Clerkenwell has more creative businesses per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. Home to over 200 architect firms, more than 60 furniture and homeware stores, graphic design studios and advertising agencies, it’s the creative village at the heart of London. Clerkenwell’s exact boundaries are difficult to determine – and are often disputed – so we’ve mapped out the people and places who we feel define the area today. We’re calling them the Spacemakers.
Chef Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver started Britain’s nose-to-tail dining movement from the kitchen of their St. John restaurant in 1994, and – two decades on – signature dishes such as bone marrow on toast and devilled lamb’s kidneys remain firm favourites. Not only have they created legions of offal converts, Henderson and Gulliver have grown St. John into a culinary empire that now includes bakeries and a winery, among others. Their simply-designed, Michelin-starred St. John Street restaurant is still its beating heart.
Zaha Hadid is the queen of the ‘Starchitect’ generation, and the Zaha Hadid Design Gallery is the best place to see the architect’s catalogue of award-winning product designs, from bespoke furniture pieces to sculptural jewellery. Set across two floors, design objects are offered for sale among original artworks by Hadid, and a changing programme of events and exhibitions keep the space fresh. Previous events include a pop-up hair salon and collection previews for upcoming fashion designers.
The colossal Old Sessions House – a former courthouse – has presided over Clerkenwell Green for more than two centuries, but the Grade II-listed building is as mysterious as the Masonic order that last resided there. Now it’s under the ownership of brothers Ted and Oliver Grebelius, whose Sätila Studio are converting the 35,000 sq ft building into a private member’s club, public bar and restaurant. They’re not stopping there either: the brothers are working on a masterplan for Clerkenwell Green in collaboration with architects Feilden+Mawson that would see the historic marketplace radically transformed into a public space for both stalls and events…
You’d be hard pressed to find a pub more historic than The Crown Tavern on Clerkenwell Green. Legend has it that Vladimir Lenin met a young Joseph Stalin there for a drink in 1905, back when Clerkenwell was a hotbed of leftism. Nowadays, hundreds of local workers descend on the Green for a tipple, making it one of Clerkenwell’s most bustling pubs, and – during warmer months – its garden is a sun trap for late afternoon sunshine in the capital.
A visit to The Zetter Townhouse is like having ‘a cheery rummage through Miss Havisham’s drawers’, said one journalist. Trinkets, taxidermy and curiosities – even a stuffed kangaroo – all jostle for space in its lounge. As wonderful as it is eccentric, the Townhouse is the little sister of The Zetter hotel, just across the courtyard in a converted Victorian warehouse. The Zetter Group of boutique hotels was set up in 2004 by restaurateurs Michael Benyan and Mark Sainsbury, who have slowly been expanding their empire ever since.
The Zetter Townhouse is easily the group’s most charming offering, however, and serves the best cocktails in Clerkenwell, with an award-winning bar overseen by mixologist Tony Conigliaro of 69 Colebrook Row. We’ll drink to that.
London’s second-oldest theatre, Sadler’s Wells has been entertaining people since the 17th century. Under the artistic direction of Alistair Spalding, the theatre has reinvented itself as an institution for contemporary dance, hosting some of the most progressive performances from the local and international scene, ranging from ballet to tango, flamenco and hip-hop.
Including Exmouth Market in this guide is a bit of a cheat, given it is teaming with restaurants, pubs, independent book stores, gift shops, tattoo parlours and cafes. But this pedestrianised patch of Clerkenwell is destination in itself, so cannot be skipped. The likes of Moorish restaurant Moro – where the Zetter Group founders cut their teeth – and mid-century design boutique GN Furniture have been around a long time, establishing themselves as local anchors. Since 2006, the street has played host to a daily food market, offering everything from African street food to Thai.
As pioneers of the gastropub movement of the 1990s (they coined the term), Belben and Eyre put The Eagle at the forefront of Clerkenwell’s culinary scene when they opened it in 1991. It has remained there ever since. The Eagle’s changing daily menu – still painstakingly chalked on the wall by hand – offers hearty dishes from around the world. ‘Gastropub’ has become a dirty word in recent years, but The Eagle has stuck to its guns, drawing in a crowd of loyal patrons every day of the week.
Clerkenwell Road was once the heart of bookbinding and publishing in the city, and Wyvern Bindery is one of its last bastions. This little shop specialises in historic restorations and hand-binding, a craft in short supply in an increasingly digital age. It’s a perfect example of the niche services Clerkenwell still offers. And the traditional book binding tools are as fascinating as the skill itself.
London’s coffee scene has exploded over the last few decades, but – with so much choice – the search for the perfect cup can be vexing. Look no further than Prufrock on Leather Lane. The spacious cafe serves Square Mile Coffee and light bites, while also hosting a BRAT barista training course, where coffee enthusiasts can learn the science behind the perfect brew.
A founding member of the high tech architecture movement, Nick Grimshaw set up his practice in London in 1980. Now with offices worldwide, the practice has racked up more than 150 international design awards – including the prestigious Lubetkin Prize – and have helped shaped the face of cities across the globe. But it Clerkenwell Road headquarters remains the nerve centre of its operations.
Present & Correct has built its reputation by procuring and curating the best stationary design objects from around the world. Owner Neal Whittington turned his passion for stationary into a full time job when he left creative agency Wink to open his store in 2008. His graphic design background is obvious from the items he selects. Present & Correct’s journal is pretty addictive too.
13. Warner Yard
Created in 2013, Warner Yard is a co-working space for start-ups in the tech industry. More than a dozen businesses – including DOJO, an app for ‘discovering London’s hidden gems’, and educational coding game, Code Kingdoms – occupy three storeys of the building. But it’s not your typical accelerator space – early stage investors (funds and angels) also work in the building. The UK branch of US-accelerator brand Techstars also calls the co-working space home, adding more than 100 mentors into the building’s network.
Clerkenwell was the heart of London’s watchmaking and jewellery trades during the Industrial Revolution. Though not on on the same scale as the Victorian era, modern Clerkenwell is still a hub for jewellery making. The Goldsmiths Centre on Britton Street is a state-of-the-art learning space dedicated to sustaining the art of Goldsmithing in the UK, offering courses in manufacturing and design, as well as exhibition space and studios.
Just around the corned from Exmouth Market, The Quality Chop House is always worth a butchers. Opened in 1869, it served, as its name might suggest, a quality chop with a glass of wine as its signature dish. Now under the stewardship of Will Lander, the Grade II-listed restaurant’s dining room looks much the same as it did at the turn of the century, with a black and white chequered floor and original wooden benches for seating. Lander has added a wine bar (as well as cushioning to the pews), and has opened a butcher shop’s next door – the Victorian equivalent of the ‘take away’, no doubt…