Early each morning, hundreds of commuters will exit Farringdon underground station.
Walking intently – heads down, phones in hand – it’s unlikely that they’ll notice the gentle slope that leads them away from the beeping ticket barriers and automated announcements. It’s even more unlikely that when passing one of the many drains that dot this route, one of these busy commuters will pause to listen to the rush of water flowing beneath their feet. This is the sound not of rainwater or sewage, but of London’s largest hidden river – the river Fleet; a river once as dominant as the Thames, now confined to a secret life in London’s Victorian sewage system.
This sort of history – that buried, hidden sort of history that rubs invisibly alongside your every day life – is my favourite sort of history. Walking through Farringdon one hot, quiet Sunday, I took the route along this hidden river bed; stopping to hear it rush past my feet at the Coach and Horses Pub, just off Farringdon Road. It’s the sort of history that once you learn, you can’t forget: a little like when you go past one of London’s ghost tube stations, or walk over Churchill’s secret wartime bunker. Never one for noisy history – wars and castles, guns and planes – it’s this quiet history – the medieval brick wall that you lean against, or the centuries old tree you that sit under – that I really love.
With the sun high in the sky, I continue to walk along London’s incognito river and into Clerkenwell, just a stone’s throw from Farringdon station. Considered a ‘fringe-city’ neighborhood – one that once sat beyond the perimeters of London Wall – Clerkenwell is not an area regularly visited by troupes of tourists or day-trippers. Nor is it an area that yells about its history: no grand parades or crowing ravens, here. Clerkenwell, instead, is a purveyor of quiet history, with its rich and diverse past tucked in and amongst its studios and shops, boutiques and restaurants.
For centuries, this fringe-town has carved out its own identify; glimpses of which line its cobbled streets. Wander down Farringdon Lane, and you’ll pass part of the original well that gave the area its name (the first part meaning ‘clergy’). It’s here that during the Middle Ages, locals would gather to reenact their annual ‘mystery play’ – acting out everything from the fall of Lucifer, to the story of Noah. As crowds of busy commuters fill this lane– the Shard visible on the skyline – it’s difficult to imagine that at this precise spot, an enthusiastic ‘thesp’ once pretended to herd folk dressed as animals onto an imaginary ark.
History is a funny old thing.
A short walk around the corner, and you’ll enter St John’s Square – a towering medieval gate visible at one end. This gate – the aptly named St John’s Gate – hints at Clerkenwell’s beginnings as a Priory in the twelfth century. Once home to a Catholic contingency of monks and nuns, these were the early members of what is now known as St. John’s Ambulance. On the other side of the square, hidden behind a small arch, lay beautifully colourful and mature gardens – part of the original Priory, and now property of The Museum of the Order of St John. As I walk past, a group of volunteers are carefully weeding and clipping back vibrant pink plants; bees and butterflies surrounding them.
Centuries later, and Clerkenwell would become a less respectable part of town. Around the corner, on Saffron Hill, is The One Tun pub – reference, apparently, to its ability to store large amounts of beer and wine. The pub’s notorious reputation landed it in Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’, under the fictional name of ‘The Three Cripples’. According to Dickens, this was the sort of place “where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth”. Again, I wonder if the creative sorts that visit here today – sipping their gin cocktails – know that they are stood where thieves and beggars once plotted and conspired. If grim pub histories is your thing, then the local Coach and Horses pub – once home to animal fighting of every sort – also offers its own gory tale. The story goes that it is here that the pub landlord met his gruesome death after falling into the pub’s cellar; a place where he also happened to keep his chained bear.
Karma is a fine thing.
Aside from being both a Monastic haven, and a hotbed of crime, South Clerkenwell was also considered to once be a relaxing and fashionable resort: a holiday destination for 17th century Londoners. On this particular Sunday – as the temperatures rose – I decided to embrace this holiday feel and spend the day in the area, complete with a stay at the very fine Zetter Hotel, in St John’s Square.
I should mention at this point that I was visiting Clerkernwell with Mike: the elusive boyfriend that only seems to appear in blog posts that reference long car journeys. A self-declared creative, he also happens to work in the area and is filled with his own tales of it. These include how he once spied Idris Elba running down the streets as the infamous ‘Luther’, and how he once saw ‘Sherlock’ being filmed in the local St. James Church. I was therefore curious to see this area with my own eyes, all whilst allowing him the benefit of the world’s shortest commute to work, the next morning.
