Bomb blasts and Monopoly boards: the hidden history of Clerkenwell

Noon on Sunday a couple of weeks ago. Eyes congealed with last night’s mascara, I prised them open to see a sickly green version of my boyfriend.

‘Do we have to go?’ Charlie squawked, clutching his sides, about to spew his innards on to the remnants of last night’s fancy dress costumes. Kicking an endangered fairy wing out the way, I was about to say, ‘Nope. Let’s stay here, dwell on the misery of our hangovers and watch six episodes of CSI.’ Instead I did the noble thing – I stole the duvet and booted him out of bed.

Bracing the freezing cold with splitting headaches to learn about historic Clerkenwell isn’t at the top of everyone’s list of hangover cures. But surprisingly it’s edged much closer to the top of ours after this Sunday’s trip with the affable and knowledgeable Rob Smith from Footprints of London.

Never heard of Footprints of London? No, neither had we. Turns out it’s a group of independent tour guides who take interested types around London’s streets, revealing historical nuggets. Geeky? Hmm a little, yes. But think less dreary museum tour and more a fresh look at the sights and streets you pass every day.

Here are a few of our choicest sites and historical gems from Sunday’s tour…

1860s terror plots – Clerkenwell House of Detention

It’s 1867. Irish reactionaries Burke and Casey are arrested for planning a prison-van escape in Manchester and imprisoned in the Clerkenwell House of Detention. Their comrades in the Fenian gang plan an elaborate plot to release them. Unfortunately their first attempt bombed (wahey!)  Having rolled a barrel of gunpowder down the alleyway behind the prison, the militants checked their pockets and realised they’d forgotten to bring any matches.

Cue a hasty postponement.

Back again a few days later with matches in tow, the Fenian gang blew the wall, taking out a number of tenement houses and killing 12 in the blast. Cue prison breaks and confusion, compounded by the unwitting public who decided now was the perfect time to wade in and check out the cells.

Clerkenwell House of Detention catacombs

Open top tube rides – Metropolitan line from Paddington to Farringdon

Severe delays on the Metropolitan Line? You can thank Charles Pearson for that. Signal failure on the Jubilee Line? Well that’s what happens when you do a rush job (damn you Millennium Dome, damn you).

Opened in 1863, the Metropolitan Line from Paddington to Farringdon was the world’s first underground line. We can only assume that the then prime minister and his missus looked a tad ashen (literally) after the tube’s maiden voyage, because the rail company immediately dispensed with open top carriages for the steam-run trains.

Entrance to Farringdon Tube Station

Monopoly bored? – The Angel, Islington

As Waddingtons were developing the game that has ruined so many Christmases, the company sent down a couple of researchers from the HQ in Leeds to research London street names. After a day of trawling Bond Street and presumably fearing for their lives on Old Kent Road, the researchers eventually got down to the final square on the board. Fed up of pounding London’s streets, the researchers wound up in a pub on the site of the old coaching inn – The Angel in Islington. Reluctant to leave their pints, they ended up ditching the north London roads and named the light blue slot ‘The Angel Islington’.

close up of Monopoly board

Fancy getting to know London a little better? Even if you’re in the grips of a killer hangover, we couldn’t recommend this more. We were lucky for sneaking slots on a free tour – keep your eyes peeled for more freebies. Otherwise you’ll need to part with a small fee – but lemme tell you it’s definitely worth it. For more details, see

{Images: LondonistWill Hay, mike_fleming}


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