No roads in the City of London


I went to visit a man yesterday, who worked for Royal Mail for most of his working life.

He lives in a high-rise in the centre of the city on his own. He had been married many years but his wife died just a couple of years back – about the same time his dementia became more evident. Funny how that happens. His children live in different parts of the country and in one case, in a different country entirely. They are in constant contact and visit when their own jobs and family allow.

He has a dementia that makes the past much more vibrant and memorable than the present. He goes for walks in the local neighbourhood where people know and greet him by name. His COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) possibly obtained through a strong smoking habit restricts the amount of walking he can comfortably manage.

Talking to him yesterday about his work, he became more animated that usual. He reeled off all the postal districts in London from memory – along with an explanation of the numbering system.

beggs beggs at Flickr

And he repeated that ‘there are no roads in the City of London‘ a couple of times. I was baffled momentarily until he explained

‘They have streets, alleys, lanes.. but they have no roads’.

‘What about City Road?’ I said, pondering.

‘City Road ends when the city starts’

Here’s where I admit my love of random trivia. So armed with this new knowledge and because it was the end of the day, I decided to use Google for the purpose for which is it intended and although I have to say, I completely believed him at the time, I was just curious.

I have found enough confirmation of this fact to go along with it and just because I’ve grown too used to academic writing over the years – I can’t leave this post without a reference!

So here’s a reference which explains the reason for this oddity far better than I can.

Our sense of a road as being a fixed route or line on land for getting from one place to another came along much later, at the very end of the sixteenth century (Shakespeare is the first known user). This explains the old joke that there are no roads in the City of London (the medieval core of the metropolis), as indeed there aren’t: all the ways there had been named before the word came into the language.

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(Obviously, the City of London here is referred strictly to the Square Mile – there are lots of roads in London, in general – indeed, I live on one!).

8 thoughts on “No roads in the City of London

  1. That’s the sort of thing that reinforces how old London is. And, as you say, it is a wonderful piece of trivia (I’m an inveterate gatherer myself) which has the potential to be a real conversation stopper, particularly if used in the presence of history-loving Americans.

  2. That is so cool! One of the joys of working with older people is getting sneak access to all that local history – I never grow tired of it

  3. How cool is that? I, like you, love talking to people if for no other reason then to learn random facts.

    Of course over here, we have roads everywhere. You turn off a “road” to get on my “lane”, thus I travel it daily.

    Thanks for this story.

  4. I managed to use this lovely piece of trivia today. I was having lunch with a friend and we were talking with a nice Australian couple who were sitting at the table next to us, and I managed to drop this little beauty into the conversation. It went down very well.

  5. Thanks for the comments all! Nice to know I’m not the only one who collects ‘curious’ facts and I love that you used it today, Madsadgirl!
    As I was telling the story to another random colleague who passed me in the corridor today, I was thinking about how much of this local information and knowledge is lost, as you say, Caroline.
    I imagine this man’s children and grandchildren have heard this story many times. I’m now going to share it with anyone who will listen to me for more than five minutes!

  6. Hi there cb,

    Glad I found this site! This is the first social work one I’ve come across. Am going to add it to my bloglist.
    I went on a walking tour of London and we learned all kinds of trivia; I think my favourite one was that the Metropolitan Police have a helmet that is an inch higher than everyone else’s; that’s because it has a ridge on it to recall the Romans’ helmets with the plume on them. How cool is that! We were also told that the yard measurement was the distance from the king’s nose to his thumb when he stretched out his arm, but I can’t remember which king..

  7. Hi Julie! I absolutely love that – thanks 🙂 I’d heard that about the yard too.. possibly at school as reading it triggered some kind of distant memory for me!

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