Clerkenwell Classics | Strawberry’s & Diamond’s
They may have been tinkered with over the years but these three traditions still fly the flag for EC1
A TASTE OF HISTORY
There’s no need to trek to Wimbledon to pay homage to the strawberry this June – visit the annual Strawberry Fayre held in the private road of Ely Place, off Hatton Garden, instead. The fayre, which is now run by the Commissioners of Ely Place (the body that looks after the road) was, until recently, hosted by Ely Place’s ancient Catholic church, St Etheldreda’s. It’s a long-held tradition: there has been a strawberry fayre in the area since medieval times. Though it’s hard to think of ultra-urban Clerkenwell as a home to horticulture, and it’s carats not strawberries one tends to associate with that part of it anyway, in the past its strawberries were famed. The best in London.
They were grown in the gardens of the large estate belonging to the Bishop ofEly; St Etheldreda’s was once the chapel in the grounds. Medieval records often mention them, as does Shakespeare, who has the Duke of Gloucester say to the Bishop in Richard III: “When I was last in Holborn, I saw good strawberries in your garden there. I do beseech you send for some of them.” Saffron was also grown on the estate – hence nearby Saffron Hill.
Besides strawberries, the modern-day fayre offers a barbecue by the Bleeding Heart restaurant, a bar, street pétanque and live music. This year, it’s on Thursday 20 June, 5pm-8pm. If you go, don’t forget to look in on the church. It’s the oldest Catholic church in England and one of only two remaining buildings in London from the reign of Edward I, miraculously surviving both the Great Fire and the Blitz.
With Hatton Garden in our neck of the woods, it’s not surprising that the UK headquarters of the world’s best-known diamond company, De Beers, is in EC1. Necks and diamonds do go together, after all…
Though it started to transfer some of its operations to Gaberone in Botswana last summer, for nearly 100 years its London office at the Holborn Circus end of Charterhouse Street was where it sorted and sold its stones. It was here that the entire world – no exaggeration – came to buy its diamonds. Every year, the company would hold 10 auctions, or “sights”. Those allowed to attend, the “sight-holders”, would be presented with boxes of mixed-quality diamonds. They could decide to bid on a box or not, but it had to be the whole lot, not part of it. Once bought, the stones would travel to the major cutting centres around the world, including New York and Antwerp.
It is said that the diamonds were delivered to the building by helicopter to a landing pad on the roof. So James Bond. Once, you couldn’t buy a diamond without De Beers being involved. Though this is no longer the case, the company’s success, and its famous Thirties advertising slogan “Diamonds are forever”, have suffered not. In fact, the name “De Beers” is so synonymous with diamonds that the pub that used to be at 3 Hatton Wall nearby, wanting to nod to the Hatton Garden jewellery theme, called itself Deux Beers. Very witty. It’s now The Hat and Tun.
With thanks to Sebastian Harding
A FIRE FIGHT
Clerkenwell is awash with history, and it extends to the neighbourhood’s Victorian infrastructure as much as anything else. We have an historic Tube station, built in 1863 for the world’s first underground railway. We have an historic sorting office, thought to be once the world’s largest. And, opposite it on Mount Pleasant, we have an historic fire station. It’s the oldest fire station still in operation in London. Not only that – in Europe, too.
The station was built in 1872. It’s been extended many times over its 140-year life, the red-brick incarnation you see today, with its four red shiny double doors, is an apparent nod to the Arts & Crafts style. It’s Grade II Listed. Sadly, its future is uncertain. Though it’s reported to be the ninth busiest in London, it’s one of 12 fire stations earmarked for closure, as a result of the proposed £45 million cut to the London Fire Brigade budget.
A campaign to save it has been launched, spearheaded by Clerkenwell firefighter Gregory Edwards. For the latest, and to join it, visit Twitter account @saveclerkenwell. Let’s hope the next few years aren’t the final chapter in the station’s history.