A Corner of Ancient Farringdon
There’s a corner of bustling Farringdon, on the edge of the City of London, that’s very peaceful. In fact its perfect for a stroll and some mindful moments. I love becoming immersed in my environment – its my form of mindfulness – and in a little cluster of streets there is much to focus on and enjoy. All of the clutter and chatter in my mind recedes as I become increasingly engaged with my surroundings. I hope that what I’ve found in this lovely area might inspire you to take a stroll there yourself and that you too will feel your cares drift away as you become engrossed in this ancient landscape.
As you exit Farringdon station you’ll be in the hustle and bustle of Crossrail development with doubtless many people rushing towards their trains. Turn left out of the snazzy new station forecourt and within a few steps you’ll be on Farringdon Road. Walk straight across and up Greville Street. Notice how steep this street is? You’re walking up the embankment of the Fleet river, forced underground but still flowing underneath Farringdon Road on its way to meet with the Thames at Blackfriars.
I’ll come back to the Fleet a little later but for now, notice Saffron Hill on your right. We’ll go back there in a moment but if you walk a few meters further up Greville Street, on your left you’ll see the entrance to the extraordinarily named Bleeding Heart Yard. This courtyard is most probably named after a 16th Century inn of the same name with Virgin Mary connotations. However, there is a far more compelling urban legend. It is said to be named after Lady Elizabeth Hatton, the second wife of Sir William Hatton, a local landowner. (Hatton Garden, centre of London’s jewellery trade, is at the end of Greville Street). Poor Lizzie was murdered and it is said that her body was found ‘torn limb from limb but with her heart still pumping blood’. Whatever the truth is, the area is very atmospheric, especially at night. Nowadays, the courtyard is one of my favourite spots as it home to a delightful and authentic French bistro, restaurant and pub (all named Bleeding Heart) and on a fine evening, dining outside the Bistro, you feel like you’re in one of those charming squares that you hope you’ll find on holiday in Provence.
Retracing your steps and going left onto Saffron Hill: In centuries past, saffron was cultivated to add to meat tin order to disguise the taste when it turned rancid and this hilly area was known for growing both fruit and saffron. However, by the 18th century Farringdon had become a very rough area filled with rookeries, the city slums that housed brothels and thieves’ lairs. So notorious was Farringdon that in Oliver Twist, Dickens sited Fagin’s den here. The Artful Dodger leads Oliver to Field Lane, the southern extension of Saffron Hill “a dirty and more wretched place he had ever seen. The street was very narrow and muddy and the air was impregnated with filthy odours”.
Nowadays, Saffron Hill is at the heart of super-cool Clerkenwell filled with design companies. It is also home to the architecturally stunning Ziggurat building. In the 1930s a print works, now a rather lovely apartment block. If you are curious about this strange name and are wondering what why this building was named thus, here’s some info http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziggurat.
As you walk to the end of Saffron Hill you reach Clerkenwell Road. When you cross this road, notice how steeply the hilly streets on the other side drop down. Remember too how steep Greville Street was? I love to imagine the landscape in London as it would have been hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Can you imagine this area when the Fleet River, as wide as the Thames, was flanked by rolling hills initially covered in vineyards and then cultivated further to grow fruit, saffron and other herbs. It must have wafted with better smells than than Dickens’s “filthy odours” and today’s diesel!
If you take one of these hills down (Back Hill or Herbal Hill) you are walking down to the underground river once more. When you get to Ray Street at the bottom of the hill, pause outside the Coach and Horses and you’ll see a grating in the middle of the road. If you are there at a very quiet time of day, go to the grating, listen very carefully and you’ll hear the Fleet River rushing through the sewers under your feet.
And just before its time for coffee, there’s another building to see around the corner. Turn right on Ray Street and you’ll reach Warner Street and The Warner Building. A 1930s factory, it too is now an apartment block with wonderful Art Deco lines. It’s superbly incongruous in its surroundings and, much like The Ziggurat, has a glamorous ocean liner feel to it.
If, like me, all this strolling is making you faint from lack of sustenance, walk back up to Clerkenwell Road and there’s Terroni’s delicatessen right next to the Italian Church. You can sit outside and have a coffee and something delicious to eat. Terroni’s is London’s oldest Italian deli. They have been serving the Italian community and the rest of us lucky Londoners since 1878. Wow, that’s even older than me!
Happy mindful walking.