No one knows what the word “London” means. That might seem surprising, but given that the city is about two thousand years old, some of the paperwork is bound to have gone missing in that time.
When the city was founded by the Romans in 43 AD (there was evidence of tribes in the location before this time), it appears to have been given the name Londinium. The prefixes of Londin- and Lundin- were used occasionally around the Roman Empire, but their meaning remains a little confused still. However, some people suggest that it actually is based on a Saxon name, christened for a King Lud who once ruled the city. But was Lud even real? That’s hard to say, because he crops up earliest in books of Welsh myths and legends, and there seems to be some confusion as to the validity of his existence.
There are many suggestions, however, that the name is actually Celtic, not Roman. The pre-Celtic Old European language has a word (p)lowondia, which means “a river too wide to ford”. This could describe the Thames, as even now it’s much narrower than it was, and for a long time it was hard to get across. There’s another ancient language known as Ligurian, spoken by people in what are now southern France and northern Italy, and their word lond means “mud” or “marsh”. Again, this is possible – being on the banks of a large river, prehistoric London would almost certainly have been marsh country.
The Welsh phrase Llyn din means “lake fort”, so is that the origin? The Brythonic language has lhwn, which means “grove”; does London come from Lhwn Town? Then there’s the suggestion it’s a reference to the temple of the Roman goddess of the moon, Diana. A temple to her supposedly once stood where St Paul’s now stands, so is the origin Lunadun, “city of the moon”?
In pre-Roman times, defended earthworks built to protect the locals were called duns, thus suggesting another option for the latter half of the name, at least. And just to confuse matters even more, the Vietnamese words lœun and dœun both mean “low, inferior, muddy”, again tying in to other similar theories.
Even some of Britain’s Israelites have wandered into the debate, claiming that the first Londoners were descendents of the Tribe of Dan; lan-dan literally meaning “abode of Dan”. At this point, it’s pretty safe to say that we will never have a complete consensus on what the word means.
So if we can’t get to the bottom of what London means, I wonder if there are any simple explanations for some of the more, shall we say, esoteric place names in the city itself.
The Thames, for a start, is notable for being pronounced completely unlike it looks like it should be, although this is nothing unusual in the English language. The word, however, comes from the Celtic word for it, and means something like “dark”. In Latin its name was spelt Tamesis, and in the Magna Carta, it’s spelt Tamisiam. The th- at the beginning of the name was pretentiously added during the Renaissance because it sounded more Greek. The name was in use by the time the Romans turned up anyway, as a Roman local was called Tamesubugus, named after the river.
OK, so what about tube names? While many – Baker Street, Hyde Park Corner, Holloway Road, Monument – describe exactly where they come out at, some of the names seem a little stranger.
Mudchute is one I’ve always found funny – indeed my friend Claire, mentioned in previous posts, lived here for a while – as it seems to be an unfortunate name for quite a nice area of Docklands. Unromantically, Mudchute was originally a dumping ground for any unwanted products (usually mud) taken from the Millwall Docks to prevent it from silting up. Using a pneumatic chute, the mud was transferred from one side of the road to the other. The Millwall Docks closed in the 1970s, and since then the area has developed and part of it has been turned into a city farm.
Elephant & Castle is probably the oddest name on the tube network, but the mystery behind it isn’t actually that exciting. One imagines, perhaps, some sort of battle when elephants stormed a south London castle, but this never happened. The most common theory bashed about by those without a clue of the truth is that it’s a corruption of “La Infanta de Castilla”, a reference to a number of Spanish princesses. Unfortunately, the name predates the use of the word infanta, and the truth is that it’s simply the name of a nearby coaching inn.
Before it had been a pub, it had been a blacksmiths who used ivory and had his crest emblazoned with an elephant. Shakespeare even mentions the Elephant Lodgings in Twelfth Night. Similarly, Angel tube station gets its name from a local pub too, and there’s still an Angel there, although it’s now owned by Wetherspoon.
Seven Sisters is named for seven elms that surround a walnut tree. The originals have been moved and replanted numerous times, and now the seven trees are hornbeams. On the theme of trees, Burnt Oak takes its name from the time it referred merely to a field that contained, yes, a burnt oak tree. Sometimes these things are taken far too literally.
Cockfosters, that name that makes everyone going northbound on the Piccadilly line chuckle inwardly even a little, actually refers to the home of the chief forester, the “cock” being the head of something in old English. Finally you have two odder names on the DLR, Cyprus and East India. No, these are not signs that the tube network is now stretching over Europe to India, but both refer to the times of colonisation and empire. Cyprus is the name of a local estate, but it does indeed come from our historical links to the country, and East India is at the docks where the ships arrived from the Indian subcontinent.
