If ever there was a place which encapsulates ‘Englishness’ the Ye Olde Mitre Tavern is it, hidden away down an alleyway in Hatton Garden. The first Mitre Tavern was built in 1546 as the boozer for servants working in the Palace of the Bishops of Ely. This small area is still technically under the control of the Diocese of Ely, Cambridgeshire and until the last century, the pub licence was issued from Ely. The City police at that time had no jurisdiction within its bounds.
The Palace, before being demolished in 1772 was the magnificent residence used by the Bishops when they came to town, boasting a vineyard, orchard, gardens, fountains and ponds, all surrounded by a wall to keep out the locals. The community inside was then declared part of the mother county which became a corner of some foreign city that would be forever Cambridge.
If you believe Shakespeare’s opinion on soft fruit, the strawberries grown there were the finest in London. The Duke of Gloucester speaking to the Bishop of Ely in Act 3 of Richard III declares:
When I was last in Holborn, I saw good strawberries in your garden there: I do beseech you, send for some of them.
A strawberry fayre is still held in Ely Place every June in aid of charity.
Ely Place was the centre of religious and political power, John of Gaunt’s famous speech from Act 2 of Shakespeare’s Richard II is staged here:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle; This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars; This other Eden, demi-paradise; This fortress built by Nature for herself; Against infection and the hand of war; This happy breed of men, this little world; This precious stone set in the silver sea; Which serves it in the office of a wall; Or as a moat defensive to a house; Against the envy of less happier lands; This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
After the Reformation Queen Elizabeth forced the bishops to rent some of their lands to Sir Christopher Hatton, one of her courtiers, the area then became known as Hatton Garden, which now, of course, is the centre of London’s diamond trade.
The Virgin Queen seems always to have a liking for trees. In the front bar of the Mitre is the preserved trunk of a cherry tree around which she is said to have danced the maypole. Likewise at Hatfield House, until recently their gift shop had leant against the wall the trunk of the oak she was reputed to have been sitting under when she received news that she was now Queen.
London’s oldest pub
The Mitre today claims to be the oldest pub in London, which although rebuilt in 1772 it is technically still part of Cambridgeshire, so it should lay claim to being the oldest boozer in Cambridge.
Soon after its rebuilding, Dr Johnson was a regular – Is there any 18th-century public house without that claim? – and much of the interior would be familiar to the grumpy lexicographer. If you want to be transported back to Georgian London a trip to the outside gents toilets will give you that questionable experience. The only hand basin in the men’s is in the cubicle so be weary of pissing on your hands if somebody is taking a dump there. The women’s toilets are upstairs in the Bishop’s Room it would be too tempting to have the men’s toilets in the Bishop’s Room for fear of jokes about bashing it.
Beware of head and body injuries in Ye Olde Mitre, as the ceilings are low and the rooms are small, dark and crammed with furniture and people, particularly is a tour group have just turned up. There is a coffin-sized cubby-hole off the back room that is large enough for a single table and four very close friends. The furniture comprises of harsh wooden upright seats and solid wooden tables that look as though they were used to lay-out dead bodies in the local mortuary. A sign requests that furniture is not moved away from the authentic wood-panelled walls. With no TV’s, gaming machines or piped music, just the murmur of polite conversation Ye Old Mitre is a hidden gem.
More information on Ye Old Mitre can be found at London Details. The picture of the stone mitre that came from the gatehouse of the nearby Palace of the Bishop of Ely (demolished in 1772) by Mike Quinn.
A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 21st May 2013