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As the Charterhouse invites visitors to learn about its history, our columnist says our religious heritage is a precious part of the city...

As the Charterhouse invites visitors to learn about its history, our columnist says our religious heritage is a precious part of the city.

The traffic roars on Clerkenwell Road past an ancient door in an ancient wall. Sometimes you will see a ‘Brother’, an elderly resident of the Charterhouse, emerge from the sanctuary of this remnant of medieval monastic life.

Hidden courtyards, closed spaces and quiet cloisters have a special fascination. Although the Reformation ensured that religious estates like the Priory of St John and the Priory of St Mary (where St James’s church is now) have long been absorbed into the fabric of Clerkenwell, it is remarkable how much of central London is still formed from this heritage and what a substantial impact it has on the urban form.

The Priory of St Bartholomew is now Bart’s Hospital but retains its sense of enclosure in spite of recent major building works. The Inner Temple and Middle Temple are located on the land that was once the headquarters of the Knights Templar. Lincoln’s Inn is on land purchased from the Bishop of Chichester. Only Gray’s Inn has a secular history.

Yet the Inns of Court still create the otherworldliness of the cloisters of the religious orders and their successors, the quads of the ancient universities.
Westminster Abbey Precincts and College Garden create a secret world in the heart of the nation’s governance; across the river the 13 acres of Lambeth Palace and its gardens are walled from the hustle and bustle of daily life. One can only imagine how different a city London would be if it had not been for the Reformation, which released tracts of land for development.

The rarity and sanctuary of those areas that remain are very precious. While opening up these spaces to greater public access is to be applauded, I pray they never lose that quietude and differentiation which makes them such a precious feature of London’s rich heritage.

Peter Murray is Chairman of NLA: London’s Centre for the Built Environment


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