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Weasels, Russian dictators and a bed of nails - an EC1 insider reveals some of the area’s secrets (some better kept than others)

1.HAUNTED HOUSE OF DETENTION

You may have noticed the small doorway in the cut-through between Sans Walk and Clerkenwell Close. It says “Cookery & Laundry” above the door. What it should say is “Torture & Torment”.

It’s not that the school to which it once belonged, Hugh Myddelton School, had a particularly draconian attitude to punishment (though it probably did — it certainly liked to have strict rules about who could and who couldn’t use certain doorways, as similar signs over some of the other gates show: “Schoolkeeper”, “Girls & Infants”, even “Special Girls”). No, it’s that this entrance belonged to something far more sinister than the school caterer: the dungeon of the House of Detention.

Today, the residents of the site, now called Kingsway Place, are flat owners who can boast such original features in their homes as double-height ceilings, tiled walls and old-school (literally) radiators. Back in 1616, when it was first built, they would have been filth- and flea-ridden beggars, thieves and prostitutes.

In Victorian times, the 286-cell House of Detention was used as a holding bay for prisoners while they waited to be sent to prison proper. Clerkenwell, which was clearly a bit of a hooligans’ hot spot, had plenty of “big school” prisons nearby to offer them: Newgate Prison (near the Old Bailey), Fleet Prison (Farringdon Road) and the aptly named Cold Bath Fields Prison (Mount Pleasant). It is thought that around 10,000 people — women and chidren included — were sent to the House of Detention every year.

Though the main prison building was demolished in 1890, the dungeon and its creepy tunnels remained, beneath the area used, somewhat ironically, by the school as the playground. During The Blitz, it became a makeshift air-raid shelter; more recently, it was kept as a museum. It is claimed that museum visitors could sometimes hear the sobs of a little lost girl reverberating around the walls…

The museum closed in 2000, so it’s no longer possible to see for yourself the atmospheric network of dank cells and narrow passageways. However, right now, as we go to press, you have the chance to, because it’s open as part of Clerkenwell Design Week (24-26 May). Don’t worry, though: it’s currently well lit, well staffed and more a haunt than haunted.

2.VIETNAMESE WEASELS

Farringdon, home to Fabric and the once legendary Turnmills, knows a thing or two about providing people with their fixes. So it’s hardly suprising that it’s pretty good on the legal variety, too. If you’re bored of having Americanos at Pret or skinny lattes at Starbucks, then here’s something different you can try for a much-needed caffeine hit: weasel-poo coffee.

The restaurant Pho on St John Street — the original in what has now become a chain — sells this Vietnamese delicacy, known as ca phe chon. One of the rarest and most expensive coffees in the world, it is made by feeding coffee beans to Asian weasels, collecting them when they have passed through their bodies, washing them, drying them and grinding them. This process is supposed to make the coffee taste much less bitter and to give it a musky (what else?) flavour.

The Vietnamese, who put all sorts of wildlife on their menus, aren’t squeamish about this, but if you are, you might be relieved to hear that much of it is synthetically made these days. Though not the sort served at Pho, of course, which is 100 per cent authentic and served either straight up or with condensed milk.

If you’re a tea person, then St John Street can also offer you something different – in this case, a more fragrant fix. The new Bistro du Vin sells teas by luxury London perfume brand Miller Harris. Forget camomile and peppermint: these brews boast flavours such as bergamot, tangerine, violet, lavender and rosemary. They’re most definitely blends, not blands. www.phocafe.co.uk www.hotelduvin.com

3.YEAR-ROUND SNOWMAN AND A BED OF NAILS

These days, Clerkenwell isn’t known for its green spaces. It used to be a spa destination and rammed with pleasure gardens, but there hasn’t been a blade of grass now on Clerkenwell Green for hundreds of years.

There are pockets of peace, however, if you know where to look. One of these is St John’s Garden on the corner of Britton Street and Benjamin Street. It’s small, it’s a former burial ground and it can be a little cast in shadow — but it’s well worth a visit for its two unusual benches, designed by art students in 2004, which are sure to liven up the usual lunchtime lounge.

Perhaps best suited to people wanting to pay penance for a morning slip-up at work, one recreates, using a load of black metal spikes, a bed of nails (it is, however, a lot comfier than it looks). The other, which is a browny-white colour, nods to the only central London winter sport: building snowmen and then watching them melt. This sit-on “pile of snow” comes complete with an abandoned scarf and carrot, and the good news is that it, of course, exists all year round, whatever the weather.

4.NOT JUST ONE RUSSIAN DICTATOR,BUT TWO

You’d assume that Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, the two biggest hitters of Russian Communism, met for the first time in Russia. Or you might think, if you knew a bit more about your history, that they did so in Finland, as it’s reported they both attended the Bolshevik Congress there in 1905. They did indeed meet that year. But, in fact, they met in Clerkenwell.

