It seems that not a day goes by when I don't hear or read about something in London, be it a bar, restaurant, museum, building, house ... or whatever, heralded as one of 'London's hidden gems'. It is true, there are many of them, and it's just one of the long list of things I love about this city. One place however, which must surely have an incredibly valid claim for actually being such a place (and near the top of the 'hidden gem' charts), is the Charterhouse in Smithfield, or to refer to it by its official name ... Sutton's Hospital in Charterhouse.
To say that the experience of walking through Charterhouse is 'magical' would be an understatement, as testified by the amount of film producers that have used its buildings, courtyards and rooms as film sets. Although, you can join occasional tours, Charterhouse is not commonly open to the public. In essence, it is a retirement home and 'the brothers' who live there ... actually do live there, enjoying the peace and tranquility of a life that seems almost protected from the outside world.
The current buildings (many of which are ancient) occupy the site of a former Carthusian Monastery, first established in 1371. The order was founded by Saint Bruno in the 11th century, who had his first hermitage in the valley of the Chartreuse Mountains in the French Alps, which is where the word 'Charterhouse' is derived.
Until the 1530's, vast tracts of land belonged to religious orders (just a short walk away, you can still pass through St John's Gate, once part of the area belonging to the Knights Hospitallers). All this came to an end when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, but the Carthusians refused to conform to the King's 'Act of Supremacy' and many of them were executed at Tyburn (now Marble Arch) as a result. The Monastery buildings were turned in to a fine Tudor mansion, passing through various owners during the remaining years of Henry VIII, throughout the reign of Elizabeth I (who visited Charterhouse on a number of occasions) and through to the early 17th century when James I became King. It was during this time, in 1611 in fact, when the current story of Charterhouse begins. It was bought by a self made man, an incredibly wealthy and not to mention generous and philanthropic individual called Thomas Sutton.
Sutton set up a Charitable Foundation to educate boys and to care for elderly men, known as 'brothers'. The school, Charterhouse, still exists today, but moved to Godalming in Surrey in 1872, whilst the 'brothers' (and I think there are currently about 45 of them) still reside in the buildings you can see pictured. There was perhaps not surprisingly, considerable bomb damage during WWII (the 40 acre site, obliterated at the same time and now houses the Barbican Centre is just a few minutes walk away), but was faithfully restored and has seen new buildings added as recently as 2001. The tour I went on, began in the chapel, which was largely saved during the Blitz, due to the huge oak door (fortunately closed at the time) which absorbed a substantial amount of bomb impact. You can see on the photo below (left) that the door still hangs there today as a reminder, albeit about half the size.
As I mentioned, the Charterhouse still houses 'the Brothers', and two of them showed us around on the tour I joined, and it really did feel like we were being let in on a secret, a true hidden London gem, as we saw the Great Hall where they eat together each day (and have done for over 400 years), the only surviving part of the old 14th century Norfolk Cloister where the monks had their cells, courtyards, corridors and of course sprinkling the whole thing with the site's incredibly rich and intriguing history.
As far as I know, tours take place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and every other Saturday and cost £10. If you are able to join one, I can highly recommend it. It seems as well, that plans are afoot to open a more permanent museum in a few years time, which is great news.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.