Not far from the perennial bustle of Exmouth Market, as the land slopes up towards Islington, stands Merlin Street.
It's a surprising name to find in the forgotten London locale of Pentonville, which nestles between Clerkenwell, Islington and King's Cross. A glance at an old map reveals that the area once had a feature called Merlin's Cave. What could be the connection between this quiet residential area, and the famous magician of Arthurian legend?
Hints and whispers
The story of Merlin's Cave in Islington is not a loud legend like that of Boudicca's Grave at nearby King's Cross. It is one that flits through conversations, blog posts and books on London's mythical history.
John Rogers's book This Other London contrasts the latte socialists of contemporary Islington with "the romantic mythology attached to Penton Mound, legends of Merlin and London's earliest foundation".
Noting the street name in his book Unearthing London, Simon Webb helpfully suggests that the "Places with a magical or pagan association often have Merlin's name attached to them in this way".
In 2011, Ventures & Adventures in Topography blog passed by, and also couldn't resist juxtaposing the 'pagan rites' of 'Merlin's cave and observatory' with "frothy coffee drinking meeja-types".
Most intriguing of all, in The Secret Lore of London, RJ Stewart alludes to a connection between Merlin and Pentonville, which "involves the existence of a sealed cave or tunnel under or within a building supposedly dating back to ancient times".
Did this subterranean feature ever exist?
The real Merlin's Cave
Merlin’s Cave in Pentonville was a real place but it was much more a shrine to boozing and cavorting than it was to any Arthurian characters. At the start of the 17th century, three cottages were built on the open high ground roughly where Merlin Street is now. One of the cottages was converted into a tavern known as The Hutt, but by 1737 it was renamed Merlin's Cave.
Overlooking Spa Fields, with a long room, skittle alley and gardens, it was an attraction for the holidaymakers taking a break from central London amongst the wells, spas and open fields of Islington.
As green Islington was built over, a New Merlin's Cave appeared on Margery Street in 1851. It lasted for most of the 20th century and, from the 1970s, become famous as a jazz venue.
In his autobiography This Close, Suggs reminisces about George Melly and the Feet Warmers playing there most Sundays. Suggs wasn't "mad on the music". Sebastian Coe was a visitor too but they don't mention each other in their memoirs. The customers petered out in the 1980s and the pub was demolished in 1990.
The origins of the myth
So how did a myth about Merlin get mixed up with a pub on the peripheries of Clerkenwell and Islington? Merlin's Cave, the resort and boozer, and Merlin the mythical wizard come together in EO Gorman's 1914 book Prehistoric London: Its Mounds and Circles.
Gorman's book had a frontispiece of a triangle whose sides coincide with her idea of the four druidic mounds of London: Tothill in Westminster, the White Mound at the Tower of London, Parliament Hill at Hampstead Heath and Penton. Gorman's conclusion comes not from archaeological work or historical research. She followed a fashion of the time by speculating about place names and drawing mystical conclusions.
"The Penton," she wrote, "(Pen signifying in in Keltic a hill rounded like a head) is a natural height about halfway between the Llandin [Parliament Hill] and the Bryn Gwyn [White Mound at the Tower of London]". The Penton was "the probable site of the Druidic College where dwelt the "ministers for law and order" – the Druids".
She later writes "it is probable that the summit of the Penton was crowned with a stone circle, probably orientated to the May sunrise, the new year of the Ancients". Gorman goes on to speculate that the druids did their astronomy from the well at Sadler's Well Theatre, it being "lined with masonry of ancient date". Gorman suggests that pre-historic star-gazers did not have the means to stretch a telescope up to the stars and instead dug deep wells from which to support their observations.
As Gorman wrote her Druidic 'history' across Pentonville, the existence of Merlin's Cave could not escape her attention: "In the interior of the Penton is a cave known as Merlin's Cave, which so late as the 18th century was a fashionable health resort. […] An underground passage at the bottom of the hill led to the cave the entrance to which, in the cellars of the Merlin's Cave Tavern, has only recently been bricked up".
Secret tunnels, hidden caves
This is an attractive idea that then appears in Harold Bayley's 1919 book Archaic England: an essay in deciphering prehistory from megalithic monuments, earthworks, customs, coins, placenames, and faeric superstitions. He writes of the cavern "at Pentonville, known as Merlin's Cave, used to run a subterranean passage".
Secret tunnels running from pub cellars are a fine and promiscuous piece of British folklore, employed by everyone from persecuted Catholics to royal lovers to absconding highwaymen. It is odd but fitting that a character like Merlin, known from mythology, should get his own tunnel in London — albeit one that probably never existed. Gorman is the first, as far as we know, to mention it.
On a roll, EO Gorman puts it all together for the reader:
"Whatever may be the value of connecting the cave with the astronomer Druid of King Arthur's Court, it is not inherently improbable that he […] should have carried on his astronomical studies in the neighbourhood of this ancient well on the Penton".
Which is about as certain as anyone ever gets with this legend. RJ Stewart in The Secret Lore of London is convinced that Pentonville did derive its name from 'Pen' meaning 'head', perhaps denoting the site of the burial of a sacred head. Stewart notes that there is no knowledge of any ancient tradition regarding a cave, or the presence of Merlin in the area. In a rare moment of evidence-based deduction in The Secret Lore of London he concludes that Merlin in Islington "seems unlikely".
So where did the names Penton and Merlin come from?
The area is probably not named after the Celtic word for 'head'. Pentonville is far more likely to have taken its name from Henry Penton, an MP and Lord of the Admiralty on whose estate the first buildings on Penton Street were built back in the misty past of 1773.
Merlin's Cave in Pentonville itself may have taken its name due to early 18th century fashion. Warwick Wroth, writing in The London Pleasure Gardens of the Eighteenth Century (1896), argued that Merlin's Cave probably:
...derived its name from the Merlin's Cave constructed in 1735 by Queen Charlotte in the Royal Gardens at Richmond. The Richmond Cave was adorned by astrological symbols, and contained wax-work figures, of which the wizard Merlin was the chief. By the end of 1735 humble imitations of the Cave were established in various parts of the Kingdom, and it is highly probable that the Merlin's Cave tavern had an exhibition of this kind.
Merlin's Cave is one of those light little myths passed around when London druids and pagans gather, get half-cut and chat. It's something to which writers and poets then allude when they wish to shame the current aspirations shaping the Islington landscape. They hark back to a mystical past of magic and meaning with the secret of Merlin's Pentonville cave. But the story of this Metropolitan Merlin is barely a century old itself, conjured across the landscape by a misinterpreted place-name, a good name for a tavern and the desire by one writer, EO Gorman, to rewrite the map of London by way of imagined druidic ritual and sacred hills.
And that is OK. London is big, old and strong enough to bear endless narratives across its surface. We can walk the streets intoxicated with the poetry of the mythology, we can palpably grasp the past with shards of evidence. As Peter Ackroyd asks in London: The Biography when writing about Pentonville: "Can one place assume different identities, existing in different times and in different visions of reality?".