Putting the well into Clerkenwell

I always like finding what’s beneath the surface in London, whether it is getting locked in with Roman ruins, snooping around for an ancient friary Finding the ruins of Whitefriars beneath the streets of London, getting up close and personal with the underground tomb of General Wolfe… it happens surprisingly often.

One of the places I’ve wanted to see close-up for 7 or 8 years is the original well in Clerkenwell, a district of London which I visit on one of my pub tour.

If you peer through the windows and the sun isn’t shining and causing a reflection, you can just about see an old well beneath the ground level. London has lots of wells though many have been lost over 2,000 years and others have been built over or indeed around Aldgate Priory – the medieval ruins inside a 21st century office block. There are still some around if you know well to look Coronavirus Diary 75 – Finding a Holy and Magical Well in St Albans.

My tourists are often either delighted or bemused when they peer through the windows above and many a local has walked with me and been completely unaware of the well enclosed by the modern building.

At one time tt may have been a “holy well” or at least a secret well where miracle plays were performed by the parish clerks. Back in the 12th Century it was part of St Mary’s nunnery, a 12th century house of Benedictine nuns and, later of Franciscan nuns, which stood beside the well; the sisters making good use of the water. Adjoining the nunnery was St Johns Priory, the headquarters of the medieval Knights Hospitallers.

Over the centuries, the well fell into disuse and become full of debris, the buildings above and around it were largely rebuilt from time to time and the nearby River Fleet from which both this and several nearby wells likely sourced waters, was covered over.

A well has been recorded here since 1174 though it is likely in some form or other, it was used used considerably earlier.

It was re-discovered back in 1924 when works were being done on Farringdon Lane outside.

Workmen uncover the built over well a century ago.

Sadly the well is locked up generally speaking and having walked by it a hundred times, it has never been open until a week or so ago when I was testing out the new Elizabeth Line for the first time and as I was weaving a way through the alleys as I often do, happened to find someone who let me inside.

There is quite a bit of tudor brickwork around the well which lies a metre or three (6-10 feet) below the ground level. Most fantastically of all however is there is still fresh water to be found.

Sadly I wasn’t allowed to actually clamber over the well itself due to concerns that either it or myself might be damaged in someway but nevertheless it was nice to be able to get so close to the well which gave this old part of London a name, Clerkenwell… the well of the Clerks or clerics.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
This entry was posted in history, London, Religion and Faith, Travel, Ye Olde England Tours and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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