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Street Names in York Reveal Colorful History

February 22, 1987|SUSAN EDYVEAN | Edyvean is a Seattle, Wash., free-lance writer.

YORK, England — Certainly a Victorian lady who would blush when someone was indelicate enough to refer to a piano "leg" instead of "limb" would probably have fainted walking through Grope Lane or Cuckold's Corner, colorful streets from York's past.

Living in a street with such a name would likely have sent her into a permanent decline.

York has had many changes throughout the centuries. Some of the most intriguing street names live on only in history books, but the streets themselves remain, telling of a rich and fascinating past.

Walking along streets that date back almost 2,000 years, listen carefully and you may hear legions of Roman soldiers marching along Petergate and Stonegate, the Via Praetoria and Via Principia of York, a leading city in the Roman Empire.

The current names date back to 867 when York fell to another group of invaders and became Jorvik, the Viking capital ruled by Eric Bloodaxe, and the Scandinavian word gate, meaning street, became part of many of York's most prominent street names.

Picturesque Streets

High and Low Petergate took their names from the famous Gothic cathedral, York Minster, dedicated to St. Peter, while Stonegate probably refers to all the stones that came up this street during the building of the church.

Stonegate is one of the loveliest streets in York and is lined with picturesque shops: Ye Olde Starre Inne that claims to be the oldest ale house in the city and two of the most elegant tearooms, Taylors and the haunted Raffles.

Grape Lane sounds fairly straightforward and today is an ordinary street, if any street in York can be termed ordinary. But 300 years ago it was called Grope Lane and was the heart of York's red-light district. It isn't too difficult to guess the reason for the name change. Perhaps it could be a spelling mistake, but it can more likely be traced to Victorian delicacy and sensitivity.

Finkle Street, a small side street off St. Sampson's Square, would likely not warrant much attention today. It's a nondescript street in a city noted for some of the most beautifully preserved streets in England. But under its original name, Mucky Peg Lane, it suddenly evokes far more interest. Mucky Peg certainly sounds like one of the more lively characters in this city's rich past.

There is nothing much to see in Nunnery Lane today. A busy street with lots of traffic and just outside the city walls, it's a far cry from the late 18th Century when it was the disreputable haunt of thieves and beggars and was known as Beggergate.

Duncombe Place was widened and renamed more than 100 years ago. The street was originally Lop Lane, taken from the Anglo-Saxon word loppe, meaning flea. It's hard to believe that this elegant street was a narrow, flea-infested street in 1198.

Once a Graveyard

St. Helen's Square is a fashionable square in the center of modern York, but it didn't start out that way. It was originally a graveyard for St. Helen's Church. Then in 1725 Mansion House, an elegant Georgian structure, was built, and that no doubt had a great deal to do with changing the name and improving the view of the square. St. Helen's Square was created in 1745.

I spent almost two months in York before discovering where Whip-ma-Whop-ma-Gate, the city's shortest street is. I was beginning to feel rather foolish, and finally, despite all my maps and guidebooks, I asked a woman in a shop for directions.

I was embarrassed to learn that I was in the street without even realizing it, but the woman quickly went on to explain that the sign for the street had been stolen during Mischief Night. I assume she meant Halloween.

This famous street name derived perhaps from the whipping of petty criminals. In 1505 it was Whitnourwhatnourgate, and a pillory and whipping cart were kept nearby.

One of the best-preserved medieval streets in Europe, and the only one mentioned in the Domesday Book, gives no hint of its bloody beginnings. The Shambles comes from Fleshammels, street of butchers, and dates to 1350-1450 when its inhabitants were mostly butchers who lived with their families in their shops. The dwellings had yards at the back where the butchers slaughtered cattle.

The picturesque overhanging upper stories of these half-timbered buildings were built in this manner so garbage could be dumped more easily into the streets below and also served as a shady place to hang meat.

Martyr's Shrine

Among the beautifully preserved houses is a shrine open to the public at No. 35, the house of St. Margaret Clitherow, a butcher's wife who in 1586 was crushed to death by having a door placed over her chest and piled with stones until she died a martyr for hiding Jesuit priests in her house.

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