If you've ever been down (or up) Clerkenwell Road, you would have passed a big gate way just up the hill from Farringdon Road, and if you'd spied it, would have probably thought 'Jeepers ... that looks like it's straight out of a film set ... of a period film of some sort ... like a film that's set ages ago, maybe one that Cate Blanchett's in.' You would be quite correct in this assumption, because it's been there since 1504 and for me is just the tip of the iceberg. The metaphorical iceberg is formed of the rich history of the area that has so many stories, so many facets and such a wide reach spanning centuries, that to write about it here would do it an injustice. Instead, I shall furnish you with a few bits of information and leave it up to you whether you visit or not. Oh yes, the gate is called St John's Gate and looks like this.
So, in an unsatisfactory nutshell ... up until the point when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and began taking away land that belonged to them (often referred to as the Dissolution of the monasteries) much of London (and the rest of the country for that matter) was dotted with huge swathes of land that belonged to various monastic orders. The area around Clerkenwell belonged to the Order of St John, the Hospitallers, whose origins date back to the late 11th century in a role caring for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. The gate I just mentioned was a later addition, which lead in to a Priory that included a couple of large halls, dormitories, buttery, refectory, counting house, kitchen, stables, orchards, gardens, fish ponds and unusually for a monastic precinct, an armoury (those pilgrimages often got violent). After the Dissolution, I think Henry VIII used the Priory as a store house before giving it to his daughter Mary, who used it as a private palace.
The Order of St John, the Knights Hospitallers, had an unexpected renaissance in the 19th century, when it became apparent that there was little or no provision for the aid of injured people in civilian life, particularly those succumbing to fatal injuries in the work place, at public events or indeed at home. For this reason, in 1877, the St John Ambulance Association was founded, continuing the same ethos that the original order begun, all those centuries earlier. As you know, St John Ambulance still very much exists today, continuing to carry out what the Victorian's called rather aptly 'Ambulance Crusades'.
You can uncover this fascinating history over two sites. St John's Gate houses a museum (free to enter, and free to exit) detailing all of this stuff, and if you cross over the road you will find hiding beneath the facade of a reasonably modern building, the 12th century Priory crypt, one of London's few remaining Norman structures along with another small museum, garden and church, which was rebuilt after being completely destroyed in WWII.
Also, just as an aside, William Hogarth (well known pictorial chronicler of debauched 18th century London) lived for 5 years in the east tower of St John's Gate, as his father ran a coffee shop there. Samuel Johnson wrote parliamentary reports there long before anyone approached him with the idea of compiling a dictionary, Charles Dickens visited the Jerusalem Tavern which popped up there in 1760 (of course he did) and the west tower currently houses one of the few remaining Tudor spiral staircases in England (although you can only see this if you join one of their tours at 11am or 2.30pm on Tuesdays, Fridays or Saturdays). Also, if that's not enough name dropping, in the 16th century, the Priory housed the office of the Master of Revels (which sounds like a pretty cool job) responsible for licensing and organising all court entertainments and plays, and 30 of William Shakespeare's plays were licensed there.
The museum is open from Monday to Saturday (10am - 5pm), so if you're in the area or work nearby then why not pop in.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.