at 11am-6pm Thursday and Friday. Visit exmouth-market.com
Head back down Farringdon Road and turn right on to Clerkenwell Road. A little way up, at numbers 117-119, Magma (magmabooks.com) is an eclectic little shop offering an assortment of trinkets, art, T-shirts and books – you’ll find everything from moustache mugs to London Underground shower curtains. Founders and owners Marc Valli and Montse Ortuno opened their first shop in 2000 in Covent Garden and there is a third in Manchester.
Double-back a couple of minutes and turn on to Hatton Garden. Stretching about 1km, it again lacks greenery, being instead the heart of London’s jewellery trade. It’s also the destination of choice for hopeful-looking men and loved-up couples seeking the perfect engagement ring. There are more than 50 stores along the road, the largest cluster of such retailers in the city – take a look at the sparkling diamonds in the windows or simply enjoy a bit of people-watching. You may even want to pick up a special gift yourself. Stores open Mon-Sat from about 10am to 5pm, with select shops open on Sundays. Visit hattongarden.com
Many pubs in Smithfield open early for the traders – some from 5.30am – if you want to grab some fuel for the day. Smiths of Smithfield (smithsof smithfield.co.uk) is open from 7am and does great all-day breakfasts.
- Clerkenwell was once known as “Little Italy” owing to its large Italian population.
- It took its name from the Clerks’ Well in Farringdon Lane, part of which remains visible today.
- The area is well known for its gastro pubs and award-winning restaurants.