Saturday, 22 September 2007

Open House

Last weekend was Open House across London. This meant that us commoners could gain access to buildings which are generally closed to the general public. This is a once-a-year treat that is, I understand, available across Europe at this time of year and snooping around otherwise closed buildings can be a lot of fun.

In past years we have queued for an hour and a half to visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which gave us a chance to chat at length to friends we hadn't seen in a while. We've also trekked around pumping stations in East London and a hospital in Bromley-by-Bow. They were all very interesting. Last Sunday we chose to visit Charterhouse Chapel. It was a pleasant afternoon and we walked there from Union Chapel in Compton Terrace, Islington. We basically traveled south via Upper Street gawping at all the restaurants as we walked. We reached the Angel and joined St John Street where it meets Pentonville Road and then continued south.

We carried on, passing yet more restaurants until they petered out to be replaced with 1960s office blocks. They were all empty because it was the weekend so this part of the street was pretty much deserted and it felt as though we were trespassing on a film set. We passed City University and eventually reached Clerkenwell Road. I thought we were nearly there by then but no, St John Street carried on further yet. We finally turned left when we reached Charterhouse Street which led us to Charterhouse Square.

I can't really recall much about the square except that the road surface is cobbled which makes it picturesque to look at and awkward to walk on and there is a garden in the middle of it. I admit I wasn't really paying attention because I was distracted by seeing real live people forming a queue outside a gate. We joined them and it turned out that the chapel wasn't going to be open for another 10 minutes so we had to be patient and wait until we could go in. While we waited we were given information sheets to read and we learned that the chapel was built by Sir Walter de Manny in 1349 to commemorate the thousands of Black Death victims who were buried in the square which had been purchased by him as an emergency burial ground. 'Oh, so that's what the nice garden is for', and, 'are there people buried under my feet as I stand here?' are a couple of the thoughts that passed through my mind.

In 1371 Sir Walter founded a Carthusian priory on the site and the chapel became the priory church. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1545 the chapel was demolished to make way for a new, private house for Sir Edward North. So when you pass through the gate into a garden you can see marked out on the grass the layout of the original church and the tomb of the founder, who is still buried there, and a memorial to the brothers and lay brothers who were executed by Henry VIII for refusing to accept the Act of Supremacy.

Then you are directed towards a door which takes you to the Chapel Cloister. My experience of cloisters, which I admit is limited, is that they form four sides of a square around a small garden and are open to the elements. This may well have been the case when this monastery was founded but this cloister is more like a wide corridor leading to the present chapel and was glazed in 1847. It is full of commemorative plaques to various former pupils of Charterhouse School which is now located in Surrey. The building above the cloister was destroyed by a fire bomb during the Blitz in 1941 and later restored. Within the doorway that leads to the chapel is what remains of the wooden door which resisted the fire in 1941 and saved the chapel from ruin.

As I entered the chapel my first impression was, 'isn't it small and dark?' There are box pews and it looks as though the officers of the church, the choir (if there is one), the organist and congregation must all sit on top of each other. When my eyes had had a chance to get used to the view I decided it was rather cosy and could seat a good many people in comfort. My attention was drawn to a memorial on the wall to one of Thomas Sutton's executors. It has a portrait of the said gentlemen that is in relief. He looks rather splendid in his robes and ruff and has the same name as, and looks similar to, a good friend of ours which is remarkable because this man died in 1614!

The main function of the Charterhouse, is now as a home to 40 male pensioners, known as Brothers, some of whom were there to answer our questions, and so it seems the site has gone full circle with Brothers still in residence six centuries after the original priory was founded.

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