EC1 Down | Dead Nuns

Cross words, model answers and crypt clues in this issue’s three historical did-you-knows

When you stroll across Clerkenwell Green, you may wonder at its name – or modern misnomer. Yes, today, there’s no grass under your feet. But don’t be in a hurry to dismiss the humble cobbles and paving stones. Beneath them lie, besides pipes and drains, dead nuns, in fact. These nuns date back to the area’s medieval history. They belonged to the Augustinian nunnery of St Mary, which was founded in 1144 and inhabited a huge chunk of Clerkenwell. There was enough room on its 14 acre site for a mill, fish ponds and a meadow.

The nunnery thrived and survived over many centuries. By its dissolution in Henry VIII’s time, it was the 12th richest nunnery in England and owned an outpost estate in Muswell Hill; that land was still known as Clerkenwell Detached in the late 19th century. As for the nuns themselves, think more of Chaucer’s French-speaking Prioress than the hermit Sister Wendy. Historians say they were likely to be elegant, sociable, sophisticated types, thanks to their living near the capital.

There’s no record of scandal, however, despite the fact that their immediate neighbours were the monks from the Priory of the Order of St John. But that could just be a reflection of the nuns’ savvy – rumour has it that there are tunnels beneath the Marx Memorial Library on the Green that would have led from the nunnery to the priory. Go girls.

The Methodist movement of Christianity is huge, throughout the world, and Clerkenwell is home to its “mother church”, no less. It stands on City Road and is the chapel that John Wesley, the movement’s founder, built next to his house in 1778. It was the first Methodist church to be built specifically for the celebration of Holy Communion, as well as for worship. Originally, the stately architecture featured wooden pillars made from ships’ masts donated by George III; these were replaced in 1891, to mark the centenary of Wesley’s death, by marble columns, this time donated from Methodist churches around the globe. Nowadays, the chapel is something of a pilgrimage site and boasts a museum, recently refurbished.

John’s brother Charles was a key player in founding the movement, too. As is often the way when you work with family, tensions arose. And, guess what, they were largely over money. Charles had married above his station and his wife, Sally, 20 years his junior, was accustomed to a certain lifestyle. She also liked to buy things. Charles, it appears, worried about being able to pay the bills and pleaded with his brother for help. John reluctantly agreed to give him some of the income gained from the sales of thousands of hymn books.

The fact that such an advocate of moderation had a spendthrift for a wife has only recently come to light. It seems that Charles liked to get things off his chest as much as Sally liked to shell out and it has taken researchers over a decade to decipher 700 letters he wrote in a unique shorthand – a mixture of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Thank goodness he didn’t write his most famous work in code. It’s the muchloved Hark! The Herald.

Though the improvements to Farringdon station have been very welcome, commuters and “Clerkendwellers” have had a lot of upheaval to put up with in the train department over the years. And then, of course, there’s the seemingly interminable CrossRail. If you’re fed up with all the engineering works, you may be interested to learn that, just a stone’s throw away, there are some train lines so charming, that they’re sure to ignite in you a romance with the railway. The trains won’t take you anywhere physically but they will transport you to another world.

Welcome to The Model Railway Club, which resides in Keen House on Calshot Street, up near King’s Cross. Nonmembers can visit on a Thursday night to watch the trains run on the tracks. There’s even a bar. As you’d expect, the club boasts some impressive track layouts. One of these is Copenhagen Fields, a detailed model of the King’s Cross area in the mid 20th century. There are period advertising boards, period postboxes, people in period dress. There’s even an Ealing Studios crew, filming The Ladykillers. The layout is huge, measuring 9 metres by 3 metres. Some of the trains have travelled hundreds of miles on it. Even though it was started 20 years ago, it’s still a work in progress. Plus ça change, eh…