London streets are paved with gold. Everyone knows that. It’s what drew Sir Richard Whittington (c. 1350-1423) to the city to become its Lord Mayor on no less than four occasions. There’s even a folk tale about it. Sadly, I’ve never seen the streets paved with actual gold but I do know where they’re paved with something other than tarmac or stone…
Neither Gold nor Glistering
“All that glisters is not gold / Often have you heard that told” comes the warning from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice but I can’t pretend the road surface I have in mind in any way glisters (or glistens). Nor would it have attracted Dick Whittington. It’s much later for one thing, being something tried out in Victorian times. It’s also outside the dragon-guarded boundaries of the City, although not by much.
Where it Is
This particular patch of road can be found in the London Borough of Islington, a short walk from Old Street tube station.
Heading south from Old Street towards Moorgate is City Road. Running in parallel to the west of City Road and separated from it by, amongst other things, Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, is Bunhill Row. And leading off Bunhill Row, more or less opposite the gates to Bunhill Fields, is Chequer Street, which looks like this:
What It’s Paved With
One of the reasons that Chequer Street does not glister is that it isn’t made of gold. It’s mostly paved with granite setts. But only mostly. Note the darker patch a little way in. This patch is made of something even less shiny than granite.
So what? It’s just another type of stone, right? Wrong!
Chequer Street is, I believe, London’s last remaining section of street to be paved with wooden setts. And if you’re wondering why the answer to “who should we get to surface our streets?” was “carpenters,” the reason is deafening traffic noise.
Not as Mad as it Sounds
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, London was choked with traffic and mostly paved in stone. The thing is, of course, that most of that traffic was horse-drawn carts and carriages and they had wooden wheels with tyres of hard-wearing steel. Steel tyres on granite make one hell of a noise, as do iron horseshoes. And neither grip well in the wet.
A wooden road surface is quieter by far and thus was a great success so far as noise-calming went. Unfortunately, there were other significant drawbacks.
The Trouble with Timber
For one thing, it wasn’t hard-wearing. Those metal tyres carved the setts up a treat, making them a maintenance nightmare. Worse, wooden setts turned out to be unfortunately absorbent, becoming unpleasantly aromatic as they marinated in horse urine.
In the posher neighbourhoods — which were usually those most concerned about noise — they mitigated against both smell and damage by using jarrah, a type of eucalyptus hardwood. Other streets, like the Strand in Westminster, were paved using softwood blocks known as “deal”, which had the aforementioned faults turned up to eleven.
The final issue with wooden setts was that they were flammable, especially if creosoted in an effort to waterproof them.
Doomed to Disappear (Almost)
It was a brave experiment but one that just didn’t pan out, although some wood-paved streets survived until the 1950s. And one small, stubborn patch of one tiny side-street remains to this day.
I don’t know why it survived but I think it’s nice that it did.