• London On The Ground

Wood, not gold, paved the streets of London

Timber blocks once paved much of London. Some of it can still be seen.

Wood paving blocks off Pentonville Road at the corner with Penton Street
Wood paving blocks off Pentonville Road

Introduced from the early 19th century, wood paving has a number of advantages over stone cobbles or setts.


Wood is less wearing on the horses that used to trot across them and provides a surer grip for their hooves. It was also cheaper to install and to maintain than stone.


Moreover, and more importantly for the local population, wood is a quieter surface. The clatter of iron-shod hooves and iron-clad cartwheels on stone could be headache-inducing. Wood, particularly when covered with asphalt or tar, causes much less noise pollution.

 

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There are also disadvantages to wood as a road surface. Even when protected with asphalt or tar, it is not as hard-wearing as stone.


And it absorbs liquid.


Rainwater can cause it to expand and sometimes become dislodged. But water isn't the only liquid it absorbs.


Horses produce odorous waste, both in liquid form and as a (somewhat moist) solid. Wooden paving blocks absorb horse waste and then exude its smells.


The best, hardest wood for paving street surfaces is jarrah, a type of eucalyptus native to southwest Australia that is also used for railway sleepers and flooring, but pine and other trees were also used.


In general, the more expensive woods were used in wealthier areas. Poorer districts had to make do with cheaper, softer timbers, which are typically more absorbent and so became smellier.

Bartholomew's Road Surface Map of London, published in 1928, shows that wood was the leading material for paving the streets of central London between the two world wars. Comparison of the 1928 map with maps of 1906 and 1909 demonstrates an increase in the number of roads paved with wood over the early decades of the 20th century.


Excellent, enlargeable, reproductions of Bartholomew's Road Surface Maps of 1906 and 1928 can be viewed on line. Click the links below:

Bartholomew's Road Surface Map of London 1906

Bartholomew's Road Surface Map of London 1928


Timber blocks were still being milled to surface London's streets until the 1950s, but the use of wood declined after World War II as the motor car and their rubber tyres replaced horses and their iron shoes.


Because tar was used either to cover wooden paving blocks or to act as grouting to fill the gaps between them, they burned very readily and very smokily. Much of the wood removed from road surfaces in the years after the war was burnt to heat people's homes, possibly contributing to the terrible London smogs of the 1950s.


When still a boy, one of entrepreneur Alan Sugar's first successful ventures was selling bundles of tarred wood recovered from the roads of Clapton to a local businessman for use as fire-lighting sticks.


For those who enjoy tracking some of the quirks of London's streets and infrastructure, there are a number of places where wooden paving can still be seen. Below are photos from a selection of North London locations that have wooden street surfaces.


If you know of others, please add a comment to this post, or via London On The Ground's social media.


Chequer Street, EC1

A small area of wood paving blocks has been retained near the junction of Chequer Street with Bunhill Row, opposite the dissenters' burial ground at Bunhill Fields. The wood blocks sit between rows of stone cobbles.

​Incidentally, the wooden road surface on Chequer Street is overlooked by a 1960s modernist housing block on Bunhill Row called Braithwaite House. In 1967 a flat on the ninth floor became the family home of notorious gangsters, the Kray twins, who were arrested there in 1968.





Pentonville Road, N1

On the north side of Pentonville Road, at the corner of Penton Street and opposite the Lexington pub, is an entire forecourt paved in wood. The asphalt surface has worn off enough to reveal significant areas of rectangular blocks.

Courthope Road, NW3

On the east side of Courthope Road, near to the junction with Mansfield Road, is a Victorian house with a passageway through it into a private courtyard. Behind an iron gate and under the covered area, there is an area of wooden blocks. The grain looks finer than in the Chequer Street and Pentonville Road blocks, perhaps indicating harder-wearing, denser wood.

 

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, including three brand-new walks in Upper Street, Clerkenwell and the City, please click here.





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