Lenin was over here at the time, in exile. He was living in Holford Square, off Percy Circus (roughly where the Peel Institute charity is now), and working at number 37a Clerkenwell Green, producing issues of the newspaper Iskra to smuggle back home. A grand Edwardian building, this was then the HQ of left-leaning publisher the Twentieth Century Press. It’s now the Marx Memorial Library, and you can visit Lenin’s preserved office there today.

So they met there, yes? No. Understandably, they chose a setting more conducive to sociability than socialism: a pub. The Crown, just across the Green, was their venue of choice — it was called the Crown & Anchor in their day. It must have been a hell of a conversation. But don’t feel humbled next time you’re in there after work having a mundane chat with a colleague over a pint and a packet of pork scratchings – we can’t all be founders of isms.

5.SCANDAL AND MURDER IN A NUNNERY

St James’s Church in Clerkenwell, just off the Green, has a long history. In the 1100s, the site was a nunnery. The church you see today, though, is a hotchpotch of design, having been rebuilt in the 18th century by a local architect (yes, Clerkenwell has always had an affinity with architects) in the style of a Wren-influenced preaching house. With all this quirkiness comes, of course, quirky features.

As you enter the porch, you’ll see a couple of large benefaction boards. Such boards have featured on site since Elizabethan times to record charitable donations. To your left are stairs leading to the upper galleries, which were built for the Sundayschool children (at the front) and the poor (at the back). These stairs are unusual in that they still boast black iron panels all the way up the railings — Victorian “modesty boards” — which were designed to stop the gentlemen of the parish from ogling ladies’ ankles as they ascended or, worse, looking up their skirts.

Outside lies the weathered tombstone of local resident Ellen Steinberg and her four young children, who all had their throats cut in 1834 by Ellen’s husband, Johann, before he went on to kill himself. While his victims were buried here, he was said to have been given a more fitting farewell, in nearby Ray Street: thrown at night into a pauper’s grave, with a stake through his heart and his skull smashed with a shovel. Who says churches are boring?

6.FILM STARS AND FAMOUS DOORS

Notting Hill isn’t the only London location to have a door from a famous film. Clerkenwell boasts the door to Jude Law’s flat in Closer – similarly unremarkable, also painted blue, it’s the one next to La Cucina in Cowcross Street.

Clerkenwell has played host to a huge number of film crews and film stars in recent years, not to mention lights, cameras and a hell of a lot of cateringlorry action (they like to park up in Northampton Road). EC1 is clearly a bit of a favourite of Richard Curtis: 26-27 Sutton Street is the art gallery run by Mark (Andrew Lincoln) in Love Actually; Saint Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield is where Hugh Grant stands up Duckface in Four Weddings; and St James’s Walk is where Hugh (again) has his bachelor pad in About a Boy — although there isn’t a door, sadly, as that was faked for the film.

Other homegrown flicks to feature scenes set here include Notes on a Scandal (The Crown pub), Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (the restaurant that was Vic Naylor on St John Street), Mona Lisa (St Peter’s Italian church), A Fish called Wanda (the Robert’s Place steps near Clerkenwell Close), and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (also Clerkenwell Close — you couldn’t miss the straw all over the street).

The Americans like it too. The Guardian’s old offices on Farringdon Road featured in The Bourne Ultimatum, and Hatton Garden became Greenwich Village, NYC, for Eyes Wide Shut. But, unlike the Brits, they prefer to do most of their filming behind closed doors (more doors) — the grand gates of the Farmiloe Building on St John Street, to be precise.

Once a warehouse for the lead and glass company George Farmiloe & Sons, it’s now a Hollywood favourite, thanks to the variety of spaces it offers, over several floors. Robert Downey Jr filmed here for Sherlock Holmes, the building doubled as a pharmacy for Inception, and it’s been home several times to the Batman crew. Well, they do like a cool hood.

7.PRE-WORK PINTS

Sometimes, when getting in to work feels like a particularly hard struggle, a coffee and a fry-up just don’t cut it. So how about a pint instead?

Clerkenwell is not exactly known for its long, convenient pub hours, especially at weekends, but it does, in part, make up for this fact with its special morning licences.

Three pubs near Smithfield are allowed to open at dawn to serve the nightshifters from the meat market. The Cock Tavern is the hardcore experience; underground in the market itself, this jukebox and lager local is full first thing with traders in white overalls. It’s been opening at 7am for more than 150 years.

To have a glimpse of daylight while you’re drinking, to help to keep you awake, you can try one of the other two options: The Hope on Cowcross Street, which opens at 6am, and The Fox & Anchor on Charterhouse Street, which opens at 7am. Both are attractive, historic places to have a pint. The former has an upstairs restaurant, the Sir Loin, which serves breakfast from 7am; the latter has had a recent upgrade: it’s gone upmarket.

You don’t have to don white wellies to get in to any of them, or add a few authenticlooking bloodstains to your shirt, but do try to avoid dunking your sleeve in your Guinness. The boss might not like it.

 

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