Stepping outside from Elephant and Castle tube you are met with the roars of traffic and men bustling to and fro wearing florescent yellow uniforms, as they battle to transform this part of London. This is an area that’s always had a bad rep. And I can see why. Sirens are constantly singing their songs of grief, and there’s the unescapable jabbering sounds of power tools.
Even with its new and improved crosswalks that encourage jaywalkers to risk their lives in a game of Frogger, and honking traffic, it’s no New York City. It’s almost overlooked, but this is what gives it all its character and charm. You can practically see all the history it’s been through as it crumbles off the buildings.
Elephant and Castle may look like a scene from a post–apocalyptic movie, but it’s actually filled with unknown wonders and hidden gems awaiting discovery. It’s a great area to visit if you want to listen to some inconsequential office gossip and get a taste of its noisy crowded atmosphere, but this borough is more than its roundabout.
Did you know that in the early 20th Century, our little run-down town was once known as the “Piccadilly of South London”? It was a major shopping hub and hugely popular with its pop up pubs, theatres and of course the infamous shopping center.
But one of the most interesting things about the place is its unique and unusual name. Before the name, Elephant and Castle was a village called Newington, (also known as Walworth). In fact, these names still live within the two roads on either side of the present day junction. Upon this junction is where the old pub named “Elephant and Castle” was established.
Back in 1760, the Elephant and Castle pub was originally a playhouse from the 16th century, which was later converted into a tavern. It became so popular, the village was renamed after it. Today, do to some unfortunate events, this little historical pub lost its licensing rights, because a person decided to stab someone’s head with a ball point pen. The old pub may have gave the roundabout its name, but the origins of the name in general still remains a mystery to this day.
Now listen up, it’s story time!
The mysterious name of the pub and town, Elephant and Castle, revolves around many urban legends and folk tales.
Around the 13th Century, powerful rulers such as kings, would try to impress one another by trading living gifts. The bigger the better. Having a collection of exotic animals represented your wealth and strength as a leader.
In 1255, King Louis IX of France presented King Henry III with an Elephant. Henry thought the gift was so magnificent he ordered a castle to be made for the accommodation of this animal at the Royal Menagerie (Today’s Tower of London).
“We command you,” he wrote to the Sheriff of London, “without delay, that a house of forty feet long and twenty feet deep is to be built for our elephant.”
Three years later, the elephant died—apparently the animal got himself into a large rake of wine. Also, a living space of forty feet wide isn’t the best way to ensure a long healthy life for an animal. Not everyone was meant to live like a king.
The next story refers to Shakespeare, and one of his popular plays, “the Twelfth Night”. One of the characters Antonio says:
“In the south suburbs at the Elephant.”
He is recommending “The Elephant” to his friend Sebastian, being one of the best lodges in Illyria. In that time, it wasn’t rare to find local advertisement in popular performances. Today it would be like watching an advert in between your favorite television program.
But the most popular origins of the name Elephant and Castle goes a little like this:
Two years before acceding to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland in 1625, Charles I made an incognito visit to Spain in an attempt to conclude a marriage treaty with a young languorous Spanish princess, the Enfanta de Castile. The mission failed because Charles refused conversion to Roman Catholicism, a condition imposed by the Spanish government. This romantic setback so angered the young prince that it helped to trigger war against Spain a few months later.
In London, however, the journey was marked by the opening of a pub appropriately named Enfanta de Castile. Through a typical dysphemistic transformation of the late 17th century, Enfanta de Castile soon became known as Elephant and Castle. It catered to Londoners and others at the same location for over 300 years, until it was leveled one night by a German V2 rocket during the 1942 Blitz.
After the war ended, the site was cleared, and Elephant and Castle became a large traffic circle and a communication hub for the London Underground and British Rail.
The folk tale became such a worldwide sensation, it grew into café called “Elephant and Castle” in New York City, which opened in 1973, who has seemed to have made itself a name in Manhattan’s streets.
The Elephant and Castle’s popularity grew and was overheard all over the world. So much so, an Irish chef wanted to visit the café, but was denied entry into the U.S.A. 16 years later, The Dublin Elephant & Castle was opened.
Locals back in New York City said they loved the atmosphere of the Elephant and Castle café.
One in particular said:
“Such a cute, quaint, and quality cafe. Seems like it was plucked from the streets of London and placed in New York City.”
Ironically, the Elephant and Castle located in London isn’t quite as nice as the hip and hidden corners of New York City. Though these restaurants were created around London’s urban legend, don’t go in expecting a hot plate of British inspired food. You won’t find your bangers and mash or fish and chips. Regular customers didn’t even know it was a British based establishment. But on a high note, apparently the chicken wings in Dublin are to die for and the eggs and bacon combo in New York is worth a second visit. If you ever find yourself traveling to either city, it’s worth the stop.
None of these legends are reported as fact, but who would have thought that a place like Elephant and Castle was actually the talk of the town back in its day. Though Elephant and Castle is no Sloane Square, it is a place that has gone through so much history and change, it’s even been pooled across the Atlantic.
Dejectedly, a lot of its culture is going to be demolished, like the shopping centre, to be replaced with 2,500 new homes and businesses. But instead of seeing it as a sad feat, let’s just see it as a new chapter in Elephant and Castle’s long and ongoing history.