Today I found myself back in the London I know and love: the one full of quirks and mystery. Despite my plans for the day, the streets kept pulling me off course, down dark passages, through tiny alleys and into camouflaged courts. I was entirely at the mercy of London, and that’s exactly how I like it.
For approximately five minutes of today’s walk, I found myself transported out of London. Ely Place, a tiny road just off Holborn Circus, has a curious jurisdictional arrangement: the land is obviously in London proper and the buildings have London postcodes, but this street is technically a tiny sliver of Cambridgeshire.
The geographic and legal distinction is so clear that even the London Metropolitan Police have no right of entry without the permission of the Commissioners of Ely Place. So if you happen to commit your next crime in this area, be sure to run here. Not only can the police not arrest you, but you can post up at the Ye Olde Mitre pub tucked away in the side alley and have a really great pint of cider while you plot your next move.
When you post your note of thanks to this fine establishment for the strong drink that cleared your head in a time of need, you can address it Ye Olde Mitre Tavern, Ely Place, Holborn Circus, Cambridgeshire and trust it to arrive there safely.
If all that doesn’t make Ely Place intriguing enough for you, legend has it that the gardens of St Etheldreda’s Church produced the finest strawberries in all of London. As a result, every June a Strawberry Fayre is held on Ely Place. (Keep an eye out for updates over the next couple of months on this year’s celebrations!)
Dancing with the Devil
At the north end of Ely Place, you’ll see a dark green, wooden door that may or may not be open, depending on its mood. If you are able to pass through, you’ll find yourself in Bleeding Heart Yard, home to one of London’s many bloody urban legends.
Some say its name comes from a former pub sign showing the Virgin Mary’s heart being pierced by swords. That’s too boring for me though. Much more dark and dangerous is the story of Lady Elizabeth Hatton who was found murdered in the yard, her body torn to pieces but her heart still pumping her thick, ruby red blood onto the dirty cobblestones. Or that of Lady Hatton who made a deal with the devil in exchange for wealth and a mansion in Holborn only to have her heart torn out by the demon at her housewarming party and thrown into the yard where it was found the next morning, still beating.
That’s so much better than a pretty pub sign, isn’t it?
Holborn touches the southern edge of Bloomsbury, London’s literary core, and as a result references to classical texts and poetry abound.
There is clearly something appealing to authors about this part of London. Bleeding Heart Yard features as the home of the Plornish family in Dickens’ Little Dorrit, and Saffron Hill, the next street to the East, is home to Fagin of Oliver Twist fame. In Shakespeare’s Richard II, John of Gaunt gives his “This royal throne of Kings, this sceptre’d isle” speech from his home in Ely Place.
Wandering these streets, I can certainly understand it. People are constantly coming and going from all directions. Every street is loaded with passageways you wouldn’t notice were it not for them occasionally spitting out or swallowing up unsuspecting pedestrians. For a novelist or playwright, it must be a hive of inspiration. I can imagine Dickens and Shakespeare sitting in a busy Holborn square, watching all these comings and goings and imagining the lives of the people they observe. I might just give it a try on my next walk here.
Books Books Books
Given this neighbourhood’s literary heritage, it seems only fitting that I should discover a new favourite book shop on today’s walk. Let me introduce you to Magma.
Few book shops are as aesthetically pleasing as this one. They clearly have a passion for graphics, design, and illustration and, as a result, the whole shop is bright, colourful and packed with brain-stimulating books of all kinds.
Here are a few titles that took my fancy:
- You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack
- How Are You Feeling?: at the centre of the inside of the human brain’s mind
- The Tattoo Colouring Book
- Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Postcards
- Books from the Simpsons (a book with screenshots of every book ever shown on the Simpsons. Amazing.)
- I like it. What is it? (where I found the quote from above “Walls were made to shelter you from the inside world.”)
It’s a relatively small shop but I could have spent hours here browsing through all the titles and playing with all the interactive books, postcards, games and puzzles (and I plan to spend hours involved with that amazing Tattoo Colouring Book above).
I highly recommend a visit if you’re looking for a book designed to tickle your brain, spark your creativity and force you interact with the pages themselves. It’s also perfect if you are in need of a gorgeously designed children’s book of any kind or a gift for someone with quirky taste. I really can’t recommend this place enough.
The Final Mystery
The most beautiful building of the day, by far, was Waterhouse Square. It’s one of those rare places I find myself attempting to purposefully memorise so I can re-imagine it whenever I want. The colour is vivid, the stonework is intricate, the shapes are fascinating. I really loved it.
But sadly, that’s basically all I can tell you about it. I couldn’t find any placards with information and the only thing Google revealed is that a few companies use it as offices, the most notable being English Heritage. You’d think as its English Heritage’s London headquarters, they might have something on their site explaining a bit about this place. Nope. Can’t find anything.
I guess we’ll have to do it the old school way: sit in the square like the Dickenses and Shakespeares that we are and imagine what this building got up to in the years before we met it. If you happen to come up with any ideas or more information, let me know. In the meantime, I’ll see what other mysteries I can find for you.
See you next time!
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