June 23, 2009
New campaign tells the city's history through street names
London - Bleeding Heart Yard. Houndsditch. Spitalfields. Elephant And Castle.
London is filled with oddball place names, from pokey alleyways to grand thoroughfares - and a tourism organisation has launched a month-long campaign to tell the city's history through its streets.
Visit London's Street Stories initiative includes an event at Buckingham Palace where tourists participate in a game of 'paille maille' - a 17thcentury precursor to croquet that is believed to have given its name to the stately London avenue known as Pall Mall.
The origin of many of the unusual names is fairly straightforward: Houndsditch derives from the ditch where people dumped dead dogs in the Middle Ages, Bleeding Heart Yard from a legend that a noblewoman's still-pumping heart was found there after she was murdered in the 1620s.
In other cases, the names offer insights into how language - especially English - is an endlessly evolving thing that takes fascinating twists and turns through popular use.
Elephant And Castle, a south London neighbourhood, purportedly comes from 'La Infanta de Castilla' which, in Spanish, refers to Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish princess who was Henry VIII's first wife.
The corruption of the name was likely just an accident of time - reflecting Londoners' inability to pronounce foreign words rather than any malicious jab at Henry's legendary girth.
'Language changes and names don't make sense after a while. Elephant And Castle makes more sense than La Infanta de Castilla,' said Ed Glinert, author of The London Compendium: A Street-By-Street Exploration Of The Hidden Metropolis.
Spitalfields, the site of a famous market in east London, is a contraction of Hospital Fields - where the early 12th-century New Hospital of St Mary without Bishopsgate was located.
Pall Mall, which cuts through the capital's centre, probably got its name because British nobility was fond of playing 'paille maille' on long, straight streets.
And Chalk Farm, in north London, is a corruption of Chalcot Farm - a place that no longer exists, but was chosen as the name for the nearby Underground stop simply because it was memorable.
Ms Mary Tucker, who leads tours of historical neighborhoods for the company, London Walks, said her clients are eager to see the city in a different way.
'Street names are often a clue to what went on in an area in the past. We point out nooks and crannies, the little details you can only see by walking,' she said.
Many of London's streets help narrate British history.
Portobello, the location of a famous antique market, was renamed for the capture of Puerto Bello in modern-day Panama during the 18th century's War of Austrian Succession, which was fought mainly in central Europe. The tony Knightsbridge neighbourhood derived its name from the alleged duel that two knights fought over a bridge.
One of the world's most famous streets gets its name from a stiff collar called a 'picadil.' A tailor who specialised in them built himself a grand mansion, which locals called Piccadilly Hall. Today, the nearby roundabout and Tube station are called Piccadilly Circus.
Cheapside, near the famous St Paul's Cathedral, has nothing to do with being inexpensive: 'Cheap' comes from an Old English word meaning market and 'side' from the street running alongside the stalls. Nearby streets such as Milk Street, Bread Street and Poultry, one of the shortest streets in the world, indicate what was sold there, Glinert said.
'We're trying to get people off the beaten path,' said Visit London spokesman Jacqueline French.