The Barbarians are always in for a good challenge. So when fellow travel blogger David from Stray with David recently visited town and suggested we should meet up for a couple of quick pints at London’s best-hidden pub, we turned it into a competition who would find it first. We literally bumped into each other at the signposted entrance to the tiny alleyway off Hatton Garden and called it a draw. Apparently the entrance at the other end of the alley is much harder to find.
Half way through the passage the path widens and opens to the sky, letting a healthy amount of light in, and there it is: the beautiful, award-winning, top-ranking, famous Ye Olde Mitre with its oak-panelled ground floor façade and dark leaded stained-glass windows. Even though the only thing that remains from its initial existence today is a single corner stone, the pub traces its history back to a building from 1546.
In the mid-16th Century the area was not part of London. How come, you may ask. Well… back then the area was home to the so-called townhouse of the Bishops of Ely (pronounced “EE-lee”) from Cambridge, modestly named “Ely House”. Less than impressed by the crime-infested, dirty, smelly surroundings, the churchmen decided to make this stretch of land just outside the City of London an outpost of Cambridgeshire, quite officially, with seal and stamp.
The lavishly large land area (a quarter of a square kilometre; 1km x 250m) around the majestic palace included the famous strawberry fields, as well as orchards, vineyards and manicured gardens with fountains, statues, and ponds. It stretched all the way to the Thames. The Bishop of Ely and his strawberries feature prominently in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’, and John of Gaunt’s ‘This scepter’d isle’ speech in ‘Richard II’ is being given in Ely House itself.
Humble servants of God with a taste for the finer things in life
In 1531, a five-day feast was held by these humble servants of God. It was attended by Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, the Lord Mayor of London, and various other noble guests from near and far. The shopping lists survived to this day and are a true testament to the selfless benevolence and altruism of these purveyors of praise: 25 cows, 125 pigs, 100 sheep, 444 pigeons, 340 larks (don’t look at me) and 156 swans, the latter donated by their owner, the King.
The Dancing Chancellor
Queen Elizabeth I was a huge fan of her tall, handsome, commoner underling Sir Christopher Hatton, so much so, that she forced the churchmen to give up some of their land so that good old Chris could have his own little patch to build on. The red-haired Virgin Queen regularly visited her buddy and, or so the story goes, danced with him around a cherry tree that can still be seen at the front of the pub. The story is absolutely plausible, considering that Hatton was known to be a passionate aficionado of ballroom-dance and his nickname was indeed “The Dancing Chancellor”.
The Cherry Tree
The cherry tree is said to have marked the boundary between the bishop’s and Hatton’s grounds in those days. Later on the palace and the surrounding buildings were turned into a prison and then a hospital. When the Crown took over the lands in 1772 it demolished all buildings. A year later Ye Olde Mitre was re-built on the grounds of the initial building that had served as a tavern for the Bishops’ legion of servants and staff. It only underwent relatively minor changes since.
Crooks love Cambridge (unless they’re Tories, in which case they love Oxford)
It was only in the mid-20th Century that the land became part of the London Borough of Camden. When it was still part of Cambridge, it was subject to different bylaws governing public order and the like. The London police were not permitted inside the perimeter. Many a criminal, petty thieves as well as murderers, tried to escape justice by fleeing to these quarters from their scene of crime. Until a couple of decades ago, the more seasoned staff at the Mitre still told everyone who was happy to listen stories of jewel thieves that could be seen by their patrons running through Ely Court at full speed to escape justice.
Doug the Head
Quite possibly the dodgy diamond dealer Doug the Head might have had this in mind when he set up his shop here in Guy Ritchie’s movie Snatch. Or perhaps it’s simply because gold and diamond traders generally base their business in and around Hatton Garden to this day. In April 2015 Britain’s biggest heist involved a break-in at the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company a stone’s throw away. Also noteworthy is one of England’s oldest Catholic churches: St Etheldreda’s Church, initially built as the private chapel of the Bishops of Ely.
The interior space is divided into three small ground-floor rooms, one of which can only be entered through a separate outdoor entrance, and a bigger room on the first floor. It has a quirky charm with weird decorations like cups, beer mugs, and tankards dangling from the ceiling and signs, drawings and Elizabethan memorabilia on the walls. There is a ‘Ye Closet’ mini-snug in the back. Bottles are sitting on the top of the dark wooden panelling that covers the walls three quarters up from the ground. It being the end of October, the owners (Fuller’s Brewery, who own some 300 further pubs in Southern England) had made a decent effort to put up some Halloween decoration. Because it was so crowded inside, we chose to stand at the bar tables in the partially covered, wind-protected outdoor patio area. In absence of a proper kitchen, the only things on the menu are toasted sandwiches and the like.
The Mitre seems to attract a large percentage of locals, while many tourists seem to struggle to find the pub. When David and I visited at around 4pm, the majority of guests were elderly gentlemen that seemed to have merged with the furniture. Only some time later the place filled up with younger office workers, tradesmen, and a few Chinese tourists. This is a quintessential English pub. Ann Laffeaty from whose fabulous Blog about London’s pubs’ history we borrowed heavily, quite rightly and very amusingly calls it Pubby McPubface in a play on Boaty McBoatface (a 2016 naming competition event which to this day is considered to be absolutely legend here on the British Isles, on one level with the 1966 FIFA World Cup).
Thank you and well done for having made it all the way through to the end of this viciously verbose, seriously circuitous, even circumlocutory, and pretty prolix piece about this pub’s past and present. Hope to see you here again soon.
For further food-related features feel free to check out our posts about England’s oldest inn, London’s quirkiest pub, fine dining near the North Pole, and our visit to two-starred Lafleur in Frankfurt.
Inspiration for adventure and travel might be included in our articles about our two-day desert trip to the Sahara, our ride in a helicopter over London and a hot air balloon over Winchester, the Sydney coastal walk from Rose Bay to Watsons Bay, or our week in Porto.
Definitely going to search this out when I head back to UK. Spent a lot of time around Holborn and can honestly say I had no clue it was there!
Feel welcome to give me a buzz and I might join. 🙂
Will check this out when I’m over sounds amazing.I love these finds and certainly makes a pint more interesting. Love all the stories behind it also.
Did you get a chance to visit, when you were over? It’s really hard to find, right? 🙂
What a fascinating place, I had no idea so much history was wrapped up in that small part of London. Will definitely have to see if I can find it next time I’m in London. Thanks for sharing the secret! 🙂
Thanks for your comment, Hannah. Glad you found the post useful. 🙂