Tag Archives: London’s roads

The road that didn’t exist

There is a real street in London that never actually existed, in the sense that one minute it wasn’t there, then it was, and then it was gone again.

It was called Broad Streete, and it appeared on 8th January 1683 in, what is, the most central part of the city. A great many shops opened on it, many thousands of people visited and traders arrived, a bullring was built and there were games and displays of strength and skill. Oxen were roasted and drink was sold, and a great time was had by all along its length.

Broad Streete could only be built because between the 14th and 19th centuries the Thames froze solid more than a dozen times. John Evelyn describes the street thus: “The ice was now become so incredibly thick, as the beare not onely whole streets of boothes in which they roasted meate, & had divers shops of wares…but coaches and horses passed over.”

In early January 1683, the Thames had frozen to a thickness of almost a foot and stayed that way for two months. At other times the ice grew to several feet thick, especially between Blackfriars and London Bridge. There are various reasons for the existence of Broad Streete. One was the ‘Little Ice Age’ that hit England, another was that the Thames had yet to be embanked, so it flowed more slowly and was prone to icing over. At that time London Bridge has several supports, called starlings, sunk into the river bed which also slowed the flow.

Rapid thaws sometimes caused the loss of life and property. In January 1789, melting ice dragged away a ship that was anchored to a riverside pub, pulling the building down and causing five people to be crushed to death.

In the pedestrian tunnel under the south bank of Southwark Bridge, there’s an engraving by sculptor Richard Kindersley made of slabs of grey slate, depicting a frost fair.

The global climate grew milder, the river was banked and flowed faster, and that was the end of Broad Streete.

That is until we get more climate change.

Where is Goswell Street Road?

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.

Five Curious Corners

London has many major junctions with folkloric names, I should know I had to learn them. Many recall past businesses, ancient coaching inns or an association with local characters. Here are five of those often heard on radio’s traffic reports.

Kosher Crossing

Henleys Corner, at the junction of the North Circular Road and the A1 gets its name from the Henleys Group garage which sat at the junction from 1935 to 1989. In October 2011, Britain’s first ‘hands-free’ pedestrian crossing here so that the local Jewish community did not have to use electricity or operate machinery. Traffic is held every 90 seconds over this duration (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday), with foot traffic principally to and from the Kinloss Synagogue.

Replacement windows

Francis Berrington Crittall started his eponymous company in 1849, but it wasn’t until 1884 they started making their famous metal windows which even found their way on to the Titanic. The company has always been based around Braintree in Essex, so it is a bit of a mystery why a roundabout on the A20 near Sidcup where one of their factories stood on its north-west corner should have been given the accolade of Crittalls Corner.

To kill a cow

Gallows Corner is named after a nearby execution spot, not far from a notorious spot frequented by highwaymen, which ably served the local community’s hanging needs from the 16th to 18th century. The ‘temporary’ flyover here was erected in just five nights in January 1970 it’s still in use. In 1932, a Metropolitan Police car collided with a cow at the junction. The animal was so badly injured it had to be destroyed. It was, in all probability, the last time the authorities had to sanction an execution at Gallows Corner.

Convoluted chaos

By any stretch of the imagination, you couldn’t call Staples Corner, a corner. It has two linked roundabouts and flyovers connecting the North Circular Road, Edgware Road and M1, between the two roundabouts are the Midland Main Line and Thameslink, with Dollis Brook running underneath towards the Brent Reservoir. In the past, a B&Q store here has been blown up by the IRA and once had two runaway trains crashing down onto the North Circular Road. The junction is named after a mattress factory, which lasted from 1926 until 1986, then improbably, it’s since been replaced by another Staples, this time a vendor of office supplies.

Missing moniker

At the top of Putney Hill is a sign depicting a skulking highwayman wearing a long-brimmed hat and brandishing a pistol, obviously intent on surprising his next victim, celebrating the memory of a famous highwayman who used to frequent the then lonely wastes of Putney Heath. While Tibbets Corner was the haunt of criminal ne’er-do-wells and malcontents eager to relieve wealthy road users of their valuables there is no record of a highwayman by that name operating anywhere near the spot. Prosaically Tibbet was the name of the gate-keeper at the entrance to Lord Spencer’s estate.

London’s Corners

Apex Corner
Birchwood Corner
Canons Corner
Chalkers Corner
Crittalls Corner
Dovers Corner
Fiveways Corner
Frognall Corner
Gallows Corner
Gillette Corner
Gipsy Corner
Harlington Corner
Henlys Corner
Highbury Corner
Hobart Corner
Hyde Park Corner
Malden Corner
Ruxley Corner
Shannon Corner
Staples Corner
Stirling Corner
Tibbets Corner
Waterworks Corner

Featured image: Tibbet’s Corner Sign by Tristan Forward (CC BY-SA 2.0)

All roads lead to London . . . A4 & A5

This is our third rather pointless exploration of the starting points of five major trunk roads.

A4 London to Bath (103 miles, originally the Great West Road)

The A4 used to start in the same place as the A3, terrorist paranoia in the City of London has beheaded this first mile from the route, forcing the A4 to retreat to the edge of the City beyond a miserable security checkpoint cordon. And now the Great West Road starts somewhere rather less glamorous.

Six roads meet at Holborn Circus, which is now little more than complicated junction overlooked by the only equestrian statue of Prince Albert to be found in London. The new route chosen for the A4 follows the most insignificant of these roads, a tiny street squeezed in between a branch of Lloyds Bank and Sainsbury head office. This is New Fetter Lane, which leads before very long to the similarly quiet and narrow Fetter Lane. At the junction of the two stands London’s only cross-eyed statue, a memorial to 18th-century libertarian John Wilkes.

