On the Street Where I Live

Okay, I live in England—but where? That’s complicated. In fact, it looks like it’s going to take more than one blog post to explain about British houses, streets, and addresses.

The Street, Puttenham, Surrey

The Street, Puttenham, Surrey

Street addresses aren’t always straightforward in the US, either. I grew up in Kentucky on North Broadway Park—except here in the UK they would say I grew up in North Broadway Park. The only people in the US who grew up in streets would have to have been homeless.

Mail addressed to us would occasionally wander over to South Broadway Park or to North Broadway (no Park) before reaching us, and my teetotal mother didn’t appreciate that our twin on North Broadway (no Park) was a bar. When I moved to California, I used to underline North once and Park twice when I sent a letter home, which seemed to help. Later I worried that as my parents grew older that if they ever needed an ambulance, help might go down to the tavern on North Broadway.

Surely it’s better to live at a place with an address that isn’t easily confused with another place, right? But the wonderful old farmhouse we fell in love with in California sat on/in West Meadow Drive, a little two-block extension of the much longer and better-known East Meadow Drive. It’s remarkable how many people can hear “West Meadow” and yet write down “East Meadow”.

The Street, Compton, Surrey

The Street, Compton, Surrey

Then we moved to England, where addresses suffer all kinds of further complications, the first one being that many houses have only names, no numbers at all. We lived for a few years in a house called Berwick Cottage. No number. And no way for anyone to find us except to go up and down the street, looking for the house names on signs in the front yards/gardens. Berwick Cottage sat between White Heathers and Wickets—picturesque, but without rhyme or reason.

Berwick Cottage and most of its neighbors dated from the 1930s, so by English standards, they’re practically brand new. After Berwick Cottage we lived in a house so old that no one knows when it was built, but since the town map of 1500 included that house, it presumably dates from 14-something. Giving houses numbers along a street is a newfangled practice brought in by an Act of Parliament in 1765, and it’ll take more than a mere few centuries here to change the habit of naming, rather than numbering, dwellings. Yet our 15th-century house had a number; you’re allowed to change a named house to a numbered house, but not to change a numbered house to a named house. They’re phasing out naming of houses, but they don’t seem to mind if it takes quite a while; when people here think about results in the long term, it can be the extremely long term.

Names of older properties can be more confusing because they often took their names from a manor house or stately home nearby, which made for a lot of redundancy. So—to make up an example—near to a place called Greatbig Manor you may very likely find Greatbig Lodge (possibly the original gatehouse for the manor), Greatbig House, Greatbig Farm, Greatbig Cottage, Greatbig Farm Cottage, and so on.

The Street, Compton, Surrey (camouflaged)

The Street, Compton, Surrey (camouflaged)

These will be situated on Greatbig Road, Greatbig Street, Greatbig Lane, Greatbig Avenue, Greatbig Close (close means court), and so on. Finding an address in one of those areas can feel like moving through a hall of mirrors. Didn’t we see that street just a minute ago?

At the other end of the scale,the principal street of smaller villages may simply be called The Street (see illustrations for three of the very many The Streets in our corner of Surrey). Or in truly tiny hamlets, people may omit the street name altogether, leaving residents with addresses such as The Old Schoolhouse, Tinyhamlet. Now that’s Olde Worlde, for sure. (Although even The Old Schoolhouse would have to have a post code, but let’s leave post codes vs. zip codes for another time, shall we?)

These streets—Greatbig Avenue and so on—also change names from time to time as they meet other streets at intersections. What looks like one long road can be a series of smaller roads each with its own name; stay on Aldershot Road long enough and it becomes Guildford Road, then Ash Street, then High Street (most towns of any size have High Streets just as American towns have Main Streets) and so on. There’s often no sign to alert drivers that the road name has changed. This continual metamorphosing of roads into other roads can make following directions impossible.

The Street, Shalford, Surrey

The Street, Shalford, Surrey

Lost in England, you might hear from a helpful local “turn left at the pub, then go to the end of the road and…” But what is “the end of the road”? In the US, I would normally drive on until I came to a T-junction and had no choice but to turn because the road has, well, ended. Here, you just have to know that after a couple of blocks (using the term loosely as the Anglo-Saxons didn’t lay out their towns with rectilinear streets) Queen’s Road becomes Queensway becomes Victoria Avenue, often without anything to mark the change so that some nondescript corner, very much like any other corner, might be “the end of the road”.

On the other hand, some parts of England still use roads that were first laid out by the Romans; these will run straight as a ruler for miles and miles, often without changing names throughout much of their lengths. These tend to be named Stane Street or Stone Street, because Romans paved their roads and Anglo-Saxon used muddy tracks. One Stane Street still runs from London through Surrey and West Sussex to Chichester remaining Stane Street for most of its length, though in small sections it does use aliases.

Oh, and with Roman roads still in use, it’s not too surprising that you’ll find some very old buildings on streets called New Street; if you come across a New Street, it might have been named centuries ago.

There are also regional variations, most notably in the city of York, where the roads into the city still run through gates in the medieval city wall. But the gates in the wall are called bars—Monk Bar, Bootham Bar—and roads in the city are called gates—Petergate, Gillygate, Goodramgate. (The bars, of course, are called pubs.) Just to make things more interesting, you also find hybrids, such as Micklegate Bar. Not knowing the local customs, I once spent ages wandering around trying to find my hotel using directions I couldn’t understand. (In this case, bar comes from a bar such as a tollgate would have had, and gate comes from the Viking word for street.)

When you move up to discussion of the names of towns and villages, it gets even more complicated—I’ll leave that for the next post. Besides, it’s tea time.

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3 Comments

Filed under Culture, Language

3 responses to “On the Street Where I Live

  1. There is also the practice in northern industrial towns, such as Leeds, where acres of terraced housing was laid out for mill workers. Every street in the area was named after the mill owner (not unlike slaves taking their masters’ surnames). So you’ll have Butler Street, Butler Avenue, Butler Close, Butler Crescent. Butler Road.

    Now suppose Butler Road and Butler Avenue run parallel to one another, there will often be another, narrower, road, running between the two of them, called Back Butler Road on one side of the street and Back Butler Avenue on the other.

    • Argh — I just re-read your comment, and only just now realized what you were saying. Do you mean that each side of the same street used a different street name for the address? That’s…remarkable, to say the least!

  2. Merci pour le bonne information.

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