London’s numerous ‘hams’, ‘tons’ and ‘hithes’ come from literal Anglo Saxon descriptions of settlements. But few of the words remain as recognisable as the two which now signify London’s snootiest shopping district: ‘knights’ and ‘bridge’. The bridge in question spanned the old Westbourne River, which now runs underground. As for the knights, their identity is uncertain. Some suggest that the rich folk of the medieval era were unwilling to enter the area without armed protection. If gun-packing Baltic hardmen are the modern-day equivalent, things really haven’t changed much.
Where the famous market now stands used to be a hospital – or a ‘spital’ as they were then known. Dating all the way back to the twelfth century, it was set in fields on what were then the outskirts of the city. So, if you put spital and fields… oh, you’ve got it.
Like Morris dancing, worm charming and Saturday night binge drinking, the annual May fair is a classic English tradition that many rural towns still hold dear. London’s OTT version of the event used to run for a whole fortnight on the site that is now Shepherd Market, and was so popular that it gave its name to the surrounding area. The event ended a long time ago, so we reckon it’s time for a new one that reflects the contemporary area and its inhabitants. ‘Notfair’, maybe?
Mmmm, pudding. The Great Fire of London famously started in a bakery situated here. So does the name of this City street refer to rhubarb and almond blancmange, figs in jelly or some similarly toothsome medieval sweetmeats? No – it’s the other sort of pudding, meaning discarded offal, bowels and entrails. Now finish your main course or you won’t be getting any!
Yes, we went there. Well, not literally. But how could we resist the default comedy London tube destination? It may sound like a manly Aussie drinking game involving amber nectar and your old chap, but in fact the name’s a combination of ‘cock’ (chief) and ‘foster’ (forester). Entirely innocent. Now try and hit me doodle with that tinny, you bloody Pom!
It must be pointed out that most place names are literal in their own way – some just aren’t obvious unless you’re fluent in Anglo-Saxon or Middle English. We could tell you that Mudchute, for instance, is probably a corruption of the Old Norse ‘maed’ (stupid, insane) and ‘shoet’ (cobblers). But it’s not, and you don’t need to be some beardy linguistics professor to work it out. When Millwall Dock was excavated in the late 1800s, all the mud they dug out was pumped here. Through a chute.
You can just imagine the conversations between couples moving to the peaceful Middlesex hamlet of Heathrow in the ’20s. ‘Oh look, darling, there are farms and orchards and the whole place is named after a row of houses next to this beautiful heath – how quaint!’ ‘Hmm, I’ve heard they might be building a small airfield nearby. If that gets any bigger…’ ‘Oh don’t worry about that – air travel will never take off…’
Old Kent Road
Say what you see… It’s a road, it’s been around a while and it goes to Kent. This most desperate of south London turnpikes has, it seems, never quite recovered from the twin body blows of having its limelight stolen by the upstart New Kent Road, and being tarred with the downmarket brown brush on the Monopoly board. Houses here are a bit more nowadays than the £30 advertised in the original game, although apparently you can still get a DVD of ‘One Direction: This Is Us’ and a twin-pack of Duracell for a five from that bloke in the back corner of the British Lion pub in Peckham.
It’s now a byword for parliament, but the name Westminster long predates English democracy. The word ‘minster’ means a large or significant church connected to a monastery. So, when Edward the Confessor started building a huge abbey for royal burials west of the city, it became known as the ‘minster in the west’. In the same spirit of linguistic laziness that has given us LOL and RU, it was gradually mangled into one word. Sotherugo.
There’s an urban myth that the name Blackheath relates to the area’s grim role as a huge burial pit during the Black Death. Nonsense! The yummy mummys of SE3 wouldn’t have any truck with nasty plague victims. In fact, it’s derived from the Old English words ‘blæc’ and ‘haeth’, and basically translates as ‘dark-coloured heathland’, or a ‘black heath’. Well, we did promise you literal place names…
Read our other London top tens.