Friday, September 18, 2009

Clerkenwell: London's Little Italy

Yesterday's ramble had two themes: (1) Dickens sites in Clerkenwell and (2) imagining that my grandparents had left Milan for London (Clerkenwell is the old Italian enclave) instead of the wasteland of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Clerkenwell is a fairly discrete area, but despite that I managed to log 10 miles on the pedometer while zigging and zagging down little streets and passages. Plus, I had to backtrack a couple of times after getting turned around -- although this area isn't quite as confusing as the City, it's just as old and a bit of a rabbit warren.

I actually started the day in the City, at the art gallery in the Guildhall where I saw the post-war photos of freelance photographer John Gay. The images of the English countryside, Highgate, London train stations, etc., were striking -- he was brilliant at finding interesting details and angles, at following the light, and at capturing people in wonderful moments. The exhibition itself was a bit of a disappointment, however. John Gay left his thousands of negatives, mostly 2 1/4 or other large format, to English Heritage and they could have made lovely prints on photographic paper from those negatives, but this exhibition is of digitally made blow-ups.

As I wandered through Clerkenwell, I passed former monasteries, a huge plague pit, the Clerk's Well, craft studios, the place where Oliver Twist was nicked, the court where Mr Bumble appeared before a magistrate, old craft works buildings, and Dickens' bank. The Italian community was in evidence everywhere: dozens of Italian caffs, a Vespa dealer, a shop selling high-end Italian men's clothing, and a horse-drawn Victorian hearse outside St Peter's Italian Catholic Church in Clerkenwell Road. I ate lunch at Gazzano's deli in Farringdon Street, one of only two Clerkenwell delis still in the hands of the original family.

Fortified by a tasty panino, I braved the Bloody Barbican. I'd been around it before, but had never ventured INTO it. Gack! It's vast, with a labyrinth of highwalks running around the lake, school, church and housing blocks. It took ages to find the art gallery in the Barbican Centre, where I saw Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet. Think Buckminster Fuller geodesic domes and plants growing sideways. My escape from the Barbican left me needing a sitdown and a snack, so -- after a brief detour through Postman's Park -- I met up with a Flickr mate in another Italian caff in Smithfield. Pushing onward, I made a brief stop at the Holborn Library to see an exhibition called King's Cross Voices (a photography and oral history project about people who had lived and worked around King's X). When I realized that most of what I was looking at and reading is on a website, I cut it short, walked over to Russell Square and caught the 168 bus back to Belsize Park.

The day ended with meeting another Flickr mate for a glass of wine before doing some grocery shopping at Budgens and heading back to the flat to make my dinner. I nearly fell asleep with my head in my plate.

Distance: 24,828 steps (10.17 miles)
£2.50 for the Guildhall art gallery
£6.40 for a panino & limonata (a bit more than I usually spend, but worth it)
£8 for the Barbican art gallery
£7.50 for drinks
£7.94 for groceries

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