Lunch in Clerkenwell is both a frenetic and laid-back affair. Head to Exmouth Market during the week and you’ll be hit by crowds of employees from the local design and media studios, as they browse the daily food stalls set up by the local restaurants. From Vietnamese food produced by Bun Cha, to Moroccan stews from the ever-popular Moro, lunchtime here is a much more inspiring experience than a trip to your local Pret. However, come the weekend – once the employees have dispersed back to their various commuter belts – lunch in Clerkenwell is peaceful and relaxed. As we walked through, families sat outside Polpo, enjoying plates of octopus, whilst others enjoyed creamy lattes in the sun, outside The Modern Pantry. Eventually, we settled on lunch at Granger and Co., feasting on some of its self-proclaimed ‘nourishing’ food. On this one – rare – occasion, I was thankful that I happened to work in the depressingly sterile Milton Keynes, rather than vibrant Clerkenwell, for the sake of my waistline. With Pizza Pilgrims, Dirty Burger, and the sensory extravaganza – Dans Le Noir – all in the vicinity, I have no doubt that I’d eat my way through any work-based stress. Bad meeting? Just pass me the pepperoni.
Aside from its rich history (much of which I’d recommend exploring), Clerkenwell is also close to some of London’s most popular sights. The late afternoon sun now turning the streets a warm yellow, we walked across to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where the sound of the bells rang out and bounced off the buildings surrounding us. It was deafeningly beautiful. It also happened to be time for Choral Evensong, with the rising and falling sound of the choir spilling out of the cathedral’s enormous front doors. As we sat outside on the smooth steps, birds circling above, St. Paul’s – a resident in this area since the year 604 – is perhaps one the area’s few pieces of ‘loud’ history: a ringing, choir-filled artifact of its very own.
We next headed along Cheapside, where one of my favourite book stores – Daunt Books – sits. Although smaller than its larger Marylebone sibling, Daunts on Cheapside remains a Mecca for anyone who loves travel literature. As a kid, my parents would drive us to Oxford every few months, for a trip to Blackwell’s bookstore. My Dad being the sort of gentleman that likes to smell a book (I know there are others of you out there), he naturally instilled in me this ever so slightly creepy habit. So, whilst Mike stood obliviously outside – the bells of St. Paul’s ringing overhead – there I stood in Daunt Books, surreptitiously inhaling the smell of its paperbacks.
Although we ran out of time (the rooftop terrace of the Zetter Hotel now calling), I’d have wanted to visit two of my favourite museums in this area: Sir John Soane’s Museum and Dennis Severs House. I came across Sir John Soane’s Museum whilst I was at university, and still love to visit when I can. Left as it was at the time of Sir John’s death nearly 180 years ago, the house is filled with his collections of artwork, antiques, knick-knacks and over 30,000 of his own architectural drawings. It’s worth visiting just for its candlelight tours, where you can rifle through the many drawings with just a dripping candle in hand. Dennis Severs House is perhaps even better, offering visitors a ‘still life drama’ that represents what life would have been like inside for a family of Huguenot silk weavers, back in the early eighteenth century. All tours are conducted in silence and again, can be undertaken by candlelight on bleak, wintry, London evenings.
Heading back into Clerkenwell, we were now more than ready for the main event: our stay at the Zetter Hotel. For some avid readers of the blog (Mum, Dad – the person from Watford that I see on Google Analytics), the name ‘Zetter’ may ring a few bells; conjuring distant memories of a certain Wicked Uncle Seymour. Indeed, in 2015, Claire and I were lucky enough to spend a night at the Zetter Townhouse, Marylebone – the residence of Uncle Seymour and his fabulously boozy cocktail bar. This eclectic townhouse still remains one of my favourite London hotels, filled with its dark family portraits and roaring open fire.
However, Uncle Seymour is not the only family member in town, with a Great Aunt Willhelmenia in residence at the wildly eccentric Zetter Townhouse, Clerkenwell. Sat proudly in St John’s Square, this Georgian Townhouse overlooks the larger Zetter Hotel, where we would be staying on this sticky Sunday evening. Characterised perhaps as the slightly more ‘normal’ family member – offering refreshingly modern design, bright open spaces and geometric prints – the Zetter Hotel is the young, minimalist family member; not yet old enough to hide family secrets or to boast hidden staircases.
