The Diamond Street app

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I’ve had a number of serendipitous moments since I started the Londonphile, but one of my favourites occurred just last weekend when I was trying out Rachel Lichtenstein’s new Diamond Street app and stumbled across the author leading her own tour. There were others out and about in the streets of Farringdon’s Hatton Garden using the app too, which successfully brings to life – and back to life – a fascinating area and its history.

Bleeding Heart Yard

Bleeding Heart Yard

The Diamond Street app developed out of Lichtenstein’s latest book Diamond Street: The hidden world of Hatton Garden, the second part of a non-fiction trilogy exploring London streets, which commenced with 2007’s On Brick Lane. Hatton Garden is an area the author knows well, with her family having long-running connections with the diamond and jewellery trade that flourishes there. The focus on a small area translates well into an app – although Hatton Garden is a street name, ‘the Garden’ now refers to the wider area, bordered on its southern side by the boundary of the estate once owned by the Bishops of Ely.

St Andrew's Charity School, 1721

St Andrew’s Charity School, 1721

Not having explored Hatton Garden before, I can confirm that the app was very helpful with navigating a new area, as well as bringing the area to life for me. Crucially, it also brings back to life parts of the area that have been lost or changed beyond recognition over time – particularly through the use of interviews with former residents. I was interested to learn that part of the area was once known as ‘Little Italy’, and found it fascinating the way the app gives you pause to consider the origins of street names. Lovers of London’s lost rivers will also enjoy hearing about the now subterranean Fleet River.

Once home to some of London's most notorious rookeries - and Fagin's den.

Once home to some of London’s most notorious rookeries – and Fagin’s den.

By researching the area through old maps, Lichtenstein also managed to debunk a long-held myth that ‘the Garden’ had been a medieval jewellery quarter, discovering instead that it was mostly farmland. Today, two of these maps are included in the app’s timeline. I don’t want to give all of the app’s secrets away, but I have included here a few photos of my own personal highlights – you might well discover different ones for yourself…

The Diamond Street app is free and can be downloaded on iTunes or on Google Play for Android phones.

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Ely Place

Ely Place – once home to the Bishops of Ely

St Etheldreda's - chapel to the Bishops of Ely, 1580

St Etheldreda’s – chapel to the Bishops of Ely, 1580

Old Mitre Tavern, built in 1547 for servants at the bishops' palace

Old Mitre Tavern, built in 1547 for servants at the bishops’ palace

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19 Princelet Street

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19 Princelet Street seems a fitting place for an immigration museum given its layers of history that follow patterns of immigration in the local area. Last week the house held two rare open days – due to its fragile nature it is not yet able to be open to the public on a more regular basis. Funding is desperately required for repairs to the Grade II listed property so that its Museum of Immigration and Diversity can be fully realised. The Londonphile attended the second opening, and the queue stretching all the way back to Wilkes Street would suggest that number 19 has a bright future.

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Originally built in 1719, this five-storey building was home to the Ogier family, French Huguenot silk weavers. A metal bobbin hangs outside the building today as a lasting reminder of the weavers’ presence in the house. After a number of years housing various workshops and lodgings, 19 Princelet Street underwent its most significant change with the building of a synagogue in 1870 by a group of mainly Polish Jews, working together under the banner of ‘Loyal United Friends Friendly Society’ to create a community centre. While the synagogue now comprises the major part of the building, this part of the structure was in fact where the Ogiers’ garden once stood.

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Metal vents in the synagogue floor allow glimpses down to the meeting room built below the synagogue – this downstairs area was also open, along with a kitchen underneath the original house. Upstairs we had access to some of the the women’s gallery in the synagogue, with its lovely views across the space. The floor above that was closed to visitors but now functions as a staff area, while the attic room of mysterious scholar/recluse David Rodinsky – made famous by artist Rachel Lichtenstein’s 1999 book Rodinsky’s Room – is well out of bounds due to structural issues. One of the volunteers told me she had been involved with the charity for ten years and still hadn’t seen it.

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Due to the property’s no-photography rule you will have to imagine the crumbling beauty of its interior for yourself. But it is beautiful, and hopefully the Spitalfields Centre charity will be able to generate the funds needed to preserve and restore this lovely building and turn it into the museum of their vision.

And the best news is that more open days are already planned for March 2013: on Sundays 17th & 24th March, 2-4pm, and what is sure to be a lovely evening opening on Thursday 21st March, 5-8pm. For more details visit 19 Princelet Street’s website.

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