At The Dabbler we are blessed with the finest commenters on the internet. Jonathan Law’s comments are so deep, rich and insightful (and frankly he’s costing us a fortune in Glengoyne whisky) that we have invited him to write his own feature. Notes in the Margin will be an irregular column in which Jonathan takes as his starting point an item raised in a Dabbler post and follows it down whatever meandering and labyrinthine paths it may lead.
In this first instalment, Jonathan is inspired to head to an unusual London pub…
On a gloomy Tuesday in April Toby Ferris went looking for wild things in forest rooms and told us about an enchanted painted grove in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan – a place made magical by its “fluid play of interiors and exteriors” and “knotted harmony of inside and out”.
This inspired Nige to recall a pub:
a mock-Tudor affair, somewhere in south London … that was built around a tree, a sturdy one, which certainly rose to the roof and at least seemed to grow through it, but whether it was actually a living tree or a dead trunk I can’t recall.
Ah yes, that wonderful pub that you can never quite find again: even in the ordinary way of things it tends to carry a whiff of Brigadoon or the Wood Beyond the World, along with a slight qualm that you might have dreamt the whole business. But a lost pub with a tree in it! Doesn’t the mere thought stab you with longing, a sharp sense of what the Germans call Sehnsucht and the Portuguese saudade – the nameless feeling that comes across you at the first scent of wild garlic or the rustle of a hidden stream or the sound of geese beating overhead at the close of summer? The realization that “our best havings are wantings” as C. S. Lewis (I think) put it somewhere…
I know of only two London pubs with trees in them, neither of which answers to Nige’s description. One is a cavernous, faux-Irish place in Leicester Square that for some reason has the trunk and branches of a giant beech tree in the main bar: churchy sort of interior with odd timber carvings. The tree is obviously very dead and was apparently brought over from Ireland when the pub was Irished. Curious, and probably worth a look, but it needn’t detain us here.
The other is quite different. Ye Olde Mitre Tavern in Ely Place, an obscure cul-de-sac in deepest Farringdon, likes to claim that it is ‘London‘s most hidden pub’ – apparently, people can live and work around here for years without even suspecting it’s there. I certainly wouldn’t have found it had I not been led through the narrow brick alleys and hidden courtyards by a friend, the organist at the neighbouring church of St Etheldreda. There’s a sense of the deep past in these streets that is almost corporeal. St Etheldreda’s itself is the oldest Catholic church in England – the only medieval one that I’m aware of – and the last remnant of the once splendid Ely Palace. This was the London residence of the Bishops of Ely – in pre-Reformation days a great power in the realm – and the sometime home of John of Gaunt (making it the setting for his famous deathbed speech in Richard II: “This royal throne of kings” and so on). If that were not enough, this dark limb of Holborn is also the hub of Dickens’s London: Bleeding Heart Yard (Little Dorrit) is just through a gate and Fagin kept his den at nearby Saffron Hill.
Your sense of stepping into some other dimension is reinforced when you learn that, technically, these little streets are not part of the City at all: because the land here belonged to the Bishops of Ely, the Old Mitre and its environs are still, if you believe all you’re told, an enclave of Cambridgeshire. This is said to explain the rather forbidding gates on Ely Place and the presence, until recently, of a uniformed beadle. According to local legend, villains making a smash-and-grab in nearby Hatton Garden – where gold, silver and diamonds change hands for millions daily – would always make a dive into Ely Place, knowing that the City police could not follow without getting a special licence from Cambridge.
Although the original Mitre was built in Tudor times for the servants of the then bishop, the current building is late 18th century. My abiding memory is of a tiny, crooked place with low ceilings, leaded windows, and massive wooden furniture (The Ultimate Pub Guide refers to seats “like electric chairs” and “tables that look as if they were used to lay out dead bodies”).
And of course, the tree, or what’s left of it – a cherry, in the tiny crooked front bar. Queen Elizabeth is said to have danced around it as a young woman and it still sometimes blossomed and put out new branches when I was there in the 1990s. By all reports it is now dead, a victim of subsidence – but it stays where it is in the faint hope that it one day may bloom again, like some miraculous Glastonbury thorn.
Next week, and in stark contrast, a pub inside a tree…