The Ground Beneath our Feet

Walking round Clerkenwell, listening to music or calling our friends we may not notice the circular stones in the pavement with directional arrows announcing the ‘Clerkenwell Historic Trail’.

Distracted by our 21st century lifestyles we cannot hear Wordsworth’s regret that there is “ …..no time to stand and stare”.  Comparing his rural landscape to Clerkenwell’s urban ecology may stretch the imagination but there is a rich history here with a Trail to help this district’s many different interest groups to find common ground: and its worth the time to stand and stare!

This year CDW19 has worked with the Chelsea College of Art to depict some of Clerkenwell’s endless stories. Look for their graphic based installations entitled Once Upon a Time, along the route of the Historic Trail – you can also view them here

The original 1977 Trail took the form of a large poster with short descriptions of 27 station points and in 1998, a major revision to the Trail was part- financed by the government’s City Fringe Challenge budget with matched finance (sweat equity) provided by local institutions, businesses and members of the Clerkenwell community. There were 90 pavement markers and 30 lamppost signs to direct people around the area, but sadly neglect, endless redevelopment works and brutal pavement repairs have removed too many of these markers to keep the Trail in tact. Happily, proposals are underway to bring them back in the coming year and we have plans to fit more installations onto the route for Design Week 2020.

And there are many more stories to tell, so recently we made contact with the Trail’s original creator and long term steward, Mike Franks, a local architect/planner with a wealth of stories, anecdotes and a history of commitment to the area that reaches back to his founding of the Clerkenwell Workshops in 1975.  Mike will offer some more stories to us over the coming year, but here is a teaser of what’s to come. He calls it Was that George Levy?

George, a diamond cutter, was one of my early tenants in Clerkenwell Workshops. He was a pleasant quiet man in his thirties, friendly but very private. On his daily walk to and from  Hatton Garden carrying his small case and looking at the pavement, George spoke to nobody, you couldn’t even get him to smile. In his black coat and homberg hat, who knew what he was carrying in that little case? But within a year George the Invisible Diamond Man of Clerkenwell moved back to the Garden.. He had moved to Clerkenwell to save money and now he was positively choosing to double his rent,. ……………….but who can put a price on anxiety!

We asked Mike to put the Trail into its wider context:

In the 45 years I have lived and worked here there has been more significant social and economic  change than in the previous 450 years. And worryingly for the Clerkenwell I care about,, an area that goes from Kings Cross to the City and from the Fleet to the old cattle drive down to Smithfield, unhealthy changes are accelerating, fragmenting this unique district through development pressures from both north and south..

“Clerkenwell stories, told through the twin themes of Water and Time may help us to see, not how much things change, but just how much they stay the same. Hanging these stories off a kilometre long north-south Historic Trail may help us learn about the extraordinary diversity this unique district still retains and also where it is under threat. By establishing a framework of understanding about the past, the present and some possible futures, we want to encourage Clerkenwell people and this stubbornly non-conformist area’s many interest groups  to tell their own stories and – through our over-arching programme called The Clerkenwell Commons– to offer their own perspectives and find quite how much we have in common..

Even amongst the well defended silos that characterise recent dramatic shifts in our 900 year history there is a growing interest in discovering our common heritage and protecting the  complex diversity that is being revealed. Time has virtually wiped out our famous 300 year old instrument making economy, losing a wealth of skills this country can ill-afford to turn their back on. In the south at least, this has been replaced by design-led businesses, collectively described as ‘cultural industries’. Facing down towards the City and away from the northern estates, this ‘zone’ (there are three distinct zones in Clerkenwell) may be drawn into the new cultural quarter that is to be created now that Smithfield is to relocate. De-coupling the two– maybe even three –  distinct Clerkenwells undermines our common heritage. Losing the extraordinary creative, and characteristically anarchic hub that has emerged over the last 30 years depletes our diversity and threatens the health of out urban ecology.

But then, Creativity is not just the exclusive domain of the trained professional; even our children can teach us this and as I came to understand from the flexible networking of so many skilled artisans who populated Clerkenwell when I first arrived here, it hides in the most unexpected places. Evidence of the hit and miss innovative, lateral thinking economy of previous generations was still in evidence in the 70 different trades that populated 140 domestic scaled workshops I carved out of an old School Board Repository on Clerkenwell Close.. That was in the 70’s and 80’s. By the 90’s it was only the Hatton Garden trades that were surviving and today, even these are under threat as, like Smithfield, the Garden has lost its national price setting function. We need to see the schools enter into this discussion: if young people learn what they have lost, and more importantly what is still here for them, perhaps they will not leave so quickly..

The Water Themes that abound here range from the Fleet to the Nunnery’s well used by the medieval City Clerks, the Spas and the New River, gin and artesian water, all influenced by the geology exposed by an earlier proto-Thames that cut the steep slope  down from the Angel to Smithfield.. We will come back to this another time.

Over the years, the Trail in its different forms has been a useful way to tell Clerkenwell’s stories.. Now web-based information and new programmes such as Layers of London and Google can be woven into the framework of our physical north-south route. We can even fly over it in seconds and zoom in to look at areas of interest, linking this to voice-over commentary and historical references. A first exploratory Clerkenwell Commons web site is due to be launched in mid May and our links with Design Week will continue throughout the coming year.

Through exploration of the Trail’s potential and an growing understanding of past patterns, our Clerkenwell Commons programme emerged in the naughties. We had confirmed our earliest instincts that this unique district is a microcosm of the informal development patterns found in cities throughout the world. Their vital role as a dynamic but uncomfortable counterbalance to the institutional certainties of their core area is essential for the health of the whole urban system. Now, promoting the widespread stewardship of Clerkenwell’s extraordinary diversity is our prime purpose. Programmes include a C21st Coffee House of the Streets, urban design proposals for a Walkable Neighbourhood, the Making it in the City initiative, a My Clerkenwell? dialogue and the Mayor’s Healthy Streets initiative. Time has eroded so many of the initiatives designed to learn from our stories. It has even eroded our most recent Trail markers but it still forms the spine of CDW’s exhibition route and Time does bring new opportunities. And so we make progress. 2019 marks the first stage of a partnership initiative between ourselves, CDW, the Peel Community Centre and the Parks Department of Islington Council and hopefully other departments. We also hope to work with the London Metropolitan Archives and the Layers of London programme. Where the partnerships’ programmes overlap, collaboration will reinforce their impact and expand the Trail’s stories. In this way, the Commons programme aims to widen and deepen its impact.”

We look forward to bringing some more stories over the coming months.