06 June 2023

Ye Olde Mitre is a little
corner of Cambridge
and the hardest pub
to find in London

Ye Old Mitre dates from 1546 and is often said to be the hardest pub to find in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During an afternoon in Southwark last week, two of us visited the ruins of Winchester Palace, once the London palace of the Bishops of Winchester. Earlier that day, we were in Hatton Garden and went in search of Ely Place or Ely House, once the palace of the Bishops of Ely, and instead we found Ye Old Mitre, often said to be the hardest pub to find in London.

Saint Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place and the Old Mitre are all that survive of the old Bishop’s Palace, and the church is one of only two remaining buildings in London dating from the reign of Edward I.

Ye Olde Mitre is at the end of a narrow alley, hidden away from the rest of busy Holborn. The area immediately around Ye Olde Mitre and this hidden delightful alley is built-up. Yet this was once the site of a magnificent palace surrounded by lush gardens where vineyards, fruit trees and strawberries flourished.

Ely Place, also known as Ely Palace or Ely House, was built in the late 13th century and was the London residence of 41 Bishops of Ely, from 1290 to 1772. The Bishops of Ely thought their palace was too beautiful to be part of London, and declared it part of Cambridgeshire.

One resident – albeit briefly – was John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third surviving son and the father of Henry IV. When Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 attacked John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace, he moved to the Bishop of Ely’s palace.

Shakespeare made Ely House the scene of events in Richard III and Richard II, including John of Gaunt’s ‘sceptered isle’ speech from his deathbed.

This is the part of London where William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered at Smithfield, and where many martyrs and traitors were executed.

Ye Olde Mitre is reached by a near-invisible passage off Hatton Garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Ye Olde Mitre can only be reached through a near-invisible passage, which adds to its quaint charm. The first tavern on the site was built by Thomas Goodrich, Bishop of Ely, for his servants in 1546.

Queen Elizabeth I is said to have danced here around a tree in the garden that belonged to one of her favourites, Sir Christopher Hatton, who gives his name to Hatton Garden.

The Crown took over the area in 1772 and cleared away all the crumbling buildings. All that survived were the Ye Olde Mitre and Saint Etheldreda’s Church nearby in Ely Place, and the area became known as Hatton Garden.

The pub claims it was first built in 1546, although most of the building dates from 1773-1782, and it was remodelled in the early 1930s, with a late 20th century extension at the rear.

Ye Olde Mitre is a three-storey building with an attic. Inside, it is highly atmospheric with dark panelling, heavy oak furniture and Elizabethan memorabilia. The building has many interesting architectural details, including a glazed timber screen, flat pilasters with Corinthian capitals, sash windows and Tudor style windows, and Tudor-style fireplaces.

The wide, horizontally laid panels on the walls of the staircase may date back to the building’s reconstruction in the 1770s. An upstairs room, known as the Bishops’ Room, can be hired for events.

The stump of Sir Christopher Hatton’s cherry tree, where he once danced with Queen Elizabeth, can still be seen just inside the pub door. The tree marked the boundary of the properties of the Bishop of Ely and of Hatton.

Ely Place and the Mitre are said to have once been an enclave of Cambridgeshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Ely Place and the Mitre may have once constituted an enclave of Cambridgeshire. It is claimed the pub’s licensing laws only stopped being administered by Cambridgeshire in the 1960s, and local lore says that until the late 20th century the pub and the immediate area around it were subject to different bylaws to the neighbouring streets.

Urban myths claimed criminals could evade arrest by seeking sanctuary from the Metropolitan or City Police, because this area was beyond their jurisdiction. However, this anomaly probably did not survive the implementation of the Metropolis Management Act in 1855.

Ye Olde Mitre is a Grade II listed public house and appears regularly in the Good Beer Guide, and the Good Pub Guide, and receives ‘pub of the year’ and Camra awards.

It is said that letters addressed to The Mitre Inn, Ely Court, Cambridgeshire, still reach the Ye Olde Mitre. But if you want to find Ye Olde Mitre it is at 1 Ely Court, Ely Place, Holborn, and the nearest tube station is Farringdon (0.2 miles).

A sign pointing to Ye Olde Mitre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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