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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

'The Night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier': A little history of our 'road' names

A recent article in The Times, headed 'On the trail of Britain's lost paths', set me 'on the road' to writing a small piece about the names of various of our 'roads' here in England.


My interest was first aroused at school when the paths between bath stone walls leading from my school in the valley to games pitches on top of the hill were called DRUNGS. This is very much a West Country word and can be found in various alternative spellings, such as drang or drong, and sometimes as a Drangway. It can also be applied to a path between buildings as equally as it is to my rural path at school.

Towns in England have quite a range of local dialect words for alleyways. In Plymouth the word is OPE, in Shrewsbury you find SHUTS. In Sussex, in towns like Lewes, you find TWITTEN. In York, SNICKET and GINNEL, and since a 1983 guide to these alleys a new word, SNICKELWAYS. Further east in Whitby you have GHAULS, in County Durham, WYND.

Please let me know of any you are familiar with.


Road is Anglo Saxon in origin from the Saxon verb 'ridan', meaning to ride. For on Saxon roads only walking or riding was really feasible. STREET, however, is late Latin from via strata, a paved or stone road. Hence the town of Street in Somerset lying on a Roman road.

Because of meaning a paved road the word street is only normally found in an urban setting.

LANE is again Saxon, and linked to the modern Dutch word Laan. Likewise PATH and WAY are Saxon in origin. All going to emphasise that outside the Roman 'trunk routes' of medieval and Early Modern Britain, it was the Saxons who built our road system, or in GK Chesterton's famous phrase, 'the rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road'.

Even TRACK, although not Saxon in origin, is derived from the Vikings in The North for it comes from the Old Norse word, trakke, meaning to trample, and that is what a track is, a trampled path in the countryside.


GRAPE LANES. (Those of a puritan turn of mind read no further under this heading).

This name is a bowlderised version of earlier Grope Lane, itself a toning down of the original early medieval Gropecunt Lane. In short, the red light district of medieval towns (strangely, as in Colchester, they were often very close to monastic institutions!).

In London such a lane lay between Bordhavelane (Bordello Lane) and Puppekirty Lane (lifting a skirt lane).

There was a move in Oxford to restore the old name and dispense with the modern Magpie Lane. Just imagine if you lived there and had to send out change of address cards!

(Puritans can now read on in safety.)

CORPSE PATH. The road to the Parish Church for burial. In the Middle Ages the outlying parts of a Parish could be some distance away from the Parish Church but had no right of burial themselves. Thus, for example the Parish Church at Blockley in North Gloucestershire had the right of burial for the Warwickshire village of Stretton-on-Fosse. This makes me feel slightly better when in the 1970s Warwickshire had an adult literacy class over the border in Gloucestershire, whose Adult Education Service was not as well funded as mine in Warwickshire. No one ever complained. I guess because no one ever found out, the county border being somewhat twisty in those parts, as those still engaged in cockfighting in the area in the 1970s knew only too well, slipping over the county boundary when the Police arrived.

Avoid such paths at night, as Shakespeare warned so long ago,

'Now it is the time of night,

That the graves all gaping wide,

Every one lets forth his sprite,

In the church-way paths to glide.' Midsummer Night's Dream

HOLLOWAYS. My very favourite type of 'road'. There is something magical about a way that lies sunken between two high banks, especially in the autumn when it is shaded by the most wonderful trees shining in all their seasonal glory. Geoffrey Household in his novel, 'Rogue Male', captures the mystery of such places brilliantly. More prosaically Gilbert White, down there in Selborne, wrote, 'These roads, running through the malm [soft chalky] lands, are, by the traffic of ages, and the fretting of water, worn down by the first stratum of our freestone, and partly through the second; so that they look more like water-courses than roads...'

Holloways can be old Roman roads, as at Halnaker in Sussex near me, where for a short distance Roman Stane (ie Stone) Street diverges from the modern road and forms a holloway. They can be old pilgrim routes, drove roads, corpse ways, or simply an old medieval track between one village and the next.

'The last time I saw him he was walking down lover's lane holding his own hand'.

'I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me'.

Fred Allen, US comedian

But, actually, living as I do in Sussex, I agree with Monica Baldwin who said, 'The Sussex lanes were lovely in the autumn......spendthrift gold and glory of the scents and the sky winds and all the magic of the countryside which is ordained for the healing of the soul'. So true and welcome in this year of the Pandemic.

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