In ‘Twelfth Night’ Antonio speaking to Sebastian says
In the south suburbs, at the Elephant,
Is best to lodge. (Act 3, Scene 3)
Now obviously the play isn’t set in south London but Shakespeare is notorious for mixing up local stuff and the stuff of his tales in a wonderful way. And it may well have been that he knew that not far from the Stews of Southwark, in the parish of Newington, there was a tavern called ‘The Elephant’ where you could get a good night’s stay. Maybe that is just wishful thinking on my part. But it would be nice to think it was the case. Certainly there has been a hostelry at that part of the parish of Newington called ‘The Elephant and Castle’ for many years. The earliest record of such a pub goes back to 1765 but it could have pre-dated that. Ideas that the name came from a possible ‘sop-over’ by the Infanta de Castilla are fanciful but certainly this exotically and curiously named pub and the area it has given its name to are a feature of the area.
For many people the Elephant and Castle is known as a horrible pair of roundabouts and an equally horrible building which houses the shopping centre. There is actually more to it than that and as someone who lived at the Elephant for over twelve years I can personally testify to the fact that it is a wonderful place to live. The public transport links are second to none and from that hub the roads spread out to the river making it a wonderfully accessible and overlooked part of London.
So it was a shock to learn last week that there are plans that the pub, which is the latest in a long line to bear that name and which has been closed for a while is to be replaced by …. an estate agents office. With all the redevelopment in the area and the building of so many units of accommodation you can understand that it is the perfect place for an estate agent to settle. But with all due respect to estate agents and to their most famous manifestation, Phil and Kirstie of ‘Location, Location’ fame, they do not create community.
I grew up in what had been a village but was then a growing suburb of Leicester. At the heart of Wigston Magna was All Saints Church, where I learnt the faith and ‘The Crown’, the local and oldest pub. There was a story told in the village that there was a secret underground tunnel between the church and the pub and if there was it wouldn’t have been the only one that has existed. The church and inns have long existed alongside one another and helped to create community.
In Southwark Cathedral there is a famous window celebrating Chaucer. The window was designed by Kempe and was the subject of a Consistory Court. The objection to the window was that it showed the pilgrims setting off for Canterbury surrounded by the inns along the Borough High Street and a member of the community felt strongly that an inn should not be depicted in a church. The Court did not agree with the objector after one of the Canons giving evidence in support of the window famously said ‘Why shouldn’t an inn be depicted in a church; after all, Our Lord was born in one!’
Communities need hubs, places where people gather, to worship, to socialise, to shop, to play, to meet, to learn. These are the things that build community and simply allowing any of these elements to disappear is destructive of long-term and wholesome community. It is even more scandalous when the pub in question has given the area its name and character.
I’m sure that local planners will understand the implication for the community of this application for change of use and defend the place of an inn bearing the name of ‘The Elephant’ in ‘the south suburbs’ to use the Bard’s phrase. But that does not mean that all is ok. If we are in the business of building sustainable, mixed, healthy communities – and that is certainly what the church wants to see in the area – then we have to be vigilant in this period of massive redevelopment in the SE1 area, and elsewhere in the Diocese of Southwark and beyond, that what makes community is neither lost nor ignored.
Places in which we can worship, places in which we can meet, places in which we can shop, places in which we can learn, places in which we can play – these are all places in which we can grow as individuals, as neighbours, as community.
Long may there be an Elephant at the Elephant!
God of community,
may we live in good,
healthy, sustainable communities,
in which we can be
the people you created us to be.