We turn right into Fleet Street passing Temple Bar, where traitors heads were once displayed in spikes and the westernmost extent of the Great Fire of London.

F Strand
Comply King Charles Statue
L/By Cockspur Street
B/L Pall Mall
R St. James’s Street
L Piccadilly
F Piccadilly Underpass
F Hyde Park Corner
F Knightsbridge
B/L Brompton Road
F Cromwell Gardens
F Cromwell Road
F West Cromwell Road
F Talgarth Road
F Hammersmith Flyover
F West Cromwell Road

5-mile ends at approximately Hogarth Roundabout. Should you be travelling down the A4 approaching the Hogarth Roundabout from the east you probably will be unaware that just yards from the racetrack that this stretch of road becomes during the evening rush hour, that you reluctantly find yourself driving along while following this post, is an oasis of calm.

This small backwater (I use the word advisedly) has been the enclave of choice for artists to reside for over 200 years. One property, Walpole House was once a school which William Thackeray was a boarder. It provided the setting for Miss Pinkerton’s Seminary for Young Ladies, where Becky Sharp fatefully made the acquaintance of Amelia Sedley in Vanity Fair.

But take care, the Thames floods the road, the houses have high front walls, surmounted with perspex panels.

A5 London to Holyhead (270 miles, originally Watling Street)

The A5 begins at the site of the Tyburn Tree – London’s popular spot for public executions during more than six centuries. More than fifty thousand criminals were hung here, originally from the branches of a tree beside the Tyburn river but later from a purpose-built wooden tripod of death. A memorial to these notorious gallows is paved into a traffic island at the very bottom of the Edgware Road.

The most famous landmark in the vicinity today is Marble Arch, originally designed by John Nash as a triumphant entrance to Buckingham Palace but moved to its existing location when the palace was extended in 1851.

Like the A2, the A5 follows the Roman road of Watling Street, of which this is the start of the northern section. The road from Marble Arch to the edge of the suburbs is the longest straight line in London, never once deviating to left or right for a full twenty miles. The first mile is a cosmopolitan shopping street, although probably not one you’d go out of your way to visit. Unless you were Lebanese, that is. There’s a distinctly Arabian flavour to the very bottom of the A5 – perfect for stocking up on pomegranates, using your Bank of Kuwait cashpoint card or smoking aromatic tobacco out of some mysterious piped bottle.

F Maida Vale
F Kilburn High Road
F Shoot Up Hill
F Cricklewood Broadway
F Edgware Road
F Hendon Broadway
F The Hyde

5-mile ends approximately here, and look, I’m sorry to have dragged you out here, but there is nothing of interest in Colindale.

All road lead to . . . London: A2 and A3

This, our second foray into the commencement of London’s trunk roads.

A2 London to Dover (77 miles, originally Roman Watling Street)

This road is the only one of London’s five major trunk routes to begin south of the river. The modern road follows the alignment of Watling Street, along which Roman soldiers would have trooped on their way from London to Dover.

Unlike Chaucer’s pilgrims chatting on their way to Canterbury, because of a 20th-century one-way system the journey starts innocuously at a junction with the A3 outside Borough tube station, turning into Long Lane, right Tabard Street, right Nebraska Street before joining the A2 by turning left into Great Dover Street which has a real mix of housing along its half-mile length. There are plenty of council flats in long blocks, some old and some new but almost all with satellite dishes pointing southwards. Just visible to the south-west is Trinity Church Square one of the few unspoilt Georgian squares left in London and the only part of the area where you might aspire to live is 100 yards away to the right.

Comply Bricklayers Arms
L/By Old Kent Road
F New Cross Road
F Deptford Broadway
F Deptford Bridge
F Blackheath Road
F Blackheath Hill

5-mile ends at approximately here, but unlike other trunk roads, this area is picturesque. Nearby is Greenwich and Rangers House on the edge of Blackheath, a vast high open area.

A3 London to Portsmouth (74 miles)

This road starts where London nearly finished – at the Monument. The Great Fire of London was kindled just around the corner in Pudding Lane, killing only six people but destroying four-fifths of the City. The Monument was built by Sir Christoper Wren to commemorate the conflagration and is exactly as far away from the bakery where the fire began as it is tall. At 202ft it remains the world’s tallest free-standing stone column and became one of London’s first tourist attractions with its stunning panorama over the rebuilt city.

To be truly accurate, the A3 begins in front of the House of Fraser department store on King William Street, but somehow that doesn’t sound so interesting, although the road it stands is the more impressively named King William Street.

Ahead is the capital’s oldest permanent river crossing – London Bridge, which we cross and proceed to Borough High Street, an important bridgehead thoroughfare in medieval times when it was packed with all the bawdy revelry and lewdness that wasn’t permitted north of the river. Only one of the old coaching inns now survives – The George. It may be cunningly hidden up an alley just off the High Street but all the tourists and real ale drinkers still seem to find it, and rightly so. In neighbouring Talbot Yard, a blue plaque unveiled a decade ago by film director and former Monty Python team member Terry Jones marks the site of the Tabard Inn from whence Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims supposedly set off in 1386.

F Borough High Street
F Newington Causeway
Comply Elephant and Castle Gyratory
L/By Newington Butts
F Kennington Park Road
F Clapham Road
F Clapham High Street
R Long Road
F Clapham Common North Side
F Battersea Rise
F Wandsworth Common North Side
F Huguenot Place
F East Hill
F Wandsworth High Street
F & B/R West Hill

5-mile ends at approximately at the top of the incline known as Tibbet’s Corner. A sign depicts a skulking highwayman wearing a long-brimmed hat and brandishing a pistol has been erected in the centre of the roundabout, in memory of a famous highwayman who used to frequent the then lonely wastes of Putney Heath in the days before the highways were well policed.