Clerkenwell, on the western edge of the City, has become the largest media hub in Europe with, arguably, the greatest concentration of architects’ and designers’ offices in the world. How did this happen?
It was an industrial wasteland in the mid-Sixties and its transformation has been a very slow burn. But what this area has always been is fascinating. Famous once for its watchmakers and printers, Clerkenwell has a colourful history of asserting its individuality to the point of dissent and lawlessness.
Clerkenwell Green is from where Lenin published issues of his magazine Iskra, and where he is reputed to have supped ale with Stalin in a local hostelry. It is also where, in Oliver Twist, Dickens describes Fagin and the Artful Dodger instructing Oliver in the art of picking pockets.
Its history is apparent in St John’s Gate, built by the Knights Hospitallers of St John in the early 16th century, and the Charterhouse, a former Carthusian monastery. And its future is apparent in its stylish, highly sought-after apartments and loft conversions.
This is a fashionable City neighbourhood to live in, with its bars and youthful creativity spilling out on to the streets - especially in the early hours of Sunday morning when the late-night clubbers tumble bleary-eyed out of Fabric on Charterhouse Street.
Buying property in Clerkenwell
Clerkenwell is where loft living was born. In 1992, Harry Handlesmann of the Manhattan Loft Corporation sold the first shell spaces in a converted warehouse in Summers Street for between £150,000 and £500,000, which pioneering buyers bought and then fitted out themselves. It was a revolutionary concept that captured the public’s imagination.
Clerkenwell merges with Finsbury to the north, where there are Georgian streets and squares. But there are also council estates of architectural merit where “right to buy” flats can be bought.
The best examples of these are the Spa Green Estate designed by Berthold Lubetkin on Rosebery Avenue, and on the edge of the City the Golden Lane Estate on Goswell Road, designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon who went on to design the Barbican. Florin Court (left) is a famous art-deco block in Charterhouse Square, which was home to Hercule Poirot in the TV series starring David Suchet.
Clerkenwell is also the place where working out house prices on the basis of price per square foot first took off. Buyers reckon on paying between £800 and £900 a square foot in Clerkenwell, which is more expensive than Shoreditch but cheaper than Bloomsbury.
The area attracts: the heart of Clerkenwell is not really a family area; most of the flats and lofts sell to a combination of investors, young City professionals and well-established people in the design world, younger designers being unable to afford Clerkenwell prices. The Georgian houses in Finsbury do attract young families, though they often move out to leafier suburbs once their children reach school age.
Postcodes: Clerkenwell is in the EC1 postcode, which is the largest inner London postcode and also covers Hatton Garden, Smithfield, Finsbury and St Luke’s, the area which straddles Old Street, on the edge of the City.
Best roads: the squares, such as Wilmington Square, Myddelton Square and Granville Square, command the highest prices.
What’s new: Central Square (Savills 0845 177 1711) is a development of 274 (104 affordable) studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom flats situated between Central Street, Pear Tree Street and Seward Street north of Old Street - a joint venture between developer Mount Anvil and housing association, the One Housing Group. Prices range between £400,000 and £1 million. The first phase completed last month and the whole development will be ready next summer.
Bezier (Knight Frank 020 7861 5499 and Currell 020 7253 2533) is a development by Tudorvale of 127 (45 affordable) studios, one- and two-bedroom flats and penthouses in two newly built, curvy buildings on the Old Street roundabout. Prices range from £750,000 to £2.2 million. One Housing Group is also selling the affordable flats here.
Up and coming: John McDavid of Winkworth says the pocket around Central Square is undervalued. Locals call the area St Luke’s after the church with its landmark Nicholas Hawksmoor-designed obelisk-shaped spire, which is now home to the London Symphony Orchestra. There is a mix of council estates, old warehouses and new flats.
St Peter and St Paul RC in Compton Street and Christopher Hatton in Laystall Street are the two local state primary schools which the Government’s education watchdog judges to be “outstanding”. The Golden Lane Campus on Whitecross Street brings together a children’s centre with a nursery, the Prior Weston Primary School and the primary department of the Richard Cloudesley special school in a stunning new building, but at the last Ofsted inspection Prior Weston was only judged “satisfactory”.
Dallington School and The Charterhouse Square School are two small, non-selective, co-educational private schools for pupils aged three to 11. The Italia Conti Academy of theatre arts is in Goswell Road. Central Foundation (boys aged 11 to 18) is a comprehensive that is judged “good” by Ofsted - it is in a sixth-form consortium with three other Islington schools and this provision is judged to be “outstanding”. There are two private schools in the City: the City of London School (boys ages 10 to 18) and the City of London School for Girls (ages seven to 18).
Shops and restaurants: residents and workers are spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurants. Fergus Henderson’s St John specialises in nose-to-tail eating on the street of the same name; Mark Hix has his Oyster & Chop House on Greenhill Rents (right); Bistrot Bruno Loubet in the Zetter Hotel sits across St John’s Square from Anna Hansen’s Modern Pantry.
© Danny Elwes
Overlooking Smithfield market, the choice is between John Torode’s multi-storey mega restaurant, Smiths of Smithfield and Pascal Aussignac’s Club Gascon and Comptoir Gascon, his deli and bistro. In Exmouth Market, find Sam and Sam Clark’s take on the cuisine of Spain and North Africa at Moro and Morito. There is street food on offer in Exmouth Market and on Thursday and Friday on Whitecross Street. The Jerusalem Tavern is a quaint pub on Britton Street.
Art galleries and designer furniture shops flourish in Clerkenwell. Pick of the crop is the showroom of Swiss furniture maker Vitra, which has recently relaunched a range of furniture by French designer Jean Prouvé.
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Open space: Clerkenwell is a close-grained former industrial area and there are only small pockets of open space. The most notable - with a fine new adventure playground - is Spa Fields, close to Exmouth Market. There are tranquil spots to sit and eat lunch behind St James’s Church off Clerkenwell Green, in the Smithfield Rotunda, in the garden squares and in other little pocket parks dotted around the area.
Leisure and the arts: the two council-owned swimming pools, Ironmonger Row and Golden Lane, are both closed for refurbishment. There is a swimming pool at Virgin Active on Goswell Street. Sadler’s Wells Theatre on Rosebery Avenue is the country’s leading dance venue.
Travel: Clerkenwell is so central that many residents walk or cycle to work. It has Tube stations at Farringdon, Barbican and Old Street. Farringdon is also on the overground Thameslink service. All stations are in Zone 1 and an annual travelcard costs £1,104.
Councils: most of Clerkenwell is in Islington (Labour controlled) where Band D council tax for 2011/12 is £1,271.69. The area around Hatton Garden is in Camden (Labour controlled) where Band D tax is £1,331.35, and around Smithfield is City of London (councillors and aldermen sit as independents) and Band D tax is £939.18.
Buying in Clerkenwell: average prices
One-bedroom flat £381,000
Two-bedroom flat £562,000
Two-bedroom house rarely available
Three-bedroom house about £900,000
Four-bedroom house about £1.2 million
Renting in Clerkenwell: average rates
One-bedroom flat £315 to £600 a week
Two-bedroom flat £450 to £775 a week
Two-bedroom house £500 to £850 a week
Three-bedroom house £650 to £1,200 a week
Four-bedroom house £750 to £1,500 a week