Puppydog tails — 28 January 2014

One of the oft used and pointless pieces of trivia is that the City of London has no ’roads’.

The Square Mile has streets aplenty, along with ‘Lanes’, ‘Gates’, ‘Gardens’, ‘Docks’, ‘Places’, ‘Alleys’, ‘Hills’ and ‘Yards’, but no ’roads’. Along with a veritable smorgasbord of throughfares that don’t fall into any category, ’Old Jewry’, ’New Change’, ’Crutched Friars’.

Of the many theories of the dearth of roads one is that the Old English verb to ride has as its past tense ’road’. While the old Scots form of ride is raid which later would come to mean riding with hostile intent.

So by the 16th century a fixed route for getting from one place to another over land came to be known as a road. As with many words of modern usage the term ’road’ to mean a thoroughfare was first used by William Shakespeare. In 1589 it appeared in Comedy of Errors, Act II, Scene 2:

Go hie thee presently, post to the road:
An if the wind blow any way from shore,
I will not harbour in this town to-night:
If any bark put forth, come to the mart,
Where I will walk till thou return to me.
If every one knows us and we know none,
‘Tis time, I think, to trudge, pack and be gone.

For us to refer to a long distance highway (as the Romans would) a street seems to have the wrong connotation. We rarely refer to Watling Street, Ermine Street, or Dere Street preferring the more prosaic: A1, A2 or A5. So because a road had to go somewhere and in London you were already there ’roads’ would commence outside the City gates.

Another theory is that a ’road’ has to be able to accommodate two carts passing one another, a feat performed with difficulty in London’s narrow medieval streets.

All this trivia was great for the tourist guides (and cabbies) enabling them to demonstrate their knowledge of London. That was until the good Burghers of the town halls moved the City’s limits.

Goswell Street was renamed Goswell Road, in the past the northern section (that being furthest away from the City) was named Goswell Street Road, which probably denoted that by the time you reached the name change you were on the road to somewhere.

In 1994 boundary changes brought the eastern half under the jurisdiction of the City of London, while the western carriageway remains firmly in the Borough of Islington.

The boundary now runs down the middle of the road, pedants might argue that this still, technically, means that there isn’t a single road within the City of London, merely a half-road.

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