London’s most storied streets

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

If stone, concrete and cobbles are the manifestation of our desire to walk along clearly defined pathways to our destination, then street names, and more appropriately, the mythology of their creation is surely the manifestation of our desire to attach meaning to those well-trodden stones. And London is a place of meaning. Of stories. And of streets. These stories arise from the very foundations of the city, echoing through time, transformed and transfigured into points on a map. Forever a bookmark holding our place in London like pages in a dusty book. From dubiously iconic London Bridge (or is it Tower Bridge?) to St Mary’s Axe — that now has a Gherkin thrusting out of it — these are just a few of our favourite etiological myths from the streets and pages of London.

Bleeding Heart Yard

Romantics will always draw close to a place with such a graphic and compelling a name as Bleeding Heart Yard. An unsuspecting, quiet cobbled yard in Farringdon with a lovely little red-draped French bistro to match, its cobbles blocked from the city by a collection of converted warehouses and grand apartments. A cocktail of stories splashes onto the street here, some more convincing than others but the best and perhaps most gruesome is the tale of Lady Elizabeth Hatton (whose family is responsible for the Jewellery Quarter’s name “Hatton Garden”).

Elizabeth was by all accounts a beautiful girl, who shunned the advances of a man (or the Devil who Elizabeth had made a deal with according to Richard Barham’s telling of the tale) and was found laid out on the cobbles, torn limb from limb, her heart still beating in her chest. And so Bleeding Heart Yard was born. Of course, there’s little truth to the various versions (even Dickens wrote about the many beliefs and the lore of the yard in his story ‘Little Dorrit’), and the lady in question didn’t die according to official records until some 20 years later. But it’s the story and the full-bodied French reds in the bistro that count. 

London Bridge

The gossip surrounding the sale of London Bridge is a relatively modern story, dating back to the 1960’s, and still uttered as a bit of mockery in vertical office blocks today. The story goes that a wealthy but naive man from the USA was sold London Bridge under the assurance that London Bridge was in fact the turreted masterpiece that is Tower Bridge, and only realised that he’d bought the comparatively dismal London bridge after the purchase was complete…. but hang on.

That’s not quite true. And this is where we unveil a little geographical magic trick and recount the tale of an astute American tycoon Robert McCulloch who bought London Bridge specifically to tear down and rebuild in Arizona. And he did. And it’s still there. The bridge, which is almost identical to the current London Bridge (the original simply wasn’t strong enough for the increased traffic on London’s roads), makes it entirely possible to take a little stroll in London while walking in Lake Havasu City, the echoes of a good London story not far behind.

St Mary’s Axe

If one were to stand at St Mary’s Axe today, one would likely be in the shadow of the vast pickled neo-futuristic masterpiece that is Foster’s Gherkin or 30 St Mary Axe. But before this, there was a little Church close by, that, if we’re to believe one of the stories, held an axe within a reliquary. A document dated to the reign of King Henry VIII describes a holy relic held in the church, “an axe, one of the two that the eleven thousand Virgins were beheaded with”, which refers to the legend of Saint Ursula, a British Princess, who, when returning to Britain from a pilgrimage to Rome accompanied by eleven thousand handmaidens, refused to marry a Hunnish chief and was executed along with her entire entourage somewhere close to Cologne.

The church is said to have held onto one of the axes, though it was demolished hundreds of years ago… so the truth of it all is likely to remain yet another mystery to be excavated. The street, and most of London, is best viewed from above in one of the Gherkin’s sky-high restaurants.

Shoulder of Mutton Alley

Today, London is perhaps one of the world’s great cities for food. Everything is possible, everything is eaten. But once upon a time on an East London street where London’s first China Town once stood (close to the beautiful Narrow street where Sir Ian McKellan and his riverside pub The Grapes reside), there was nothing better than a shoulder of Mutton, from the pub in the alley. It was so good that the city eventually named an entire street after this one speciality dish. But another theory, unfleshed out as it were, is that mutton referred to sex workers, so it may have had something to do with the nightly rendezvouses in the area.

And yet another story suggests that a local pub took the nautical term "Shoulder of Mutton” (a triangular sail) as its name. Whichever is true, it’s clear the name stems from the alley’s most popular resident… we just need to figure out which of the three that is. After a little walk here, be sure to strut along the river to view the riverside wharves and warehouses -- now luxurious apartments -- , and to sample the many narrow inns and pubs that bear a little of the ambience that gave Tower Hamlets and the riverside docks their colourful identities.

Savage Gardens & Crutched Friars

If I was to recount the tale of a certain Australian band who would take people to the moon and back if they’d be…… no fine. But that’s how myths get started! In fact, this one has little myth or legend and so it could do with one or two.

The lonesome outlines of the truth are that this little street was once the home to one Lord Savage, a title abandoned in the 1600’s but remembered through this ornate street that connects the equally intriguing Crutched Friars (a home of monks who carried staffs surmounted with crucifixes) to Trinity Square on the doorstep of Tower Hill — named for what once the tallest structure in Europe — the Tower of London. After afternoon tea at the local Four Seasons on the side of Savage Gardens, follow the path all the way to Crutched Friars to peek at the Friars immortalised in stone.

Become a member to join the conversation!

Become part of the world's leading travel & lifestyle community!