Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Duncan JD Smith's upcoming book Only in London promises to be a fine read. For hidden europe 45, Duncan takes us to a London backwater - a side street in Holborn which still has echoes of Cambridgeshire.

article summary —

At first glance Ely Place seems little more than a cul-de-sac of smart Georgian terraced houses — but look again. The clue to its unexpectedly colourful history is the little gatehouse standing at one end of the street. It carries a sign lacking the usual EC1 district number and it houses a beadle who locks the gates at ten each evening. By passing through them one leaves London and enters a fragment of land which is full of the spirit of Cambridgeshire.

Ely Place is one of the last privately owned streets in London. It dates back to 1290, when an exclave of Cambridgeshire was established here for the powerful Bishops of Ely. In common with the Bishops of Canterbury and Winchester they held high state offices requiring the maintenance of a London residence. Long subject to its own ancient rights and privileges the area is still managed by its own body of commissioners.

In mediaeval times the self-supporting community, which included a palace and extensive gardens and orchards, was separated from the City and its laws by a high wall. All that remains of the place today, however, is the Church of St Etheldreda at number 14.

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Having worked for many years in the publishing industry selling other travel writers’ books, Duncan J. D. Smith decided in 2003 to start writing and illustrating his own. As a self-styled ‘Urban Explorer’, travel writer, historian and photographer he has embarked on a lifetime’s adventure, travelling off the beaten track in search of the world’s unique, hidden and unusual locations. He has so far traversed four continents in search of curious places and people, from the wartime bunkers of Berlin and the baroque gardens of Prague to the souks of Damascus and the rock-cut churches of Ethiopia. His European findings are being published in a ground breaking series of guidebooks – the Only In Guides – which have been designed specifically for the purpose. Volumes on Berlin, Boston, Budapest, Cologne, Edinburgh, Hamburg, London, Munich, Paris, Prague, Vienna and Zurich have been published, with Krakow in preparation.

Duncan divides his time between England and Central Europe, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Find out more about Duncan and his work at www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 45.