Saturday, September 28, 2019

Medieval Streets, Modern Roads

Last week I discovered that there is only half a road in the City of London. There are lots of Streets, Lanes, Avenues and Alleys within the square mile of the City of London. However the only street that is called a 'Road' is Goswell Road. The boundary of the City runs down the middle of a small section of Goswell Rd. So there is just half a road in the City of London.

The reason why the City of London doesn't have any streets named 'Road' is that this sense of the word as a through-way only emerged in the late Sixteenth Century. The streets of the City of London were constructed and set-out a long time before this.

Since discovering that there are no roads in the City of London I've been wondering if this is true of other UK cities. It occurred to me that any UK cities which still have street systems dating back to Medieval times would also have very few streets named 'Road' in their centers. So for the last few days I've been mapping out the distribution of streets named 'Road' and roads named 'Street' in a number of UK cities.

In the small multiple maps (shown at the top of this post) all roads named 'Street' are colored red. All streets named 'Road' are colored yellow. Rivers are colored blue. You can see in all nine of the cities I mapped there is a strong cluster of roads named 'Street' in the historical centers. In these centers there are very few streets called 'Road'. However, outside of these historical centers, you find the opposite - very few roads named 'Street' and lots of streets called 'Road'.

At some point in our history it appears that there was a huge switch from naming our roadways 'Street' to naming them 'Road'. There is however one caveat to this conclusion. The Wikipedia article on Street argues that "a street is characterized by the degree and quality of street life it facilitates, whereas a road serves primarily as a through passage for road vehicles". According to this definition we would therefore expect to see more 'streets' in busy urban environments and more 'roads' in more rural areas. This may be why there are more 'Streets' in the center of cities and more 'Roads' in the outskirts.

If this Wikipedia definition is correct then we should notice the same distribution pattern of 'Streets' and 'Roads' in new towns as distributed in the UK's oldest cities. New towns should also have lots of roads named 'Street' in their centers and lots of streets called 'Road' outside of the center. The difficulty is that there are very few new urban developments in the UK which haven't developed around an existing smaller urban core (such as an existing village or small town). However there are a few towns which are almost completely new.

The town of Bournemouth, on the south coast, was founded in 1810 by Lewis Tregonwell. Before the town was built the area was mostly deserted heathland with very few existing roads. A search for roads called 'Street' in Bournemouth returns one result - 'Orchard Street'. So in this town, built entirely after 1800, there is only one road called 'Street'.

Orchard Street marked in red

Letchworth Garden City, in Hertfordshire, is another new town. The town was built in the first decade of the Twentieth Century as part of the Garden City movement. Letchworth emerged about a century after Bournemouth. Like Bournemouth is has only one street - 'Cross Street'.

Cross Street in Letchworth

From the lack of roads called 'Street' in towns built since 1800 we can probably conclude that there was an historical switch in the names we give our thoroughfares - some time after the late Sixteenth Century. Cities and towns in the UK which emerged around medieval towns seem to have centers with lots of 'Streets'. Towns which were built after 1800, and haven't evolved from existing medieval villages and towns, appear to have very few roads which end in the name 'Street'. We just hardly call roads 'Street' anymore in the UK.

No comments: