Funny place, Holborn: it's not the City; it's not the West End; it refuses to be pinned down to any point of the compass. It is obscure and recondite to most people, a lesser-known and unappealing neighbour to Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell. There are diddly-squat famous attractions here; it's biggest draw being the ornate law colleges of Greys Inn and Lincolns Inn, but they're generally closed at weekends. Any tourists alighting from Holborn Tube will doubtless be bumbling their way to the British Museum in nearby Bloomsbury. Even its postcodes, WC1X, WC2B, are neither here nor there. And just how do you pronounce Holborn, anyway?
Sounds boring, eh? But scratch beneath its surface, sometimes literally, and you'll find loads of good stuff. Holborn is, to use a tired but appropriate phrase, well worth a visit, as long as you know where to look. So, in the first of an occasional series celebrating lesser-known bits of the city, Londonist shares with you a few of our favourite things around Holborn. See you after the jump...
To Clear Up Any Confusion
The first puzzle of Holborn is how to pronounce it. You'll have heard people say variously O'bn (locals), Ho-Burn (wannabe locals), Hol-Burn (tourists) and Hole-Bourne (Yank tourists). So the fewer letters you pronounce, the more you'll sound like you know what you're talking about. Strangely, though, it's probably the Yank tourists who get closest to the area’s ancient enunciation (see next section).
The exact area that Holborn comprises is also difficult to assess. For the purposes of this post, we're including everything within the bounds of Kingsway/Southampton Row to the West, Guildford Street to the North, the Fleet Valley to the East and Fleet Street to the South.
A final cause of bewilderment is that 'Holborn' can refer to the whole area, its main thoroughfare, its Tube station or even the upper stretch of the River Fleet, which flows beneath the locale. We'll use High Holborn to mean the road, to make the distinction sort-of clear (though, correctly, High Holborn is the long western stretch through Holborn, up to Grays Inn Road, whence it continues as Holborn down towards the Holborn). Confusing, huh?
Ups And Downs
The name Holborn comes from the Anglo-Saxon words 'Hol' meaning hollow and 'Bourne' meaning brook. Despite a millenniumsworth of development in the area, it is still very easy to understand how this name came about by simply walking around. The eastern fringes of Holborn slope sharply down to Farringdon Road, before rising again into Clerkenwell. This valley is not man-made, but was formed over thousands of years by the waters of the vanished River Fleet. This was once a fairly sizeable waterway running from the hills of Hampstead to empty into the Thames at the spot where Blackfriars Bridge now stands. Over the centuries, the river was gradually entombed (partly because our ancestors treated it as little more than an open sewer) until in Victorian times it was completely covered and bridged by the impressive Holborn Viaduct. The Fleet now flows underneath the railway tracks behind Farringdon Road, and you can still see its outflow during low tide at Blackfriars.
Although the river was covered over by the 1800s, its impression remains, both physically and atmospherically. A feeling of malaise seems to hover over the area. There are noticeably fewer pavement cafes, bars and other places to linger down here, despite the large numbers of office workers who pass through each day. The various roads sloping up from the western side of the valley reinforce this feeling. This was once a very seedy part of town, leading Dickens to use Saffron Hill as the setting for Fagan's lair in Oliver Twist. Nowadays, the area is given over to the jewellers of Hatton Garden. Keep your eyes open for the burly ex-SAS guys who skulk around the upper end of Greville Street on the watch for latter-day Artful Dodgers.
Eating and Drinking
With so few tourists in the area, Holborn is perhaps less furnished than other parts of town when it comes to restaurants and bars. But by the same token, a focus on local customers means the prices and quality are generally very reasonable. Londonist's favourite eatery in the area has to be Ciao Bella, an Italian restaurant tucked away down the attractive Lamb's Conduit Street. Friendly, moderately priced, pizzas the size of cartwheels (we'd recommend the frutii di mare) and wall-to-wall pictures of Sinatra et al.: what more could you want? For drinks, you could do much worse than a trip next door to the Lamb. Here you'll find a genuine Victorian interior claustrophobically supporting a range of fine Young's ales. If you’re not put off by Sam Smiths, try the ancient and magnificent Cittie of Yorkee on High Holborn. Rumoured to have its origins in 1430, this multifaceted pub contains several bars and, occasionally, a hidden beer garden. Towards the western end of High Holborn, tucked away down a tiny alleyway, is the Polish vodka bar Na Zdrowie (which apparently means Cheers! in Polish, but sounds more like the ungodly lovechild of Frank Zappa and David Bowie). Go there and try their blue stuff. Also worth looking up are the Bleeding Heart Tavern (Greville Street), the Rugby Tavern (Great James Street) and Ye Olde Mitre (see below).
Just after reaching the Eastern end of High Holborn, before the dive into the Fleet Valley, sits this curious little cul-de-sac. Ely Place has been associated with the Bishops of Ely since 1290, and John of Gaunt ("this scepter'd isle…", etc.) died here in 1399. Technically, the street remains an enclave of Cambridgeshire and the residents have the right to refuse entry to the police (we'd like to see them try it at the moment). If you look carefully on the Western side of the street, you might be lucky enough to stumble upon the tiny Ely Court (this seems to move every time we visit). The only building down this narrow passageway is Ye Olde Mitre, which purports to be the oldest pub in the City of London (we've heard that one before), dating from 1546. Its original purpose was as a local for the servants of the Bishop of Ely. It didn't just attract the servile, however, and can count Elizabeth I amongst its patrons. The Way We See It recently sent their cameras over to Ely Place: here's how they saw it.
The Holborn area is spectacularly endowed with subterranean secrets. Most prominently, and yet most hidden, are the deep-level shelters that run below a sizeable stretch of High Holborn. These twin passageways were constructed during WWII as one of eight similar deep-level refuges across the capital, with a view to integrating the various shelters into express Tube lines after the war. That never happened, and the site was instead taken over by the General Post Office. The labyrinthine chambers were used to house one end of the first trans-Atlantic telephone cable. Later, the shelter partly expanded into a government bunker. There are few signs of this massive complex at street level, other than the prominent ventilation shaft where Holborn meets Leather Lane. A fascinating map of the complex can be found here, along with more details about the photo we swiped from them.
Other subterranean curiosities in the area are so numerous that it's a wonder the whole neighbourhood doesn't cave in. To catalogue a few: the disused Kingsway tram tunnel, the decommissioned Mail Rail, the abandoned Museum Tube station, two disused platforms at Holborn station, the River Fleet, a subterranean silver market, a main sewer and various ancient water conduits, most notably under Queen Square. A fascinating afternoon can be spent hunting around for signs of each of these.
What are your favourite things around the Holborn area? And which part of town should we investigate next? Let us know…