Museum of the Order of St John

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Anyone who has walked through the Tudor gate on St John’s Lane in Clerkenwell must have wondered just what it is and what treasures it might house. The answer is that – following a number of different incarnations over the years – it is now home to the Museum of the Order of St John and is the property of that order, whose history on this site can be traced back to the eleventh century. And if you visit the museum on a Tuesday, Friday or Saturday at 11am or 2:30pm and take a guided tour, you can gain admittance to the upper chambers and see for yourself what lies above.

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The tours are a must as they also gain you entry into the Norman crypt and priory church across Clerkenwell Road – once part of the monastery that was locked away behind this entrance gate. Once upstairs in the gatehouse you get a good look around the Chapter Hall (pictured below), the Old Chancery and the Council Chamber (which sits in the middle of the gate), before descending a lovely Tudor spiral staircase to the Malta Room.

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Not to take anything away from the fascinating history of the Order of St John, but I was personally more interested in the gate’s (relatively) more recent history and its literary connections. Following the dissolution of the monasteries it served time as Henry VIII’s personal storage unit before becoming the office of the Master of the Revels in the sixteenth century. As no less than 30 of Shakespeare’s plays were licensed here it’s likely that the Great Bard himself was a frequent visitor.

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In the eighteenth century the gatehouse was transformed into a rather idiosyncratic coffee house run by one Richard Hogarth, father of William. His Latin-only rule probably accounts for its fairly swift demise. The gateway also played home to The Gentleman’s Magazine – which gave a young Dr Johnson his first taste of employment – and by the nineteenth century had become the somewhat disreputable Old Jerusalem Tavern, frequented by one Charles Dickens.

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The gateway was bought back by the Order of St John in the late nineteenth century and restored to its former glory. The museum benefitted from a major restoration on 2010. Its new galleries (which are on the ground floor and can be visited for free Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm) are well designed and blend in nicely with the old structure. I highly recommend timing your visit to coincide with one of the guided tours, which are also free though a donation of £5 is suggested.

Museum of the Order of St John

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Stoke Newington Pumping Station

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When I visited Clissold House last year I was surprised to see a medieval-style castle looming over one end of the park. This architectural oddity is in fact the Stoke Newington Pumping Station – a Victorian era water pumping station built in the Scottish Baronial manner. Although it ceased to operate by 1942 – and is now home to a climbing centre – its turrets and battlements remain thrusting into the sky, a testament to the Victorian zeal for industry and development and a love of all things flamboyant.

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The 1852 Metropolis Water Act requiring drinking water to be filtered and covered prompted its construction by the New River Company between 1852 and 1856, at a cost of £81,500. Although the area was composed mostly of fields at this stage, it’s thought that residents were not keen on the idea of an industrial building in the neighbourhood – hence the magnificent castle design by engineer William Chadwell Mylne and architect Robert William Billings. Possibly based on Stirling Castle (Mylne was Scottish and Billings an expert on historic Scottish buildings) – it’s also been suggested that the design might have been inspired by that of nearby Holloway Prison.

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Its superb position is partly due to the fact that it was built on an artificial mound, to give the sense of a castle within a moat. Although its striking towers and turrets appear quite random, they were each designed with a specific practical function – one housing a chimney shaft, another a water tank – while the turret with the conical roof contains a spiral staircase leading to the roof. The three front buttresses are home to a section of the tower’s flywheels. In a nice touch, Mylne’s name and the date 1855 are spelt out on iron plaques on the side of the buildings (see image below).

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The building was saved from demolition in 1971 following an outcry by local residents, and was Grade II listed in 1974. Despite this, it found itself facing an uncertain future yet again by 1988 with the imminent privatisation of the water industries. In 1994, planning permission was approved for redevelopment by its current tenants – the Castle Climbing Centre – under the proviso that the general appearance and character of the building would be retained and any items removed stored safely for future use. I would highly recommend a peak inside – the day I visited (on a weekend) it looked deserted from the outside, but once through the doors you find yourself in another world of brightly coloured walls covered with enthusiastic climbers. The centre’s plans for further redevelopment of the interior are posted on one of the walls along the main staircase.

If you’d like to visit what must surely be one of London’s more unusual buildings, you can find it at 218 Green Lanes, N4 2HA. Manor House is the closest tube station.

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St Paul’s Triforium Tour

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Did you know that you can take a special behind the scenes tour of St Paul’s Cathedral, in which you visit its triforium area? After being whisked like a VIP through a locked door in the staircase that ascends the main dome, you will enter the triforium – an arched gallery that stands above the nave. This area includes a number of interesting sights not normally accessible to the public, including St Paul’s Library, the Geometric Staircase and Wren’s Great Model.

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But first the triforium leads down past some fascinating stone remains of the old St Paul’s – destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. These were excavated in the nineteenth century; their shelves boast unique labels, declaring ‘Norman’, ‘Gothic’ and so on. Next stop is St Paul’s Library, a wonderfully evocative old room, with its wooden bookcases full of beautiful old books. The library dates from 1709, although it was largely empty in its earliest days as most of the collection was lost in the Great Fire. Its holdings focus on theology, church history, classics and medical books (used to help the priests treat illnesses). You can contact the librarian if you wish to arrange to conduct research in these topics in this wonderful environment.

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The tour then takes in the Geometric Staircase, which will be familiar to film fans having featured in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the 2009 version of Sherlock Holmes. Next is the superb view down the nave from the west balcony – the very same as used by BBC camera operators on special occasions. The final stop is the Trophy Room, where you can see Wren’s Great Model of his favoured plan for the cathedral. This massive model was made in 1673-4 from oak and plaster at a cost of around £600 – which would have bought you a good house in London at the time. If you take the Friday tour you might also catch a glimpse of the cathedral’s seamstresses toiling away in their room next door.

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Tours also include entry to the rest of the cathedral, including the crypt and galleries. They are held on Mondays and Tuesdays at 11:30am and 2pm, and Fridays at 2pm, and cost £20. Given that full price tickets bought on-site cost £15, this seems a good deal. Tours must be booked in advanced and are for groups of five or more only, so round up a few friends. To book contact 020 7246 8357 or email admissions@stpaulscathedral.org.uk

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