I used to walk through Little Britain every day on my way to work.
Nothing at all to do with Matt Lucas, David Walliams and the hit TV show – its name reflects the fact that once upon a time the Duke of Brittany had his quarters here. It lies between Smithfield and the City; Petty France, its counterpart (in those days Brittany and France were two separate states), lies just south of St James’s Park.
Sometimes street names are interesting because they tell us how the street was used or who owned it centuries ago. Sometimes they are just amusing. Quite often they are both thought-provoking and funny, and if you look up the meanings of the street names you notice on any particular day you’ll probably get a laugh out of it as well as learning something about the city.
The Square Mile of the City of London has some amazing street names. I’ve drunk in a wine bar in Gutter Lane – quite appropriate really; there are some good verbs too – Seething and Mincing Lanes – and then there’s Bleeding Heart Yard which sounds like the start of a murder mystery, but in fact commemorates a pub with a sign of the Virgin Mary wounded by five swords through the heart – a standard medieval religious image.
I also like Love Lane. Not an unusual name – but in the Middle Ages this wasn’t where you got love exactly, it was the red light district. It’s just a little bit of a euphemism then! It seems quite apposite that the City of London clinic at no 1 Love Lane offers various, er, gynecological testing services.
And then there’s Bread Street, Milk Street and Honey Lane, off Cheapside. They always have a Biblical flavour to me – is this the land of milk and honey? But they reflect the fact that Cheapside was the main market street of the medieval City, and this is where those commodities were sold. In fact the name Cheapside comes from the verb ‘to cheapen’ or bargain – it’s where things were haggled for.
Birdcage Walk is named after Charles II’s aviary. French Ordinary Court, tucked away under Fenchurch Street Station, is a truly strange name; a French “ordinary” was a kind of 17th century bistro, with a simple prix fixe menu.
Once you get to the West End things get a bit boring. While the Middle Ages, when the City developed its current layout, was a time of linguistic freebooting and privateering, the West End was developed by noble families who owned the land and mainly named the streets after themselves or their estates; the Dukes of Bedford built Bedford Square, Russell Street (their family name), Woburn Square (their country house) and so on.
But not everyone approved of this kind of noble megalomania and when one of the grandees got into debt, he laid himself open to abuse. George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, sold his land to a chap called Barbon to be developed as housing, in order to repay his debts, but only on condition that every street was named after him. So there is Duke Street, George Street, Villiers Street – and Of Alley.
And it’s not just street names that are sometimes weird. There’s the Bag o’ Nails pub near Victoria (which happens to be close to my favourite 5 star boutique hotel). Some says the pub was originally the Bacchanals – named after the wine-god Bacchus and his merry nymphs and satyrs – others that it was more prosaically located in a former ironmongers’ shop. It’s still a strange name for a pub! But I’ll save the weird pub names for another occasion…