Sometimes you come across little gems that you never knew existed. London is particularly good for this where most corners can lead to something interesting. The Lovely Wife and I stumbled across one such recently when on a day out in London. The ‘main event’ of the day was a tour of the closed underground station at Aldwych, which closed in the 1990s and, as expected, proved a fascinating thing to be shown around and learn about its eventful history as both transport hub, war shelter and museum storage facility and now film location. But that only took a couple of hours, and these days the cost of trains into London somewhat suggest that finding multiple things to do is better value for money.
So, after a little looking about I came up with another tour, this time something quite different. We set off across London via Holborn Circus to find the little gem that is Charterhouse.
Although I had spent quite a lot of time in the area – including the hidden away joy that is the Old Mitre off Ely Place – I somehow had managed to miss the large set of medieval buildings just around the corner.
The place started as a memorial chapel over a thirteenth century plague pit, which is admittedly not the most auspicious of starts. Later it became a Carthusian monastery (an interesting order where the monks spent most of their time living as virtual hermits in separate cells around a large cloister), and then like many foundations at the dissolution became a Tudor manor house. Where Charterhouse diverges from many other sites is after this and due to one man, Thomas Sutton in the early seventeenth century. He was a very shrewd and very rich man and set about turning the existing buildings into an institution that would look after people at both ends of life – one half a school, and the other accommodation for the elderly and needy. When set up, the charity was one of the richest in the country and both parts were to prove a big success. The school became internationally famous and now has moved out to Surrey, but the other part of the charity remains and is still going strong. They have about 40 incumbents, known as ‘Brothers’ as a nod to the original use of the buildings. Historically, these were male only, but they have several lady ‘Brothers’ now, although the poor ladies are still heavily outnumbered.
You can have a guided tour of most of the extensive complex – other parts, where the Brothers live – are naturally private. We were lucky as in all there were only 5 of us on our tour, which always leaves more time for questions and a more intimate experience of a very nearly private tour for us. Maybe that was partly what made it so enjoyable, but some of the stories connected with the site and institution were fascinating and it is just a joy being able to walk around a mix of building styles with so much history, still performing much of their initial function and missed by most who pass by every day. It is not expensive, so if you are in the right part of London with a few hours to spare, you can do worse to find some peace and hidden history.