No Ordinary Church

St James’s, Clerkenwell has a long history involving Benedictine nuns, the Smithfield martyrs and a princess. With this local landmark, built in 1792, being transformed into a Clerkenwell Design Week hotspot, vicar Andrew Baughen guides us around his church.

On a summer’s day in Clerkenwell, the hundreds of people in St James’s gardens may be unaware that they are sitting in the former cloister of a 12th century Benedictine nunnery. In fact, it is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, protected by an act of Parliament, because so much history is concentrated on this small area of London.

The delight of Clerkenwell is precisely in this continuity of the past with the present. Rather than the church and gardens being roped off as an ancient monument, it is open to visitors. It is also a busy and popular venue for Clerkenwell Design Week (24-26 May).
Geography has kept Clerkenwell relevant; it evolved as a place just outside the ancient Roman city walls that was less regulated. As well as the plentiful supply of spring water from the Clerks’ Well, entertainment options included the popular mystery plays performed by parish clerks.

Today, the crowds who flock to Clerkenwell are enjoying our urban village just the same. At a recent wedding at St James’s, Damon Albarn played the church organ. I love the way those coming to church events are from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures. Crossrail trains will soon bring more people to work in the area – and to visit the church and discover its history.

St James’s is the memorial church for the martyrs who were burnt at the stake at Smithfield. There is a portrait of one martyr, John Wycliffe, in the church vestry, a room that is now used as a crèche on Sundays. One landmark of Clerkenwell is the House of Detention, which, so the story goes, has secret tunnels under St James’s for taking prisoners to and from the Sessions House in Clerkenwell Green. In 1867, there was a plot to free some Irish republicans, but far too much gunpowder was used and the huge explosion demolished housing and killed many people.

In 1893, the Twentieth Century Press, publishers of socialist literature, moved into Clerkenwell Green, near the church. From 1902-3 the Russian revolutionary paper Iskra – meaning the spark that would ignite the country – was produced there under the supervision of Lenin. The site is now the Marx Memorial Library, and a May Day march reminds the slightly confused looking hipsters that revolution didn’t come to EC1 with the introduction of artisan coffee shops.

I love the way Clerkenwell continues to be a place of creative ideas and contemporary design. As a church we encourage creativity and debate with our Wednesday Clerkenwell lunchtime talks and events, which look at contemporary topics through the lens of faith, as well as through our links with Clerkenwell Design Week.

For those dedicated to home improvement, it may be in vogue to dig out the basement of your London house, but the idea was pioneered in 1912 at St James’s when the crypt vault was cleared of coffins and dug out to create a stunning hall. It was officially opened by Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein (Queen Victoria’s granddaughter).

The intention was to create a social and teaching space for the Clerkenwell community – and that is exactly what it’s still used for. The traditional Sunday school classes are undoubtedly more relaxed and fun than in previous eras, but the content is the same.

I like to think the 1912 architects would be pleased to know that their vaulted arch space has been used for celebrating a whole range of events: hosting exams, product launches and a homeless night shelter, as well as for filming a Katie Melua music video, BBC history documentaries and screening everything from the World Cup to short film premieres. Folk trio The Staves played a concert in the crypt in 2014.

There are many signs pointing to a bygone era at St James’s, such as the modesty rails on the stairs that prevent the evidently shocking sight of women’s ankles as they ascend to the galleries. But although our view of modesty may have changed, the fundamental values of the church are the same: a place of community where all are welcome, and a place of discovery that applies Christian faith to daily life.

So whether you work or live here, or are visiting the area, St James’s Clerkenwell is an ancient and modern place of community, discovery and engagement where you’ll always be very welcome.

CDW TRIO – Featured at the Church during the festival St James’s hosted three CDW exhibitions at CDW from 24-26 May.

Additions: dedicated to small design pieces and interior accessories, it takes place in St James’s Church Garden.

Project: new for 2016, this will also be staged in the garden with leading international brands showing furniture, lighting and product design.

British Collection: another new exhibition, this will feature homegrown talent in the St James’s Crypt on Clerkenwell Green.

Look out for CDW’s first education and community project, created by local architects and engineers from Grimshaw and AKT II alongside GCSE students. It will provide a partially covered space in the church garden to sit, eat and relax throughout the summer as a lasting legacy of CDW.