Guided tour: 11 AM and 2.30 PM (Tue, Fri-Sat, Jan-Dec), and 2 PM (Sun, Jul-Sep only) – Self-guided tour: 10 AM to 5 PM (Mon-Sat); 10 AM to 5 PM (Sun, Jul-Sep only)
20 mins (or 40 mins if you also visit the chapel) (approx)
St. John's GateCraigEasy to get to? ★ ★ ★Good for kids? ★ ★ ★Value for money?freeWorth a visit? ★ ★ ★103
If you meet a St. John's Ambulance man today then it will probably be at the empty end of a church fete -- the deserted end where they put all the rent-a-toilets and first aid tables. They put a plaster on your knee, dab a bit of TCP on a bee sting if you get stung, slap you about a bit if you feint in the summer sun -- it's all simple stuff like that. Mum stuff. But if you met them 1,000 years ago then it would have been a totally different story because they started out as doctor monks in Jerusalem, caring for all the pilgrims who came across from medieval Europe. Once the Crusaders captured the city they morphed into fighting monks (a bit like the Knights Templar), and called themselves the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. That's where St. John's Gate comes into the story, because this castle-like gatehouse was part of the Clerkenwell Priory -- their headquarters in England.
In 1292 the Muslims booted them out of the Holy Land and they upped sticks to Cyprus, then Rhodes, then Malta, where Napoleon finally finished off their foreign adventures. That would have been the end of their story except Queen Victoria gave them a Royal Charter to provide humanitarian aid again, and that's how we know them today -- from their first aid tables at the empty end of church fetes.
From the Crusades to church fetes in a thousand years. That's the story of the Order summed up in a single sentence.
Clerkenwell Priory didn't last anywhere near as long as the Knights because it succumbed to Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. The imposing stone gatehouse is the most prominent piece that remains today, and it's tightly sandwiched between two sides of a street. The first time you see it you'll think that it's a Victorian folly, or a piece of set dressing from a Robin Hood movie, but it's been standing here since 1504. It's seen off half-a-century of history, this gate. It was here when Bloody Mary was burning heretics down the road. It was here when the Great Fire of London levelled everything up to Smithfield. Even Hitler couldn't knock it down.
You can view the other side of the wall from inside the museum, where you'll find three small rooms telling the story of the Order. They have quite a nice collection of artefacts on show: old coins, books and bibles, cannonballs and a cannon barrel, and a few suits of chainmail armour. There are plenty of paintings as well. And lots of bowls (every London museum has to have some bowls on show). The last room concentrates on their modern day role as first aid volunteers.
Let me sum it up like this: if you're already interested in the Crusades then it's worth a quick visit, but if you're not then don't bother. The gatehouse is certainly worth looking at if you're walking around Smithfield, but the museum's not big enough to make it worth a detour.
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"If you meet a St. John's Ambulance man today then it will probably be at the empty end of a church fete" A bit harsh. Bearing in mind the current perilous state of the LAS you may well be sent one if you dial 999 for an ambulance. LAS have been using them (and other private providers) as back up for a while. They even have some paramedic crews out and about.
That's the direction it seems to be going with every service these days. You get community support officers instead of policemen, and a non-doctor reading through a computer program questionnaire when you dial 111. GPs have passed off half the stuff they used to do to nurses.
From the author: “The good thing about this book is that I have genuinely been to all of these places myself. And I don’t just regurgitate the same old spiel that you find in 95% of guidebooks. It’s not the kind of book where I just tell you the address, how much it costs, and leave it at that. I have explored every single one of these attractions myself. You’ll find info about opening times, prices, the recommended time required at each attraction, example itineraries, a guide to using the buses and trains… and plenty more.”