What’s in a name?

It is the Celts who probably named the Thames. It is thought by some to come from the Old English word ‘Temese’, meaning ‘to flow turbidly’. A simple name for a river full of detritus you might think, but it was probably the only waterway in the region that actually flowed, even if a little muddily. The river’s sinuous looping remains central to the idea of London and is frequently used on graphic devices representing the capital even the BBC’s Eastenders uses it on the titles.

[T]oday we Londoners refer to this lower stretch of England’s longest river as, well, ‘The River’ in the definite article as if it was the only river that existed, or at least the only one that mattered – which of course it is.

Ham comes from a bend in the shore, similar to ‘ham’ from the bend of the knee, a cut of meat from the thigh of the hind leg of certain animals, especially pig. Hampton gets its name from a pig’s anatomy.

At times it has erroneously been given a male gender and nicknamed Old Father Thames a kind of post-modern quasi-tutelary deity when in reality at times it has flooded and rather than protected Londoners has taken lives.

Over time most goods that entered London came via The River, so landing places were crucial. In Old English the word for a landing place was hythe, some locations on The River’s foreshore still bear this out: Rotherhithe or cattle harbour from which cattle may have been shipped across The River for the market at Smithfield. Greenhithe and Bablock Hythe in Oxfordshire are also locations of mediaeval docks.

Lambs were landed just west of Westminster – you could say today politicians act like a flock of sheep – but from that we get the corruption Lambeth.

Further upriver Chelsea was where chalk was landed and Putney (once Puttenhuthe, possibly where hawks were landed, but more probably named after a man who had hawk-like features).

Greenwich was first recorded in 964, its name derives from the Old English for a green trading place or harbour. At Shadwell its name is derived from a shallow spring or stream, not a shady well as some might think of the area.

Further downriver Woolwich unsurprisingly is named after a trading place for wool, while its neighbour Thamesmead sounds as if should be a bucolic place to enjoy a glass of mead. Thamesmead’s name in fact was the winning entry in a newspaper competition. The area’s topography of lakes and canals relieving the starkness of the built environment was once dubbed ‘the town of the 21st century. I doubt if many of its residents today would agree with that sentiment.

Bloomsbury Blues

When I first started working, driving a cab in London, dotted around the Capital were a number of small independent garages, many providing facilities for cabbies to empty their bladders as well as fill up their cabs.

One popular such garage with the most basic of washroom facilities was once to be found in Waverton Street, Mayfair occupying a site worth probably many millions more than the fuel they were selling.

[T]he oldest garage in London, which until recently was located in Store Street, a short anxious drive from Oxford Street when running low on diesel. The Bloomsbury Village Garage reminiscent of a period that Enid Blyton wrote about closed in June 2008 after being turned down for listing by The Department for Culture Media and Sport.

It opened in 1926, probably for the exclusive use of The Duke of Bedford a well known car enthusiast, who on 1st April 1968 was fined £50 for undertaking on the M1, when the police had recognised his number plate DOB1.

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The petrol station which attracted famous customers’ including Lewis Hamilton and Jamie Oliver was once probably used by Virginia Woolf’s chauffeur has now been redeveloped using most of the original brick and stone incorporating the original kiosk. A mosaic above harks back to the ‘golden age’ of motoring when it was possible to fill your tank and spend a penny in central London.

Chain reaction

The story of the Brompton bicycle is much more than a tale of British engineering achievement.

It is a story of loyalty, passion and true
British grit of how a bright young engineering graduate with a dogged determination spent years trying to persuade a sceptical world that his ingenious little bike would
challenge the very way we all use urban transport.

For this Guest Post Eve Pearce writes that this tiny wheeled wonder that is still manufactured in London integrates perfectly with the London cab.

