This morning, while I was out walking the dogs I found a huge crop of snowdrops on the river bank, which cheered me up immensely. I know they’re called snowdrops because they flower in the winter and can cope with low temperatures but they always make me think of spring and I fool myself momentarily that the weather will be getting warmer now. My early years in the tropics has left me still sullen about winter and seasons in general (give me warmth all year round), so to cheer myself up I have rushed to my text to see what London can offer me. It didn’t disappoint, providing me with both Snow Hill and Spring Street.
Snow Hill, however, has nothing to do with snow and most London historians, while calling it a name of unknown origin, have also put forward many theories.
The street which originally followed a rather circuitous route, was known as ‘Snore Hylle’ as early as the reign of Henry III, and therein lies more than one tale.
Snore, apparently, could have come from a Scandinavian trader called Snorro who lived there. It could also have come from the Celtin word ‘snuadh’, a brook, because the hill once led to the Fleet River. Or it could be that, because of the hill’s winding nature, the name derives from an old word meaning ‘twist’.
There is another theory that is much more fun, however unlikely. The Saracens Head inn at Snow Hill (demolished in 1868) was a coaching inn dating back to the time of Richard the Lionheart (who stopped there when he came back from the Crusades and gave the landlord permission so to name it). Passengers arriving at the tavern after travelling a long way would generally, by then, be sound asleep and snoring, giving rise to the hill’s earlier name.
The steepness of the hill made it ideal for one particular, non-commendable, 18th-century pastime. Groups of young men (called Mohocks, from the Mowhawk Indians) would seize elderly women, put them in tubs or barrels, and roll them to the bottom of the hill; they would also upend coaches onto rubbish heaps.
At one point, in 1715, it was not a good place to pass if you were not a Jacobite supporter: a group of Jacobites congregated at the bottom of the hill, toasting the memory of James. If any passers-by were foolish enough to decline to join in the toast, they were stripped.
Snow Hill historically was the site of one of the City of London conduits and on days of great celebration it was made to run with red and white wine. Sadly, this tradition is no longer upheld.
Snow Hill is where John Bunyan died in 1688, at the sign of the Star, a shop run by his grocer friend Mr Strudwich.
From snow to spring: Spring Street near Paddington Station takes its name from water. (I used to work nearby and spent far too much time round in the corner in the pub we immaturely referred to as the Sawyer’s Armpits.) The Bayswater area, with springs, reservoirs, and conduits, once supplied much of the City of London with water.