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This issue's trio of secrets from the area's past are summery, even if the weather isn't. Enjoy some football, lager and the Proms...

Last Nights

If you haven't already had your fill, this mega-year, of patriotic songs, you'll be looking forward to the last night of the Proms and its repertoire of The Sailor's Hornpipe, Land of Hope and Glory, Rule, Britannia! and Jerusalem. Topped by the National Anthem, of course (which you can't necessarily rely on the Olympics to deliver). Sir Henry Wood, the man behind the Proms, "the longest-running continuous series of orchestral concerts in the world" (this year is the 118th season), lies locally, at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, just south of Smithfield.

The church is known as The National Musicians' Church and it is where Wood, who conducted the very first Prom in 1895, learnt to play the organ. Aged just 14, he was given the role of assistant organist. His ashes were buried in what is known as The Musicians' Chapel and he is depicted in a stained glass window. St Sepulchre has another musical claim to fame – a decidedly less cheery one. Its bells are thought to be "the bells of Old Bailey" in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons (the ones that say "When will you pay me?"). They were probably known as such because the church's Great Bell would toll as the condemned walked from Newgate prison, where the Old Bailey stands today, to the gallows.

The church also had a handbell called the Execution Bell, which it has on display today in a glass case. The bellman would walk from the church to the prison via an underground passageway at midnight, ringing 12 double-tolls and reciting a rhyme telling listeners that execution day had come. As if they needed reminding...

www.st-sepulchre.org.uk 
wwww.bbc.co.uk/proms

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Clerkenwell's Granita-Gate

Can we get enough football at the moment? The Olympic fixtures have started, and we're fresh out of the Euros. Meanwhile, Chelsea FC is still glowing from winning both the FA Cup and the Champions' League back in May, and the saga involving beleaguered captain John Terry and QPR's Anton Ferdinand is not likely to be forgotten any time soon. With the Blues being so topical, it seems fitting to remember a footie-related local scandal. It was the Clerkenwell equivalent of "Granita-gate", the affair in which Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were said to have made their pact at the Islington restaurant in 1994.

Our local hot spot of intrigue was Portal, the classy Portuguese restaurant in St John Street. It was a favourite of the then Chelsea manager, José Mourinho, and said to be where Ashley Cole's move from Arsenal to Chelsea was plotted.

It hit the headlines in 2006 when a bug was found in an electrical socket near a table at which Chelsea team members had dined. The discovery was made only because the kitchen staff were trying to tune in a new radio, which was giving terrible feedback. Testing all the different frequencies, they realised that, on one, they could hear what was being said at the table.

Portal immediately enlisted a security firm to make regular "sweeps" of the place – it was thought to be the first restaurant in Britain to take such measures. But don't be spooked about going there. The incident has not been repeated; it was "a special one", just like José himself.

www.portalrestaurant.com

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PISTOL POST

The sorting office at Mount Pleasant is one of the UK's largest and busiest – which is why life in Clerkenwell involves the constant threat of being run over by careering red vans.

Before it became concerned with letters, in the late 1880s, the site was concerned with the letter of the law: it was home to the notorious Coldbath Fields prison (see Post, Issue 7). By 1888, because the postal workers were, understandably, fed up with being associated with inmates, the name was officially changed to "Mount Pleasant" – although, 30 years on, some of the cells were still being used as storage rooms and the final physical remnants of the jail weren't demolished until even later.

By the start of the 20th century, the Mount was processing around 70,000 parcels and packets (know the difference, ever since they changed the rules a while back?) every day. It became known, Carlsberg beer-style, as "probably the largest sorting office in the world". Being so vital not only to Londoners but also to the nation as a whole, and having had its fair share of hits in the First War, extra precautions were taken when World War II came along. Staff received special preparedness training, to prevent the service from being disrupted, an auxiliary bomb disposal unit was set up and an air-raid warning post was established on the building's roof.

The latter, however, was par for the course for the roof, which had long been accustomed to having a role beyond simply keeping out the rain. For 40-odd years beforehand, it was pro-weaponry rather than anti- it, as the location of the Post Office Rifle Club's shooting range.

www.postalheritage.org.uk

 

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