Street Names in York
Posted on 10th January 2017
You only have to have a casual stroll around York to notice that there are some particularly unusual street names. York is sometimes jokingly referred to as the place where “the streets are called gates, the gates are called bars, and the bars are called pubs”.
On tour, I’m often asked what some of York’s street names mean, so here is a list of my favourites, the most interesting and the most-asked-about street names in York, and what they actually mean.
One of the best-preserved medieval streets in the world is a gently twisting lane of half-timbered houses which lean across the narrow road towards each other. The Shambles is listed in the Doomsday Book (1086 AD) and was a street of butchers’ shops, where meat would be displayed outside the shopfronts on hooks and tables or shelves. Many of the businesses had their own slaughterhouses behind the shop, making the Shambles the best place in York for fresh meat. The narrow, sloping street had a raised pavement with a channel running down the middle, allowing the butchers to wash away the blood, waste and offal that would gather in front of the shop.
The street takes its name from the displays outside each butcher’s shop. Fleshammels were ‘meat-shelves’ and Shambles comes from the shelves – shammels. So it doesn’t refer to the higgledy piggledy nature of the houses, but instead Shambles simply means ‘Shelves’.
Why do the houses lean?
The picturesque half-timbered houses are built with the upper floors hanging over the street level shopfront below. This gives the impression that the houses are gravitating towards each other; according to folklore the occupiers would reach across the street to shake hands with their neighbours opposite as they celebrated Christmas and other special occasions. The reason for the design is so that the meat being displayed outside the shop on the ‘fleshammels’ and hooks would be protected from direct sunlight and from rainfall, both of which would do harm to the fresh meat. The shaded environment helped the meat stay fresher for longer.
What to visit?
The street itself is the attraction when it comes to the Shambles, but you’ll enjoy popping into one or two of the old shops – a few restaurants, clothes shops, a sandwich shop and a sausage seller. You can also have a browse around the Shambles Market, located through a ginnel off the street.
You’d be forgiven for not noticing that you were on Spurriergate, as it is the end part of York’s busiest shopping street, Coney Street (it was actually once part of Coney Street, called Little Coney Street).
The suffix ‘gate’ on many of York’s streets is from the Norse word ‘gata’ (pronounced ‘garter’), which simply means ‘street’. So whenever you are trying to find the meaning of a street name with ‘gate’ at the end, you can remove ‘gate’ and find the meaning in the first part of the street name.
In the case of Spurriergate, you are therefore just looking to find out what a spurrier is – and a spurrier is someone who makes spurs, a vital trade throughout the centuries. Spurriergate is Spur-Makers’ Street.
What to visit?
Spurriergate mainly consists of major shops (including H&M, Zara and the O2 Shop), but you can visit St Michael’s Church to visit the Spurriergate Centre – drop in for a coffee, cake and chance to get away from the weather and crowds.
Another ‘gate’, Goodramgate is two-parts Viking and one-part modern. It runs from stunning Monk Bar towards the centre of York. Unlike most of the main important thoroughfares in York, Goodramgate is a winding road which meanders right, left and right again as it wends its way to the heart of the city.
I’ve described Goodramgate as “two-parts Viking” because it is a ‘gate’ and because the original name for the street is named after a Viking leader. The medieval name of the road was ‘Gotheramgate’, which itself was derived from another name – Gurthrumgate. Gurthrum was a 9th century Viking ruler of York who owned and inhabited what is now called Goodramgate. Goodramgate is Gurthrum’s Street.
What to see?
Monk Bar is on one of the best-preserved parts of the wall and gives you access to the most picturesque section of the Medieval wall, with great views of the Minster and Minster Gardens. There are some delightful timber-framed buildings on the street and some great places to eat, including Ambiente and La Piazza.
The shortest street in York has the longest name of all. Located at the bottom of Colliergate and the top of Fossgate, Whipmawhopmagate is only a few yards in length but features on every tourist tour of the city.
