"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." — Samuel Johnson

Friday, 14 January 2011

A Sense of Place

One of the things that constantly surprises me about London is the imperceptible way in which the atmosphere of an area can change over a very short distance. The district may be architecturally or topographically almost identical to its neighbours, yet there is a distinct shift in atmosphere.  One such place is Clerkenwell, wedged between the corporate might of the City, intellectual Bloomsbury and trendy Islington.

Travelling through Clerkenwell on a bus many years ago, I remember being struck by its rather desolate and faded air.  Even in the middle of a sunny working day, there seemed an emptiness about the place in stark  contrast to its neighbouring districts. It has since undergone a spectacular regeneration, its warehouses converted into lofts, its streets dotted with interior design and IT offices, smart restaurants, cafés and delis. And yet you don't have to go far to find evidence of the Clerkenwell of former days.  Just turn a corner or venture down one of the many alleyways and courts and the mood can rapidly change....

Peter Ackroyd describes Clerkenwell as one of those enchanted areas which "remain powerful and visible to anyone who cares to look for them." (1)  Despite the recent spate of redevelopment, it still exhibits what he terms "other signs and tokens of a different city ......examples of the many continuities that charge Clerkenwell and its environs with an essential presence."  Over the centuries it has been home to rebels, outcasts, prostitutes, political dissenters and radicals including Jesuits, Chartists, Lollards, Quakers and Freemasons.  Charles Dickens used Clerkenwell Green as the setting for the scene in Oliver Twist where Fagin and the Artful Dodger teach Oliver the art of pickpocketing.  Lenin set up a socialist printing press in the same place, his office now preserved in the Marx Memorial Library.  Clock and watch makers, jewellers and printers practice their trade in the area as they have done for centuries.   Ackroyd claims that this continued human activity contributes to a kind of melancholy which derives from "the weariness of prolonged human settlement with all the cares and woes which it brings."

Whatever the reason, Clerkenwell exerts a powerful fascination - its melancholy atmosphere still tangible after all these years.  In certain corners, time seems to have veritably stood still....

(1)  Ackroyd, Peter  London The Biography


  1. What a wonderful post, Ingrid. I look forward to reading them all. It's so nice to get a glimpse of the old London - especially from across the pond.

  2. Thank you Kay - I hope to be discovering some areas of London which are a little off the beaten track so keep your eye open for new posts.

  3. Well, I can imagine and feel 'hautnah' the atmosphere and the milieu while travelling with your eyes and your photos through Clerkenwell - it is a kind of adventure to discover these quarters a bit "off the beaten tracks" of the tourists! And we see and feel quite more if we know a bit about the history and the former life in this area. This is also my kind of 'Sightseeing' (in Berlin and otherwhere). Every picture tells a story, a thought or a feeling! A wonderful series- and I wished it could 'grow out' to an alternative London book!

  4. Thanks Philine. I hope to be going to quite a few places 'off the beaten track' in the next few months. I'm sure there is plenty of material here for a book sometime in the future!