Menu Close

About street names

One of the things that I wanted to write about for a while but could not get to were the observations on the street naming practices in England. Under pretenses of clearing my backlog, here is a brief editorial.

First of all, the term street rarely appears itself in the street names outside city center. In the suburbs you are likely to find disproportionate number of roads, with occasional lanes and closes thrown in. Makes perfect sense: The street is an urban invention, and even though suburban areas are no longer villages in the true sense of the word, they retain their traditional names. (To take it one step further, the drive is an extremely uncommon designation). There is a High Street in every sizable commune, always easily recognizable by the dense concentration of small shops; this is where the Brits of old would actually get from place to place on foot; getting everywhere else required some mode of transportation – hence, roads.

The villages of ages past have long merged with one another, frequently creating a befuddling effect of the same road changing its name every mile or so. You start on Grove Park Road, then go onto Mottingham Road, then onto White Horse Hill, then Red Hill, then Chislehurst High Street, then Centre Common Road, then Royal Parade, then St Paul’s Cray Road, then Orpington Road, then Chislehurst Road, then Perry Hall Road… all without making a single turn, without much changes in the suburban landscape, and within just a few miles radius. Evidently, this road has always been a single major thoroughfare, but each village called it in its own way, more often then not by the destination to which it led. You can, therefore, chart your progress across various villages by these names…

Funnily enough, the same effect can often be observed in the central parts of London as well. So, you have Sutherland Avenue changing into Hall Road, then a couple of blocks later changing into Circus Road, then after a few blocks more into St John’s Wood Terrace… It is actually hard to imagine that there ever were small hamlets which had created their own names for the single street in question. Likely, there are other forces at work. Probably, the British just trying to be inventive with their street naming out of overwhelming boredom.

And inventive they have to be, since every single passage, alleyway, byway and walkway has to have its own designation, never mind the large streets. You walk by some George Court off Strand and wonder how this particular strip of asphalt ever merited a separate naming designation…

The names themselves are a tribute to inventiveness just by the sheer variety of street “types”. In addition to well-known one-word thoroughfares, such as Piccadilly or Strand, in central London you’ll find streets, roads, avenues (very few, as a matter of fact), squares (often for what is actually a street with a small park – square – in the middle), lanes, places, rows, hills (I suppose the word road fell off those over the course of time), mews (normally, little streets with rows of small attached houses), gates, gardens, terraces, yards, crescents, closes, courts, walks, even villas, or something called a gore… In many cases, contra-inventively, a few of these different types have the same name. Say, Cadogan Street ends at Cadogan Gardens, which connect with Cadogan Lane, which is crossed by Cadogan Place, which entirely confusingly takes three sides of a rectangle all by itself, one of those legs connecting to Cadogan Square. Nauseating, I know…

Keeping in mind that grid planning is unheard of in England, the moral of the story is simple: Don’t leave your house or hotel without a detailed map and always avail yourself to a GPS when driving…

Posted in Expat Archive

1 Comment

  1. jason

    Ah, yes, the fluid street names of England. I remember this issue caused much consternation for my study-abroad group that summer I was in Cambridge. I was there with perhaps a dozen other students from Utah, where everything is laid out on a grid system and (in the old days anyway) you could drive for 30 miles and still be on the same road, name-wise. We were all totally useless when it came to finding addresses. As much as I loved my time there, it was nice to get back to a more navigable locale. (I should probably point out that I was there in 1993, long before GPS units. These days, it’s probably not so bad…)

Comments are closed.