Much of London is absurdly strange, and so the names are of course going to be a little odd. It seems fitting that a city with such a conflicting and conflicted history has a name that escapes explanation, but it’s refreshing to know that even the slightly odder, giggle-worthy names of the city have completely regular explanations, giving further insight into the many faces the city has worn and continues to wear.
The British like to drink. It’s been part of our culture for so long that other countries struggle to keep up. We aren’t the heaviest drinkers in the world, certainly. It’s been estimated that we drink ten litres per person each year; the outright winners are Estonia who drink 12.3. But nonetheless, with it being such an important part of our heritage, it comes as no surprise that London is full of places to get tanked up.
How many? Well, that’s something for another day, but estimates range between four and seven thousand, depending on where you draw the borders and what counts as a pub or bar. You could drink in a different one every day for ten or more years. Today I’m just talking about one of them – BYOC.
There are actually three branches of BYOC in the country, two of them in London, but the following takes place in the Camden branch. I went there in May for a friend’s birthday. We’d been to a couple of other pubs in Camden first (which later turned out to be a mistake) and then turned up for our appointment at BYOC. Trouble is, it’s not exactly the easiest bar to find. When we did eventually find it, it was just a black door sandwiched between two nondescript shops, its name printed in small black letters on a glass panel above.
Why all the secrecy? Because BYOC is not your average bar. For one thing, it doesn’t have a liquor licence. It also doesn’t have any menus. BYOC stands for Bring Your Own Cocktail, which means you supply the alcohol that you want to drink. Then, with whatever you’ve selected, the mixologists add their non-alcoholic ingredients of fruit, syrups, juice and garnishes to produce cocktails specifically tailored for you.
There were nine of us there and we all chipped in to buy a good selection of drink, taking in a mix of gin, rum, vodka, tequila and prosecco. The mixologist assigned to our table said we’d probably get four or five drinks each in the two hours we were allotted (you have to book ahead of time, and that’s just how long you get). As it turned out, we made it through at least seven each.
The mixologists clearly know what they’re doing and have a cornucopia of non-alcoholic ingredients to make up whatever they want. You can specify what you want them to make, as we did a little later, but it’s just as easy to let them get on with it. They know what works and what doesn’t, and they’ll happily whip up some of the tastiest things you’ll ever drink.
Our first drink was a cool vodka and lychee cocktail with a raspberry floating in it, that worked almost as a palate cleanser, syrupy and sweet. For the second drink, the mixologist poured the whole bottle of rum into a glass bowl and created a rum punch, complete with edible flowers floating in it. (As a side note, if you’ve never eaten them, flowers taste exactly like you’d expect them to.)
While we drank the rum from cute glass teacups, the third drink was whipped up in the form of a gin and prosecco cocktail. These were followed by the strongest passionfruit margaritas in the world that had too much tequila for most of our tastes, but most of the group still managed to get them down, aided along by the previous drinks.
After that, we had very large shots of prosecco, which is an interesting sensation, and then a lurid green concoction of gin and cucumber. The final drink before we stumbled out into the evening was another gin, prosecco and raspberry cocktail. We’d drunk everything we brought in, apart from some dregs in the tequila bottle that no one was much keen on claiming ownership of. All in all, it was a fantastic night, although parts of it are a bit hazy.
The interior of the bar is gorgeous, compared to the unexceptional exterior, decorated entirely like a 1920s speakeasy. The music complements it wonderfully, and everything feels like you probably shouldn’t be there, again, like prohibition-era America and this is all top secret. We were sat at a blackjack table, complete with piles of gambling chips, but it’s all for show. I daresay if you bought some cards you could have a game or two, but the drink is really the priority here.
It’s not a place I think you could go to regularly, if only because the cost for two hours in there is £25 per person, but it’s good as an experience, and you definitely get your money’s worth. Obviously you have to also account for the cost of the alcohol you’re bringing in, but I would advise anyone going to not feel they have to splash out on the expensive brands. People on the table next to us had Beefeater gin and Grey Goose vodka, but we’d gone down a cheaper route and it definitely didn’t matter. Once everything’s mixed up anyway you can’t tell. I would also advise that you take a wide selection of drinks or you’re going to be limiting yourselves and the bartender. We had seven bottles between nine of us, and that worked out great.
The staff were very pleasant – we had a couple of mixologists over the course of the night – and BYOC prides itself on only hiring very experienced bartenders, all of whom know not only how to mix any cocktail you can name (as well as all having the balls to experiment and try new things all the time), but are knowledgeable on the history of cocktails, the scientific principles behind mixing and how to be a good host.
Get a group together and book yourselves a table at BYOC. It’s a great laugh and a genuinely good night out with a twist. My final piece of advice? There’s no need to go to anywhere else for a pre-drink. You just won’t need it.