Secret London: Ye Olde Mitre Tavern
’This is London‘s most hidden pub,‘ says barman John Wright, with just a hint of insane pride. ’We had a gentleman in the other week who said he‘d worked around the corner on Hatton Garden for six years and never found the place.‘
That’s something you can have some sympathy with, especially if you ever come seeking out a discreet sherbet in this quaint old corner of Cambridgeshire that’s tucked away in the heart of the City of London.
When you pass the security barrier and guardpost into Ely Place from Charterhouse Street, there’s no longer a top-hat and frock-coated beadle on guard to point out that you’re technically no longer in London. There’s also no longer a sign to hint at the whereabouts of the Mitre Tavern. Personally, I wandered on until I came across the medieval St Etheldreda’s church further down Ely Place, stopped to squint at the model palace in the undercroft, and passed on, publess, to the end of the cul-de-sac. In search of an alley of some description, I let myself through a gate and found myself unexpectedly in the backyard of the Bleeding Heart Tavern in Bleeding Heart Yard. Four or five left turns later, I came across the other end of the elusive alley on Hatton Garden. If I mention it’s between numbers 8 and 9, it might save you some valuable drinking time.
Some way down Mitre Place, the black brick alley widens out a yard or two, opens up to the sky, and reveals a tiny pub with a frontage of oak and opaque leaded windows. The date on the sign says 1547, but this version of the Mitre was actually built around 1772, soon after the demolition of the nearbyPalace of the Bishops of Ely – the origin of all the geographical and historical anomalies in these parts.
Built in 1291, St Etheldreda’s Church – aka Ely Chapel – is the oldest Catholic church in England and the only surviving part of Ely Palace. With 58 acres of orchards, vineyards and strawberry fields, plus fountains, ponds and terraced lawns stretching down towards the Thames, the Palace was the London residence of a long line of Ely Bishops, and a seat of great power. The Bishop of Ely and his strawberries feature in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’, while Ely Palace itself provides the setting for John of Gaunt’s ‘This scepter’d isle’ speech in ‘Richard II’. In 1531, a five-day feast was attended by Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, the Lord Mayor of London, sundry foreign ambassadors, barons and aldermen: between them, they tucked away ‘24 great beefs, the carcase of an ox, 100 fat muttons, 91 pigs, 34 porks, 37 dozen pigeons, 340 larks’ and the King’s contribution of 13 dozen swans.
The original Mitre Tavern was built for servants at the Palace 11 years into the reign of Elizabeth I. In 1576 she commandeered a gatehouse and a goodly portion of the Palace grounds for her court favourite Sir Christopher Hatton, and regularly came visiting. After stints as a prison and a Civil War hospital, the Palace reverted to the Crown in Georgian times and was demolished – although the rebuilt pub had built into its front wall a stone mitre from a palace gatepost and a cherry tree, which once marked the boundary separating the ground gifted to Hatton and the Bishop’s remaining diocese.
The tree is still here, preserved in the corner of the cosy panelled front bar – in fact, according to John, it was throwing out leafy branches and blossom up until the end of last century, when structural subsidence led to the decapitation of the tree once used as a maypole by Good Queen Bess. John Wright first found his way to the Mitre Tavern back in 1953, but it wasn’t until the ’70s that he got a job here pulling pints. In those days the pub closed at 10pm along with the gates of Ely Place, and the drinks licence was still issued in Cambridgeshire rather than London, and that’s about all that’s changed since: certainly not the stained-glass mitre or the toy-size furniture in the crooked little front bar, nor the settles, skylight and ‘Ye Closet’ micro-snug in the back. The Mitre still only opens one weekend per year, but now it corresponds with the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia (August 5, 6) rather than St Etheldreda’s annual charity Strawberry Fayre on June 25.
Ely Place remains quite literally a law unto itself, and long may it continue to do so. ‘Many times we’ve had robbers run in here from Hatton Garden,’ Wright recalls fondly. ‘They know the City police don’t have the right to follow them. It’s still the same today: the police just have to seal all the exits and ring the Cambridgeshire force, then wait around ‘till they jump in their cars and get down here’.