OK, to keep Lethal happy, here is a logical explanation for how this region of South London came to have such a peculiar name.

In the middle part of the last millennium the European Royal Families often inter-married -- after all, who was a princess fit to marry if not a prince. The Spanish Princess Royal is traditionally named the Infanta da Castille. Reputedly one of these Spanish Princesses, on her way to London to meet her potential future husband, rested overnight at an inn in this area and the local inhabitants were so impressed with her grace and beauty that they named the inn in her honour. Over time this became corrupted to Elephant and Castle and gradually as London expanded outwards, this name became associated with the entire area.

As to the lack of either elephants or castles here, well that's hardly surprising considering it's now a quite run-down area of inner city London. To most people these days Elephant & Castle is either a tube station or a very large roundabout surrounding an ugly shopping centre.

The Infanta of Castile story is itself the folk etymology in this case. It is believed Elephant and Castle is actually named after an elephant. In India an elephant has a howdah on it, the cabin arrangement in which you sit while riding it. This became known to the Crusaders, but the image was converted by heraldic artists at home into a castle, or to be more exact a tower. In heraldry when an entire elephant is depicted it is almost always an "elephant and castle".

Like any heraldic bearing, it could be used on signs to indicate ownership or overlordship. So pubs get to be called Elephant and Castle because that's the inn sign. There was one such at the place in London, which now gets its name from it.

In this case, the pub was founded in about 1760, on the site of a smithy used by the Cutlers' Company. This also used the sign. Cutlers make knives and knives have ivory handles: this may be why the motif was used.

British royalty has two connexions with Castile, the first being Eleanor of Castile (mar. 1254, d. 1290), queen to Edward I, who however was centuries before the term infanta was used; and an infanta who was once engaged to Charles I. She did not however set foot in England, as far as I know.

In addition to the other writeups in this node, Elephant and Castle is also a restaurant chain with locations scattered across Canada and the United States. The restaurants are styled after UK pubs, and serve much of the same traditional fare, British cuisine (oxymoron?), like fish and chips, shepherd's pie, not to mention bangers and mash, in addition to more American-style bar food. You have to appease the masses, I guess...

Beyond the menu, Elephant and Castle also carries a decent variety of imported beers and scotches.

As an addition or clarification to iain's explanation of the original term, the Elephant and Castle website has a differing explanation, although the concept is basically the same... it perhaps makes more sense, at least aurally.

Around the 14th century in far off merry old England, there lived a noble family from the Province of Castile in France. The family had a daughter whom they were to marry to a rich English prince. Then, as now, the rich and famous were the subject of gossip in all the inns and taverns. The comings and goings of the family from Castile were of great interest and everyone was awaiting the outcome of the situation.

Not too many people are aware, but England was bi-lingual at that time. It was common for the nobles to converse in French. For this reason, the Castile's daughter was know as L'Enfante de Castile - the child of Castile.

Addendum: Rose Thorn and I have come to the conclusion that the Castile in question is probably Spanish after all, so that explanation, wholly or in part, may or may not be bullocks.


'Its voice has the rasp of trams, trains, trucks.
Its eyes have the blaze of street stalls, eel stands, pin-table arcades and chestnut cans.
Its anatomy is decked with sooty bricks, cast-iron spines, and the marble pillars of pubs.
Its heart is that of its people - kind as a housewife, rough as a worker, busy as a tradesman, wide as a wide boy.'
- The Elephant & Castle (Picture Post, 1949)

This writeup is now tremendously out of date. I had to move away, at long last priced out by the gentrification alluded to below. The Heygate is gone, the shopping centre is no-more, the Coronet has closed. The pubs now serve craft ales and expensive coffee shops abound. Even the roundabout has become a strange contraflow junction.

I have lived in Elephant and Castle for a year or so now. Through a stroke of luck I have found a small house that I share with two others down a quiet side-street away from the main roads. By bus Elephant and Castle is a mere fifteen minutes from Covent Garden and ten from London Bridge. Geographically it is the centre of greater London and as such convenient for those of us who shun suburbia. However, it retains the stigma of being south of the river and an area of some social and economic deprivation with the result that I have had trouble convincing people to visit me here. Gentrification however, is underway - arguably I am part of it - though I confess to a degree of cynicism about its merits.

