Day 829: Gropecunt Lane – It’s Exactly What It Sounds Like

originally published April 8, 2014

Back in the Middle Ages, when skinning your knee or being coughed on by your neighbor could kill you, there was neither the time nor the inclination for subtlety. This was true particularly when it came to town topography. Streets were often named for the economic activity that took place upon it: you’d get your silver smithed on Smith Street, pick up your spring meat-scarf on Meat-Scarf Boulevard and if a few pints had encouraged your nether-bits to a bit of a tingle, you might take a stroll down Gropecunt Lane.

I know – it’s rude, it’s crude, it’s highly inappropriate for a website that has cultivated a comfortable seat in the clubhouse of down-home family fare. But I didn’t make this up. This was once a common name in England before common-sense and decorum snapped the lid on such truth in advertising.

Bestowing this name upon some stretch of road was not an attempt at some clever wordplay, nor was it an antiquated convolution due to the discreet evolution of language; rather than opt for a more sophisticated allusion to the prostitution that would be readily available on Gropecunt Lane, these olde-timey townes chose to be forthright and liberal. You want an escort for the evening? Perhaps someone with whom you can share a bubble bath and discuss how great it will be when someone invents the Renaissance? Head somewhere else. If you’re just looking to get all medieval with some sticky sweat-time, cruise on down to Gropecunt Lane.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there was an English street calling itself Gropecuntlane as far back as 1230. The term ‘grope’ dates back to the same era (though back then it was grāp), and ‘cunt’ must have been hovering around the local lexicon as well, though its first recorded evidence in English is in the aforementioned street name. It likely evolved from the old Norse term ‘kunta’.

Prostitution was as well-established as any other industry in twelfth-century London. The authorities sought to regulate the sex trade rather than snuff it out. In 1393 it was designated that prostitutes were only allowed to work in Cocks Lane – again, we’re foregoing any notions of subtlety here. I like that. The folks in charge back then knew that prostitution was never going to drift into obsolescence. Instead they embraced it, cordoned off a snippet of real estate to allow it to happen, and put it right up there on the street signs so there’d be no mistake.

Norwich’s Gropekuntelane, which now goes by Opie Street, was immortalized in Latin text as turpis vicus, or ‘the shameful street’. In Oxford, where it’s important to look respectable, Gropecunt Lane evolved into Grope and then Grape Lane by the 13th century. It’s now known as Magpie Lane, and from the photos I’ve seen it looks simultaneously charming, quaint, and outright creepy (see the photo at the top of this page).

There were streets with similar names in Newcastle, in Worcester, and even in smaller towns like Banbury, Glastonbury and Wells. These hotbeds of horniness were almost always located near the middle of town, usually close to the town’s marketplace. This suggests an optimum proximity to all residents, but also to visiting salesmen. Tourism was not a huge industry back in the Middle Ages, but if your town has a Gropecunt Lane, your local economy was bound to snag some coins from a few passers-by.

Over the years, London had several streets with the name Gropecunt Lane. One in particular could be found between Bordhawelane (meaning ‘bordello’) and Puppekirty (meaning ‘pole skirt’), near modern-day Cheapside, the financial district of London. Some odd street names have survived into the Google Maps era: Fetter Lane used to be Fewterer Lane, referring to an idle and disorderly person. Addle Street was based off an antiquated definition of ‘addle’, meaning ‘urine’ or ‘liquid filth’. The air probably didn’t smell great on Addle Street.

Some nearby cesspits likely inspired the moniker of Shitteborwelane, later known as Shite-burn Lane (it’s now part of Cannon Street, which runs right up to St. Paul’s Cathedral). And despite Petticoat Lane’s lack of a direct connection to prostitution, locals insisted it get changed, as it did refer directly to a type of underwear. Now it’s called Middlesex Street – no possible misunderstandings there.

Gropecunt Lane was last recorded as an actual street in England in 1561. After that, prostitutes had to sully streets named after other things or people. Alternately, they could just head over to Tickle Cock Bridge.

Over in Castleford (not far from Leeds), a pedestrian underpass beneath the York and North Midland Railway was given the curious name of Tickle Cock Bridge long ago. This was not the bizarre happenstance of a local fishmonger named Llewellyn Ticklecock or something – no, this passage earned its name, possibly as something called a ‘monkey run’, which was allegedly a place people could strut around and find a boyfriend or girlfriend. It all sounds a little suspect to me.

As part of the revitalization of the area about 6 or 7 years ago, developers yanked out the Victorian-era tunnel and replaced it with a wider and taller pedestrian underpass with better lighting and a nice little green space at one end to capture the evening sun. Oh, and they gave it a new name: Tittle Cott Bridge. Residents were furious – how dare the authorities block their Tickle Cock? A local organization rallied together and took to the streets in a campaign of outrage.

No, it wasn’t a gaggle of libidinous kids who were fighting for their Tickle Cock. It was the old people, and they were pissed off.

The Castleford Area Voice For The Elderly claimed tremendous offense at seeing Tickle Cock become Tittle Cott. “I feel we should never alter names and Tickle Cock has a very clear message behind it,” grumbled one resident, as he kept a watchful eye on those damn kids kicking a football dangerously close to his yard. After a large public forum in which an overwhelming majority of locals voted to change the name back, the Wakefield District Council relented, replacing the filthy “Tittle Cott” bridge plaque with one that reflected the bridge’s one true name.

The bridge is no longer used as a courting location. In fact, as the lone pedestrian gateway between Castelford’s primary residential area and its lone shopping centre, an estimated 50,000 pedestrians take a stroll through Tickle Cock every week. If they’re comfortable with the name, let ‘em have it.

Besides, it’s a cute name. A happy name, with a refreshingly British smack of goofiness. Gropecunt Lane is vulgar no matter how happily you try to pronounce it; I can understand why no one would want their daycare or cosmetology school to have that address.

Or maybe that just makes me a prude.

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