The explanation for the name of the street has been debated furiously over time, with a number of explanations accepted and then dismissed by historians and etymologists. It was long thought that the name was a reference to the bizarre practice of whipping whappets – small yelping dogs – which was thought to have taken place here. Then it was thought that dogs were whipped to posts here (tied up) so that their masters could shop at the butchers’ shops on Shambles without having to worry about their dogs stealing meat.
These theories were replaced with the assumption, based on the findings of language experts, that the translation of ‘whip-ma-whop-ma-gate’ was an exclamation of “what a surprise”. Further study of the language used in the middle ages backed up this theory but changed it slightly to mean ‘neither one thing nor the other’. The current explanation is that the incredibly short road could be a street or a square, so Whipmawhopmagate means ‘Neither one thing nor the other’.
What to see?
There isn’t much to see or do on Whipmawhopmagate – take a photo of the sign and see just how small the street really is.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this street was once lined with Cherry Blossom or other blooming flora. However, the street which leads out of the city from Micklegate Bar takes its name from another important tradesman.
Plough Repairs? Time has a way of changing things, and over time the English language – or the language used by the English – has changed and evolved. Blossom Street was originally Ploughswaingate and then became Ploxwangate, before eventually becoming Blossomgate and now Blossom Street. A ploughswain was a man who repairs ploughs. Blossom Street was the street of the plough repairmen.
What to see?
After walking through magnificent Micklegate Bar, you should head straight to the Bar Convent – England’s oldest living convent. Founded in 1686, the convent is still home to members of the Congregation of Jesus, but also has a superb Exhibition, a terrific café and welcoming guesthouse accommodation.
The straight-lined street of Georgian houses runs from King’s Square to the top of Fossgate, or at least as far a Whip-ma-Whop-ma-gate.
Colliergate is the street of colliers… so it is connected to the coal mining industry. It was the street in York where coal and charcoal were traded. A collier is a coal miner or a ship carrying coal – so Colliergate is Coal Miners Street.
What to see?
Home to a variety of shops, Colliergate runs down to Whipmawhopmagate (see later) which is on every tourist itinerary. Pay a visit to The Last Drop Inn, a York Brewery pub with a good range of York Brewery beers, brewed in the centre of York on Peasholme Green.
The main shopping street in York runs alongside (but hidden from) the River Ouse. It is busy both day and night as a shopping street and thoroughfare between York’s many bars and restaurants.
Early records show that Coney Street was known as Cuningstreta, so we can deduce that the name is Viking in origin. ‘Konungr’ (which became Cuning and then Coney) was the Viking word for ‘King’, while ‘streta’ (perhaps rather obviously) means street, coming from the Viking word ‘straet’. Coney Street is therefore the Viking for ‘King’s Street’.
What to see?
Head to Coney Street for some retail therapy and pause for coffee and cake – and perhaps a movie – at City Screen.
The location of the Coppergate Centre (a square of shops and cafés just off Coppergate), this street is perhaps recently most famous for the controversial traffic management scheme which saw thousands of fines issued and then refunded, at significant cost to York Council, following a legal challenge from the Traffic Ombudsman.
Another relic of York’s Viking history, Coppergate owes its origin to the Viking word ‘Kopparigat’ referring to another important trade in York; joinery. Coppergate is Joiners’ Street.
What to see?
Excavations on and around Coppergate have revealed many important Viking finds – the world-famous Jorvik Viking Centre is located in the Coppergate Centre and shows off the excavations under Coppergate and the incredible Viking archaeological discoveries they found.
This busy street is often mispronounced by visitors to York. To get it right, think of Jill from Jack and Jill, rather than guilt or fish gills. Gillygate is part of York’s busy inner ring road and usually has a constant stream of traffic from 8am until 7pm.
The street takes its name from the Church of St Giles (which no longer exists) – so Gillygate is St Giles Street.
What to see?
Avoid spending too much time on this exhaust-polluted street, but pop into the Salvation Army building, spend some time in some of York’s best independent shops and try some dairy delights at ‘Love Cheese’.