As we entered the foyer, we were met with a large light atrium, filled with vibrant colours and a towering flower display. The air smelt of freshly brewed coffee and the scent of fresh blooms. Housed in a now converted Victorian warehouse – a common sight throughout Clerkenwell – the hotel is vastly different to its Townhouse siblings. Whilst Seymour and Wilhelmenia clearly have a penchant for hidden corners and dark velvet curtains, the Zetter Hotel opts for seamlessly large, open spaces, filled with bold designs and features. Eco-driven, it is also a hotel that tends carefully to its sustainability.
After a warm welcome from hotel staff, it was announced that we would be staying in the hotel’s finest room: its Rooftop Deluxe Studio. With panoramic views from its rooftop terrace across the now gently glowing Clerkenwell, this room is the hotel’s pièce de résistance. As we made our way to the top floor – light pouring through the hotel’s glass ceiling– we found our room and creaked open the door, revealing what might be considered in London to be an enormous apartment. With smooth oak floors, the room was accessed by a small staircase that opened into a large bedroom and living area. Large floor to ceiling windows framed its southerly side. Despite all eyes being drawn immediately to the view, I noticed that the room nonetheless had hints of its Zetter Hotel Group affinity: a hot water bottle lying on the bed, tucked inside a little knitted ‘toastie’; a snowglobe – featuring the hotel – sat on the bedside table; and an open Backgammon set placed on the table, dice ready to be thrown. Next to the bed lay a pile of carefully colour coordinated Penguin Books and a Marshall digital radio. It’s these small touches that have perhaps made the Zetter Group the roaring success it is.
The room – a vibrant mix of bright geometric prints and mid-century furniture – was quickly filled with the warm breeze that blew in through the open terrace doors. Stepping outside, we sampled what life might be like for those wealthy Londoners and their hidden roof terraces (read: very good). Filled with the warm evening sunshine, the views were incredible. Shining brightly ahead of us was Clerkenwell and beyond; the Shard and St Paul’s glinting brightly on the horizon. Looking up, I noticed a storm was rolling in; the sky surrounding us now filled with bruised, angry clouds. Combined, the evening sunshine and these dark clouds created a pink hue that reflected across the Victorian warehouses beneath us; the Walkie Talkie now shining a deep purple.
It was an amazing sight, and one that stole over an hour from us.
After stealing ourselves away and quickly enjoying the hotel’s eco-friendly Ren products (the majority of which are now filling my own bathroom cabinet), we headed downstairs to the hotel’s popular restaurant for dinner. With the last of the light disappearing behind the brewing storm, we were seated next to our fellow diners, as they enjoyed lazy Sunday family meals together; swilling their wine and sipping their rich aromatic coffees. These are the perfect sort of Sunday nights – ones far removed from the start-of-the-week angst and anxious channel-flicking. After ordering a feast of beetroot salad with goats cheese; English asparagus with a hen’s egg; rib eye steak and triple cooked chips; roast Cornish cod; chocolate mousse and an Amalfi lemon posset, we sat back feeling wildly smug at our decision to spend Sunday in Clerkenwell and at the truly fantastic Zetter Hotel. The rain now falling heavily outside, it was an ideal Sunday evening in one of London’s more unassuming ‘fringe-towns’.
After falling asleep to the twinkling lights of London’s skyline, I woke up at 6am just in time to watch the last of the sunrise across Clerkenwell. Stood on the terrace, I watched as beneath me a few cyclists passed silently by, each filled with plans for the week ahead. Soon, the crowds of employees from the local design and creative studios would be arriving (Mike included), filling this quiet part of town with a vibrancy that the area has held onto since its medieval days, when that crowd of Middle Ages creatives acted out their biblical plays. But for now, however, Clerkenwell was quiet; as quiet as the subtle history that fills it and as quiet as the vast bubbling river Fleet that flows immediately beneath it.
My kind of quiet.
Thank you to the Zetter Hotel for having us! Rooms start at £135.00 per night.