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Don’t look down: exploring Clerkenwell

Are you the kind of person who walks with purpose, unaware of your surroundings and only interested in getting to your final destination? Or are you more like us – inquisitive about your surroundings, always on the lookout for hidden quirks, stories and inspiration? Anna Hamill, a Senior Brand Strategist in our London team, takes us on a tour of the streets around our London home…

Anna Hamill

If you don’t want to be late for your next meeting, I would recommend keeping your head held high when walking to our Studio in London. Hiding amidst the bricks and concrete of Clerkenwell and Farringdon are clever little pieces of design masquerading as lowly manhole covers. Some are more expected than others – access points for sewage or electrical lines, even the London Underground. But many are rare survivors of the past; relics of history that continue to serve a purpose and tell their story to those who wish to slow down, look and then Google.

The first one caught my eye simply because I was surprised by its prettiness. Given how little money is spent on things that are not immediately in someone’s eye-line, I was surprised there was any design on it at all. This one had a geometric pattern, with a Star of David at the centre:

Don't Look Down star

East London – specifically Brick Lane, Spitalfields and Whitechapel – was once a Jewish quarter. It’s highly possible that this little welded iron cover is actually a silent artefact of that time; a nod to when the streets were filled with people taking refuge from other parts of Europe. The person or company making it could simply have cast some holes into the iron and moved on to the next one. But they weren’t just in the business of mass production. They took pride in crafting an otherwise functional item, and using it to pass on information to those willing to spend a second thinking about it. They made it an entry point into history. One little manhole, one little design, but a thousand stories behind it.

The next one I noticed turned out to be a little plaque that I’d always mistaken as a manhole:

Don't Look Down plaque

It’s not as old, or nearly as enigmatic, but I’ve probably walked over it a thousand times and never noticed that I was on the Clerkenwell Historic Trail. Instead of serving as a portal to London’s underworld, it’s a window into the history of the neighbourhood that I spend much of my week in. It turns out that the streets of Farringdon were once the centre of social and political protest. They housed 20th Century Press where Lenin published his work. There’s a 17th century garden and burial ground where you’ll find workers picnicking on a sunny day. An 18th century market that still serves up some of the best food in the area. A school for poor Welsh children, an old jail (our offices, in fact), and even a site where a church has stood since the 12th century. As an American living in London, these layers of history still make me giddy when I find them.

Finally. I’m beginning to think that the English words most frequently printed on the streets of London are actually ‘Post Office’. Not something you would expect to see embossed into the ironwork that peppers the pavement:

Don't Look Down Post Office

Another little Google search and I learned that, for over 100 years, the Post Office owned communication in the UK, whether it be written or spoken. It launched a Telegraph service in 1870, shortly followed by a national telephone service in 1912. These little vaults hold the electrics and other paraphernalia needed to transmit messages from one place to another. When trademarks were only just becoming commonplace, it seems quite visionary that the Post Office branded something so functional. Even the dashed border – a detail that many might not notice – is a clever nod to the dots and dashes used in a telegraph. Simplistic, perhaps. But evocative and effective once you think about it.

Why have I just spent so much time talking about manholes? Because I think there are two lessons to be learned. The first and most obvious – that design, inspiration, and storytelling are truly everywhere – even under our feet. But more importantly, that sometimes it’s worth taking the time to make functional, everyday objects special. Because those things that serve a true purpose are actually what’s most likely to stand the test of time.

by Anna Stanford

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