Confusing London landmarks

The thought occurred to me as I was looking into the history of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane – whose entrance has never been in Drury Lane – why is it so many of London’s place names make no sense? Is it to confuse tourists? Or is it some ancient form of wish-fulfilment, as in: here is Belsize, let’s build a park here one day, meantime we’ll call it Belsize Park anyway. ?

Drury Lane Theatre, photo taken a few years ago (part of my research for The History of Acting in Twelve Chapters)

So I made a list and did a lot of Googling to try and find the answers:

  1. Where is the farm in Chalk Farm?
  2. Where’s the Wood at St John’s?
  3. Likewise the parks in Belsize and Wembley? (There are probably others in places I’m not so familiar with)
  4. And the Green at Willesden
  5. Why is it called the Theatre Royal Drury Lane when the entrance is in Catherine Street?
  6. Where is the Gospel Oak?
  7. Is Old Street actually older than any other street?
  8. What was the White City?
  9. Why is Southgate in the north and Norwood in the south?
  10. What was Shepherd’s Bush?
  11. Why do trains from Liverpool Street not go to Liverpool?
  12. Where’s the water in Bayswater?
  13. Ditto in Stamford Brook and the ‘borns’ – Holborn, Marylebone etc.*
Greenwich, not included in my list

Answers: (according mostly to Wikipedia)

  1. The origin of Chalk Farm is disputed. It does not mean the land is chalk as London is built on clay. Most likely it is a distortion of the old name of the manor house of Caldecote, or Chalcotts.
  2. There was once a Forest of Middlesex at St John’s Wood but it became built on as the land was broken up.
  3. Once again there was a park at Belsize belonging to the manor house, though it seems it disappeared around 1746. Wembley Park is and has been known as an ‘entertainment park’; there was once a fairground and exhibition centre there but it’s better known now as the home of Wembley Football Stadium and Wembley Arena.
  4. Who knows? But presumably like the other disappeared parks and farms there was once a green at Willesden.
  5. The theatre – there have been four of them on the same site – originally fronted on to Brydges Street, which is now Catherine Street. It does back onto Drury Lane, if that counts.
  6. There was a Gospel Oak on the corner of what is now Mansfield and Southampton Roads near Hampstead Heath, where folk used to gather to listen to gospel readings. John Wesley is reputed to have preached there. The oak disappeared in the early 1800s.
  7. Quite possibly yes. Its Old English name was Ealdestrate and then Oldestrete. It’s on the route of an ancient track linking Silchester (to the west near Reading) and Colchester.
  8. It was originally known as the Great White City, a reference to the marble cladding on the outside of the exhibition centres, which were demolished at the beginning of World War I.
  9. Well, most places are south of somewhere (except Antarctica) and north of somewhere (except the Arctic).
  10. Shepherd’s Bush Green used to be common land where shepherds could rest and graze their sheep while on their way to Smithfield Market. Presumably the green – which still exists – had bushes on it.
  11. The station – and the street – are nothing to do with the city of Liverpool but take their name from Prime Minister Robert Jenkinson, Earl of Liverpool in 1829.
  12. The name Bayswater comes apparently from “Bayards Watering Place”, which means a watering place for horses, possibly connected to the Bayard family.
  13. Probably obvious really, but there once were ‘bourns’ there, or brooks, which is much the same thing. Holbourne was an alternative name for the Fleet River apparently, which now runs under the ground, as we all know. Likewise there was once a ford at Deptford.

* Thanks to Londonist for alerting me to these water-based names.

If you have any quirky names to add to my list or if you’d like to correct any of them please let me know. As I said my source was mostly Wikipedia, which is never wrong about anything.

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