EC1 in a starring role

Katy Salter wrote for The Clerkenwell Post:

“…It was at Barts (pictured) that Conan Doyle set the very first meeting between Holmes and Watson – the first of what would be many connections between his characters and the Clerkenwell area, not just in Doyle’s writing but in the long afterlife of the duo and their various on-screen portrayals.

The first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887. Watson, an army surgeon, has returned from the second Anglo-Afghan war and is searching for somewhere nice but affordable to live (that eternal London conundrum). He meets an old colleague: “young Stamford, who had been a dresser under me at Barts.” Stamford knows a man looking to go halves on some decent digs in Baker Street and takes Holmes to meet him at the hospital: “We ascended the bleak stone staircase and made our way down the long corridor […] a low arched passage branched away from it and led to the chemical laboratory.”…

A Study in Scarlet isn’t the only Holmes story to feature Clerkenwell locations. Saffron Hill makes an appearance in The Adventure of the Six Napoleons (1905), where it is described as the Italian Quarter (vestiges of this heritage can still be seen today in the remaining Italian delis in this part of EC1 and, of course, St Peter’s Italian Church and its annual Our Lady of Mount Carmel procession). In the story, Saffron Hill is home to Pietro Venucci: “one of the greatest cut-throats in London”.

The EC1 area has a starring role in one of Doyle’s best-known tales, The Adventure of the Red-Headed League (1891). The action centres on a pawnbroker’s shop in the fictitious Saxe-Coburg Square. Its exact location is unknown, but Doyle’s descriptions place it near Farringdon ‘Street’ and Aldersgate Underground station (now Barbican), suggesting it would be somewhere near or loosely modelled on Charterhouse Square. The square is described as “a pokey, little, shabby-genteel place, where four lines of dingy two-storied brick houses looked out into a small railed-in enclosure, where a lawn of weedy grass and a few clumps of faded laurel bushes made a hard fight against a smoke-laden and uncongenial atmosphere.”

On the other side of the square the picture is very different: “The road in which we found ourselves as we turned round the corner from the retired Saxe-Coburg Square presented as great a contrast to it as the front of a picture does to the back. It was one of the main arteries which convey the traffic of the City to the north and west.” The description of the road would suggest it is based on the Aldersgate Street/Goswell Road thoroughfare. The juxtaposition of shabby square and bustling main road are key to the story’s surreal and ingenious plot, which starts with the recruitment of a russet-haired pawnbroker to an exclusive league for redheads. “It is quite a three-pipe problem,” remarks Holmes at one point. Traveling from Baker Street to this part of town would’ve taken even longer by hansom cab as Holmes and Watson do, than a stuttering Metropolitan Line tube can do today: “we rattled through an endless labyrinth of gas-lit streets until we emerged into Farringdon Street,” says Watson.

Clerkenwell’s “endless labyrinth” of cobbled alleys, back streets and atmospheric buildings has long attracted filmmakers, so it’s hardly surprising that contemporary Holmes adaptations have returned to the same streets trodden by the detective in A Study in Scarlet and The Red-Headed League. Guy Ritchie shot scenes for 2009’s Sherlock Holmes at the Farmiloe Building on St John Street, with Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson rescuing Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) from a spot of peril in the Victorian warehouse, which doubled as an abbatoir in the film. Writers love the area too: Anthony Horowitz, author of 2012’s official Holmes novel The House of Silk, is a local. In the book, Horowitz has Watson allude to a previous case of “The Clerkenwell Killings”. “I love that it’s an area dripping in blood,” said Horowitz of the area’s gory history in an interview with The Clerkenwell Post last year. “It certainly inspires me when I’m writing horror, as it did when I was writing The House of Silk.”

However, it is the BBC’s Sherlock which has really put Clerkenwell on the map for hardcore Holmes fans… making it a pilgrimage site to almost rival Baker Street.
The exterior shots for the first episode, A Study in Pink, were shot at Barts, though the lab scenes are filmed in a Cardiff studio. The hospital exteriors appear in almost every episode of series one and two, and in the cliff-hanger series two finale. Since Cumberbatch’s greatcoat-clad Sherlock plunged from the rooftop of Barts, fans have flocked to the hospital (and nearby post box) to leave notes for their hero. How did Sherlock survive his Reichenbach Fall? We won’t know until series three airs. What we do know is that the team has been back at Barts, shooting several scenes for the new episodes. And so Sherlock Holmes’s Clerkenwell connections live on.”

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