Cabs Form Part Of Integrated Transport Solution In London

When reading newspapers it is possible to form the opinion that cab drivers and cyclists do not get on. Competing for the same road space with vastly different vehicles is not a recipe for harmony. London leads the way when it comes to cycling in the United Kingdom, the streets are full of cyclists with differing objectives. Commuters speed to work trying to gain an edge over four wheeled transport whilst leisure cyclists take in the sights of the capital and the hard core try to emulate London born Tour De France winner Bradley Wiggins. The streets are also full of cycles, more than eight thousand are located in docking stations as part of a city wide initiative to make cycling accessible by introducing pay as you ride bikes in all areas of London. Affectionately known as “Boris Bikes” the distinctive machines were actually proposed by Ken Livingstone during his term of office before being enthusiastically embraced by the current London Mayor, Boris Johnson. There is another London cycling success story that has provided an integrated transport solution that links cycles and cabs for thousands of commuters across the city.

British Manufacturing Leads The Way

The Brompton bicycle is a modern British manufacturing success story. The company employs over one hundred and forty people in its factory in Brentford and manufactures a range of folding bikes that are exported all over the world. In London it is hard to miss commuters using their machines as the riding style is upright owing to the styling of the cycle. With smaller wheels than a typical cycle and folding joints in strategic places the cycle folds down into a small unit that can by carried in one arm without disrupting passers-by. The cycle is so small when folded down it can be deposited in the back of a London cab quite easily and this is the key to the success of Brompton as a manufacturer. Its users are not restricted in the same way other cyclists are. If they choose to cycle to work in a morning they are not obliged to cycle on the return leg. If they are not motivated to cycle or the weather is inclement it is easy to hail a cab and travel with the bike to any destination. A folding bike that compacts to the size of a small piece of hand luggage is the perfect solution for the occasional cyclist. Cab drivers do not have to worry about the terms of their taxi insurance because they are not carrying a bike in a way that affects other road users. There is no increased risk of liability for any driver carrying a passenger travelling with a folding bike.

Quality Ride

Despite its quirky looks and unusual riding style the Brompton folding bike offers a fun yet comfortable ride. The frame is resilient enough to cope with the streets of London and the addition of mudguards as standard protects riders from any spray thrown up during wet weather. There are many folding bikes on the market but Brompton is the most distinctive and in many ways a trend setter for that sector. Whilst the Brompton World Championships take place at Goodwood Motor Circuit, London has its own event, the Brompton Urban Challenge. One hundred and twenty five participants compete in an event that has an orienteering style format and encourages riders to use their skill and ingenuity to make the most out of their folding bike.

The Future

Whilst there may still exist some antipathy between motorists and cyclists in London, the development of London made Brompton in reshaping London as a cycling city has been exciting to watch. Londoners are now used to seeing riders pedalling furiously along the roads in that familiar style or scurrying along the pavement with a bike tucked under their arm. In many cities with a lower participation rate for cycling the machines still draw incredulous looks from passers by. In London there is probably no cab driver that has not had one in the back and in times of poor weather the London cabbie is the saviour of many stranded commuters. The Office of the Mayor of London announced in 2012 as part of the Olympic Legacy programme, ambitious plans to make cycling in the city even more attractive. The plans are several years from fruition but it is anticipated that cycling knowledge of London cabbies will be developed as demand for its services increases at strategic points on the London cycle path network.

Photo from Lady Fleur who when visiting London wrote an account of 48 hours in London with a Brompton Bike.

Bishop bashing

If ever there was a place which encapsulates ‘Englishness’ the Ye Olde Mitre Tavern is it, hidden away down an alleyway in Hatton Garden. The first Mitre Tavern was built in 1546 as the boozer for servants working in the Palace of the Bishops of Ely. This small area is still technically under the control of the Diocese of Ely, Cambridgeshire and until the last century the pub licence was issued from Ely. The City police at that time had no jurisdiction within its bounds.

[T]he Palace, before being demolished in 1772 was the magnificent residence used by the Bishops when they came to town, boasting a vineyard, orchard, gardens, fountains and ponds, all surrounded by a wall to keep out the locals. The community inside was then declared part of the mother county which became a corner of some foreign city that would be forever Cambridge.

If you believe Shakespeare’s opinion on soft fruit, the strawberries grown there were the finest in London. The Duke of Gloucester speaking to the Bishop of Ely in Act 3 of Richard III declares:

When I was last in Holborn, I saw good strawberries in your garden there: I do beseech you, send for some of them.

