When it’s an alley, or an avenue, or a close, or a lane, or a passage… streets today may be named in a more arbitrary manner, but there was a time when there was a logic to whether a street in London was a street or an alley, or whatever.
That logic hinged around width: for instance, a lane had only to be wide enough for two men to roll a barrel along it, giving the name to hence Fyefoot (Five Foot) Lane. A street, however, in Roman times, was a paved way – or ‘via strata’, which meant that it led somewhere specific.
That changed over the years and Henry I decreed that streets not only had to be paved but also should be wide enough for sixteen knights to ride abreast. (Whether or not Knightrider Street, or even Giltspur Street, once had room for that many knights is a question that can’t be answered here.) Streets eventually no longer had to lead anywhere other than to the buildings along them.
An avenue also led somewhere: it was once a tree-lined approach to a grand house or landmark. There is an Electric Avenue in Brixton but, just to be awkward, it didn’t actually fit the definition of an avenue: it was opened as a 19th-century late-night shopping street, complete with electric lighting that was designed to be adequate for evening shoppers: “lined with shops, with a lavish display of electric light everywhere”.
Roads were routes, originally for horses, from a word meaning ‘to ride’ and generally led from one place to another. Combining routes and horses is Horseferry Road in the City of Westminster. It takes its name from a horse ferry, supposedly older than London Bridge, and the only one of its kind allowed in London. Alleys and passages were also routes to and from somewhere, and other descriptives are from the shape, as in crescent, circle, circus, and square.
The mews, now generally indicative of an upmarket London address, was originally where birds used in falconry were kept; the word ‘mews’ comes from the birds’ loss of feathers – ‘mewing’ or ‘moulting’. Later, when falconry lost popularity, the mews were converted to stables for the royal horses. Eventually, parking being a long-standing problem in London, rows of coach houses were built behind the grand residences and called mews after the royal stables.
There is an Early Mews in Camden (though, unfortunately, there is no Late Mews to balance it out). In fact, tardiness (or not) has nothing to do with this name: it comes from the Early family. Joseph and George, plumbers, and John, a builder, built the mews as well as much of the early 19th-century development that was carried on around Camden High Street.
Most others are fairly self-evident, such as corner, place, row, terrace, and so on, and here is an exhausting, if not exhaustive, list of the different types of thoroughfare in London: alley, arcade, avenue, buildings, circle, circus, close, court, crescent, dock, drive, fields, gardens, green, grove, hill, lane, mews, park, passage, place, rents, rise, row, square, street, terrace, vale, walk, way, wharf, yard. Some, not listed here, are weird and wonderful sounding, and for another time.