You don’t have to be in the back seat of the car playing ‘I Spy’ to find yourself screaming out the names of certain Oxford road signs. Of all the streets in our fair city none quite matches Crotch Crescent. Squitchey Lane comes close in terms of mystery, and is arguably more onomatopoeic, but Crotch Crescent feels not so much a destination as a way of being …
Who lives here and embosses it on their letterhead we wonder? What was the decision-making process that resulted in such a glorious contribution to our local gazetteer?
By the time we’ve made the disappointing discovery that it is simply named after an eminent Oxford music professor, William Crotch (1775-1847) we are already into the whole universe of why things are called what they are, and how they got to be named as they did. Street names tell us a lot.
The Oxford street names most quoted to non-Oxonians are North Parade and South Parade. ‘Why is North Parade south of South Parade?’ goes the Zen-like question. The answer given (it may or may not be right) is that South Parade marks the southernmost advance of the Parliamentary troops at the time of the siege of Oxford in 1644 and North Parade the northernmost alignment of the opposing Royalist forces. Never the twain …
There are plenty of other historic moments crystallised in the list below, a few lyrical ones, and one or two that shall remain forever shrouded in mystery.
Aristotle Lane evokes an image of gown-clad dons, deep in thought, earnestly discussing the finer points of ancient Greek philosophy as they walked (perhaps from the narrow confines of Logic Lane) out beyond the city walls and across Aristotle Bridge on their peripatetic way to Port Meadow and beyond.
Deadman’s Walk reminds us that there was once a significant and influential Jewish community in medieval Oxford, for this was their funeral procession route, around the outside of the old city walls behind Merton College, to the Jewish cemetery, located under what is now the Botanic Garden.
Friars Entry, a narrow pedestrian alleyway from Magdalen Street to Gloucester Green, speaks of the religious foundations of Oxford, with its multiple houses of preaching monks – Austin Friars, Benedictines, Carmelites, Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans. Until Henry VIII ordered their dissolution, Oxford would have been full of tonsured young man scuttling hither and thither in monastic habits of varying hues.
Navigation Way hails the coming of the canal to Oxford at the end of the eighteenth century, bringing with it heavy industry, and transforming the town. It was navigators – or ‘navvies’ as they were known – who dug out and channelled the water system which linked Oxford with the Midlands and London.
Quarry Hollow tells of the material from which much of early Oxford was clad: a soft, yellow corallian limestone known as Headington Freestone. At one time each of the colleges had their own quarry, to supply the facings for their buildings, and it was here, amongst the masons and builders, that a culture of Morris dancing was spawned.
All good street lexicons should contain a word like Squitchey (or its equivalent in different dialects: ginnel, gulley, snicket, snickelway, twitchel). It refers to a narrow path, or, in this instance, the couch grass or ‘squitch’ of the field across which the lane passed. Not so narrow these days, it is a cut-through for cars seeking to shuttle between the major roads to Banbury and Woodstock.
There are narrow lanes which have long since disappeared – the most evocative of which are Halegod, Kepeharm, and Shitbarn – all incorporated by the seventeenth century into the ever-expanding university .
There are streets whose names have been changed as the times became gentler. Cruel Lane was rechristened Crowell Road in 1939. Gallows-Baulk Road became St Margaret’s Road when the church of that name was built in the 1880s (several executed skeletons were disinterred in the process). War Street was changed to Hurst Street a little later, though the change of name did not affect the tragic outbreak of global hostilities which followed.
And there are streets whose names have changed twice, three times, and more. The most notorious of these is Magpie Lane, opposite St Mary the Virgin. Originally known as Gropecunt Lane, it was the alleyway in which prostitutes gathered to ply their wares (very successfully to judge by the many stern university reports on undergraduate behaviour). Over time it became abbreviated to Grope, then Grape (as also with Grape Lane in York) and for a brief while Grove, before reverting to the Magpie designation it had assumed in the seventeenth century.
Beef and Oxpens, Kiln and Quarry, Marsh and Tidmarsh, Bear and Catte, Brewer and Shoe, Broad and High, Old and New, a range of saints from Aldate to Thomas, a Queen, a King … All Oxford life is here.
But who once lived at Titup Hall? And what on earth are Toot Hill Butts?!
Where do YOU live – and what’s the story?