A strawberry fayre is still held in Ely Place every June in aid of charity.

Ely Place was the centre of religious and political power, John of Gaunt’s famous speech from Act 2 of Shakespeare’s Richard II is staged here:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle; This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars; This other Eden, demi-paradise; This fortress built by Nature for herself; Against infection and the hand of war; This happy breed of men, this little world; This precious stone set in the silver sea; Which serves it in the office of a wall; Or as a moat defensive to a house; Against the envy of less happier lands; This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

After the Reformation Queen Elizabeth forced the bishops to rent some of their land to Sir Christopher Hatton, one of her courtiers, the area then became known as Hatton Garden, which now of course is the centre of London’s diamond trade.

The Virgin Queen seems always to have a liking for trees. In the front bar of the Mitre is the preserved trunk of a cherry tree around which she is said to have danced the maypole. Likewise at Hatfield House, until recently their gift shop had leant against the wall the trunk of the oak she was reputed to have been sitting under when she received news that she was now Queen.

The Mitre today claims to be the oldest pub in London, which although rebuilt in 1772 it is technically still part of Cambridgeshire, so it should lay claim to be the oldest boozer in Cambridge.

Soon after its rebuilding Dr. Johnson was a regular – Is there any 18th century public house without that claim? – and much of the interior would be familiar to the grumpy lexicographer. If you want to be transported back to Georgian London a trip to the outside gents toilets will give you that questionable experience. The only hand basin in the men’s is in the cubicle so be weary of pissing on your hands if somebody is taking a dump there. The women’s toilets are upstairs in the Bishop’s Room it would be too tempting to have the men’s toilets in the Bishop’s Room for fear of jokes about bashing it.

Beware of head and body injuries in Ye Olde Mitre, as the ceilings are low and the rooms are small, dark and crammed with furniture and people, particularly is a tour group have just turned up. There is a coffin-sized cubby-hole off the back room that is large enough for a single table and four very close friends. The furniture comprises of harsh wooden upright seats and solid wooden tables that look as though they were used to lay-out dead bodies in the local mortuary. A sign requests that furniture is not moved away from the authentic wood-panelled walls. With no TV’s, gaming machines or piped music, just the murmur of polite conversation Ye Old Mitre is a hidden gem.

More information on Ye Old Mitre can be found at London Details. The picture of the stone mitre that came from the gatehouse of the nearby Palace of the Bishop of Ely (demolished in 1772) by Mike Quinn.

The London Grill: Fiona Maclean

We challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and we don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will face the same questions that range from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out just what Londoners really think about their city. The questions might be the same but the answers vary wildly.


[F]iona Maclean is the founder of London Unattached, a website that covers a whole range of things to do in London and out! She also works as a marketing consultant and in previous lives has helped launch Orange, set up and run dating sites and worked on a building site! She lives in London and has done so pretty much all her adult life, including being born here too. And, even when she tries to move out to the country just keeps coming back!

What’s your secret London tip?

For a completely different view of London, take one of the cheaper river boats up the Thames from Westminster to Tower Bridge. You get to see things that you’ll miss on foot or in a car – and you’ll save your shoe leather too!

What’s your secret London place?

I like a lot of the London churches. I think my favourite is St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield (it’s the one that was in Four Weddings and a Funeral).

What’s your biggest gripe about London?

The weather! Of course!!!

What’s your favourite building?

I am always awestruck when I see the Houses of Parliament.

What’s your most hated building?

The Gherkin. It’s just plain ugly!

What’s the best view in London?

From the Shard. I never thought I’d say it but I went on a press preview and you really do get a 360 view of London! I like the intelli-scopes there too.

What’s your personal London landmark?

St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Dome is something I can always spot

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?

Too many really! Perhaps Notting Hill, for something that encapsulates London as I know it.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?

Where I live I like the Troubadour for a classic coffee shop experience (they do good food too). Up in town it really depends on what kind of a mood I’m in. I rather like 10 cases in Covent Garden.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?

People watching on the Southbank, with a swanky meal in Oxo tower as the sun sets!

This ‘Grill’ was first posted on the Radio Taxis blog.