Crescent Row feels like a very old street. It is, but not in the way you might think. I first stumbled upon it looking for a short-cut while heading north of the city on Goswell Road and needing to get to Old Street. The traffic lights are tedious on foot or bike, so I took a tempting-looking left turn down Baltic Street West and then the first left. I appeared to have entered a time-warp.
Unusually for this area, which is laid out in an orderly grid fashion, I found Crescent Row to be very narrow – only just wide enough for a car – and curved north-east to Domingo Street, where I was able to turn left and join Old Street having skipped the lights. So why is Crescent Row here, and what is its story?
The road is, in fact, of great antiquity. as a kind of medieval bypass road. It looks like it was the third side of a triangle which surrounded a church at this, what would have been a busy junction to the north-eastern edge of the City.
Here you can see it clearly as a curving short-cut for those doing in the 1520s what I did the other day. I think the church may be St Thomas Charterhouse but can’t be sure – any clues?
And here in Georgian times, with the curve now being called Rotten Row, with the area becoming more built up as London expands.
There are plenty of Rotten Rows in Britain, sharing the name of the famous horse-track in Hyde Park. There are several different suggestions for why a road should be called rotten – it may be due to a rat infestation, a corruption of ratten (to muster) or a description of a roundabout way, which may apply here.
Here’s Crescent Row today, a bit truncated but still in existence. The name first starts appearing in the nineteenth century, around the same time Old Street appears to stretch east of Golden Lane to the junction with Goswell Road. On some maps this straight section north of the curve is also called Rotten Row.
So some clues come up about this street, which once would have carried people, horses, carts and all kinds of produce in and out of the City. But some things are not known: what’s the church? Where did it go? Why did this street survive centuries of development when others didn’t?
London is full of interest, even small, innocuous streets, and endlessly rewards the wanderer.