If, like Dr. Johnson, you enjoy anecdotes and secret histories, make sure you take the opportunity to explore this unique part of the City Fringe in central London. Start with the Dragons, outside Chancery Lane station, which marks the position of the barriers that were the City of London’s outer gates at Holborn Bars in 1222.
High Holborn was a Roman road. It later became a route for criminals convicted in the City Courts, who were taken by tumbrel to the present Centre Point site in Tottenham Court Road. Nathaniel Hawthorne visited England in the 1850s and wrote about the quiet green spaces and peaceful atmosphere of the Inns of Court. Visit nearby Gray's Inn and the Staple Inn to see these secluded places, which still exist today.
Turn left into Brooke Street, where a plaque marks the site of number 39. Here in 1770, the Bristol boy poet Thomas Chatterton committed suicide in the garret when he was only 17 years old. Chatterton was described by Wordsworth as "the Marvellous Boy" and is immortalised in Henry Wallis’ famous Pre-Raphaelite painting.
Continue up to Brooke Street towards the Church of St Alban the Martyr where the Tower and Clergy House survive from William Butterfield’s original 1863 design. The church suffered bomb damage in World War II and was rebuilt to designs developed by Adrian Gilbert Scott in 1961. A dramatic sculpture by Hans Feibusch welcomes you to an unexpected small courtyard.
Return to Holborn and stop at the massive, dignified red-brick complex designed for the Prudential Assurance Company by famous architect John Waterhouse. The first part of the building was completed in 1879 and the second in 1909. The outstanding design, materials and craftsmanship have earmarked this impressive and beautiful edifice as a Grade 1 listed building. Its courtyard is open during the week, and allows you to admire the architecture more easily. You can also view the plaque that identifies it as a site where Charles Dickens once lived.
Ten minutes away you’ll find a museum dedicated to Dickens’ life, at 48 Doughty Street off Theobalds Road. Dickens knew this area well and it inspired the scenes for many of his novels. Gray's Inn featured in David Copperfield and Bleeding Heart Yard in Little Dorrit, while the Magistrates Court in Hatton Garden and Saffron Hill (Fagin’s Den) both featured in Oliver Twist.
From Waterhouse Square, at the bottom turn into the narrow street called Leather Lane which was mentioned in John Sow's survey of London in 1598. The bustling street market has been here for over 100 years and now serves the local workers at weekday lunchtimes. Visitors are welcome to walk through and join in the exciting hunt for bargains.
At the top of Leather Lane on Clerkenwell Road, look around for signs in the Italian Quarter - the wine shop, the food store and the driving school. The Italian Church of St Peter was opened in 1863 and still draws its congregation from all over London. Since 1883, it has held a procession every July to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Plaques commemorating Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian patriot, are found across the road at Laystall Street and also at the far end of Hatton Garden.
These days it’s hard to believe that this area was once famous for its gardens. See the clues in the street names of Vine Hill and Saffron Hill. John Gerard, who published his famous Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes in 1597, also had a Holborn garden.
The Hatton Garden area’s historical background is part of our national heritage. The land was owned by the Bishop of Ely who was so powerful within the church that the state decided he needed a palace, chapel and grounds in central London.
Elizabeth I admired and promoted a handsome courtier who was a fine dancer. In 1576 Christopher Hatton, seeking somewhere to live, asked the Queen to give him a house with grounds in Ely Palace. The Bishop had no say in the matter and Elizabeth 1 granted Hatton a lease, fixing his rent at £10 per annum plus ten loads of hay... and a rose at midsummer! Hatton was knighted in 1577 and became Lord Chancellor in 1587. In the mid-seventeenth century, the once-famous garden was used to create an estate of streets and houses.
Near the top of Hatton Garden Street you can spot the plaque for Sir Hiram Maxim, who designed the machine gun and had workshops here. A plaque for another inventor, the cinema pioneer Robert Paul, can also be found near the junction with St Cross Street.
The former chapel and parish school, now known as Wren House, can be identified nearby with the statues of charity school children standing on the first floor. Look out, too, for the vintage post boxes.
During the nineteenth century Johnson Matthey developed their gold and platinum business and the diamond trade expanded dramatically following the Kimberley diamond rush. Since the 1870's, the Hatton Garden area has established an international reputation as London's Jewellery Quarter. Nearly 300 local businesses and over 30 shops create the largest jewellery retail cluster in the UK.
Hatton Garden is the place to buy precious jewellery made with a long tradition of craft skills. There is a sparkling selection of the best in both traditional and contemporary designs, which will help you celebrate every important occasion in your life.
Take a brief stroll down Greville Street into Bleeding Heart Yard, the street of an unlikely Ingoldsby legend. One night in 1626, Lady Elizabeth Hatton went dancing with a mysterious stranger. Her body was discovered the next morning, lying on the cobblestones. It had been torn limb from limb, and her still-bleeding heart lay throbbing within. There are even rumours that her ghost still haunts the street.
The yard is now home to the very fashionable Bleeding Heart Restaurant, with its excellent French cuisine and over 400 different wines - another good reason to celebrate in Hatton Garden. The once-famous garden now features a private housing development.
Back in Hatton Garden itself, don’t miss a chance to appreciate the fine stone carvings of Treasure House at numbers 19-21. Then, look out for the narrow alley of Mitre Court where the Mitre Tavern was first built by the Bishop of Ely in 1546 for his servants. The latter is still contains a piece of the cherry tree around which Elizabeth 1 was said to have danced the maypole.
Walk through Ely Place, one of London’s last private roads, whose famous former residents include the poet William Cowper and the architect Charles Barry. In Shakespeare's Richard III, Gloucester mentions the delicious strawberries in the Bishop's garden and a popular Strawberry Fayre is held here in June each year.
The Gothic Church of St Etheldreda was built in the thirteenth century. It is the serving Chapel of the Bishop of Ely and was returned to the Roman Catholic Church in 1874. The ancient crypt can still be seen, as can the modern stained-glass windows and beautiful statues of local martyrs which were erected in the 1960's following the bomb damage in World War II.
Opposite the Church of St. Andrew is the tomb of Thomas Coram, a retired sea captain who founded his famous home for orphaned and abandoned children in Hatton Garden in 1739. The Coram Foundation art treasures can be seen at 40 Brunswick Square, a 15-minute walk away.