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  • Writer's pictureRebekah Day

A fragrant place of reverie

On a quiet back street tucked between the Barbican and Clerkenwell areas of London's north east, a set of brick steps stand as the unassuming entrance to St John's Priory Church.

On the right, a door leads to a tiny gift shop and on the left is a small room showcasing the history of the building. This room leads to a grand foyer hat acts as a gateway to a "church," several grand rooms and a crypt further inside.

But to climb the steps and carry straight on leads visitors directly to the open air medicine garden, blooming with herbs and plants traditionally used by medieval monks to treat the sick - now providing a fragrant place of reverie amongst the busy city.

Olives trees within the garden have been growing for more than 200 years, but the history of the Priory stretches even further back.

Monks had created a church in Jerusalem in 1080 to treat exhausted and injured pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. In time these wardens of the sick also took on a military role alongside the Christian crusaders that later captured Jerusalem and became known as The Order of St John - now also caring for people of any faith or background.

In 1140 the Order was gifted with land in Clerkenwell, a small village on the rural periphery of London at the time, where international headquarters for the Order were then built - including the gardens pictured above.

The actual Priory was closed and opened several times during the religious upheaval Britain faced as it alternated between Catholic and Protestant monarchs, and the English faction of the Order even faced dissolution at the hands of Queen Elizabeth I.

The Priory and it's nearby buildings have seen many uses since, including as

a coffee house, pub and birthplace of the Gentlemen's Magazine in centuries gone by - but the Order did never waiver in it's global mission to provide first aid to the public.

In 1877 St John's Ambulance was founded in England by the Order and continues to provide transport and medical aid to the public around the world today.

Visitors can enjoy free guided tours on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday of the Priory and crypt, and read more about the building and the Order in the small gallery by the entrance.

Available for private hire, public events are also frequently held in the rooms of the Priory - I recently attended a talk from historian and author Suzannah Lipscomb where she discussed her recent publication (Witchcraft, a Ladybird Expert book) in the dramatic Church room - as part of annual Histfest celebrations in the area.

If you're ever wandering around the buzzing Clerkenwell district with 10 minutes to spare, this time capsule of a London long-lost is well worth admiring.

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