Elephant and Castle has no fixed boundaries but roughly speaking it extends to Borough Street in the North, Old Kent Road and Great Dover street (part of the old Roman road Watling Street) in the East, and a fuzzy boundary with Kennington in the South West. The area is served by a large number of bus routes and by both the Northern Line and Bakerloo lines. Its two underground stations are combined so that it is possible to reach either line from either entrance. This creates something of a subterranean labyrinth particularly if one wishes to access the Bakerloo from the Northern Line entrance - a path which forces the traveller to actually walk through the southbound Northern Line platform. This is somewhat perilous for the unwary or the drunk as if there is a train present and sounding the doors-closing alarm it is all too easy to forget that it is going in the wrong direction and on the wrong line, a fate that has befallen me on more than one occasion. Also notable are the lifts which, when they are working, emit what sounds like a BBC Doctor Who style sound effect as the doors open and close.

Exiting the station, one can see that the area centres upon a large roundabout where several major roads meet. In the day, the roundabout is fairly nondescript, mostly surrounded by tall blocks of flats and a crumbling shopping centre. Its most notable feature being the Faraday memorial which is basically a stainless steel box. At night however, it takes on a different character. The lights from the never-ending stream of traffic and from the surrounding residential tower-blocks give the area the feel of a disreputable claustrophobic city-centre. One skyscraper in particular is uplit by two grimy neon-green floodlights that would not look out of place in a cyberpunk nightmare. This seems to be what the architects had in mind when they designed the latest addition to the area, Strata, a tall, slim building three-quarters encased by a white and blue sheaf out of which juts a dark sloped tower shaped like a combination of Barad-dûr and a cylon helmet.

At present the overriding atmosphere is one of urban decay but there is also some residual edginess and vitality. The buildings are largely darkened by polution and ill-maintained. New Kent Road is dominated by the ill-concieved Heygate Estate, now empty, but formerly a hulking crime-ridden monstrosity of Brutalist architecture and social deprivation. A regeneration project is ongoing and the estate is to be demolished. According to the artists impressions it is to replaced by another high-rise but this one will be set in perpetual sunshine in which beautiful people will while away the day lying on its grassy lawns. With remarkable and disturbing honesty, the artists seem to envisage the ethnic diversity of the district giving way to homogenous whiteness. The demolition was scheduled for 2006 but has now been postponed until 2012. The area centres on the shopping centre, the surrounding parades of shops and the market. These largely catering to the immediate demands of us local residents - fried chicken takeways, kebab houses, polish grocers and off-licenses, an all-night Afro-Carribean barbershop, a Tesco Express and bowling alley. There is also the Coronet Theatre night club, a 2200 capacity venue with an unusual art-deco interior that advertises its forthcoming shows via a scrolling red-on-black news ticker.

There are several pubs in the area but I am unqualified to give much of an opinion on them. I know there is a grottier-than-average Wetherspoons and a pub named after Charlie Chaplin who used to live around here. There is also the Elephant and Castle pub itself, the successor to that which gave the area its name. Unfortunately the only time I have been in there I had already missed last orders and so cannot comment save to say that it did not appear to serve any real ale. Sadly the pubs in the immediate area do not really cater to my tastes and as a consequence I tend to be found in the Roebuck on Great Dover street which is pretty much over the border into Borough.

As alluded to above, Elephant and Castle is undergoing some regeneration. Heygate is eventually to be demolished and more expensive housing built. The shopping centre is also to be replaced, so too, eventually, is the roundabout and subway network itself. The area's location gives it the potential for regeneration along the lines of other formerly deprived areas of central London. I am skeptical about the timescales and funding - already plans for the cross-river tram have been shelved by the Mayor and I suspect that without a major cultural venue like the Dome in North Greenwich or economic centre like the Docklands it will be some time before the area receives the necessary attention. Nevertheless, even at present the area maintains a distinctive if disreputable character.

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