site unseen; The Old May Fair, London

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The Independent Online
The origin of place-names is a subject of enduring fascination. Most people, at some point, wonder why their street, town or city bears the name it does. Why Leeds, why Oxford Street, why Cardiff, why Slough, why Acacia Avenue?

The answer invariably brings in a mixture of social history, ranging from language to land ownership, from local custom to oral tradition.

Often the explanation is obvious - if only one thought about it. Take Whitechapel in London's East End. A medieval chapel once stood in the fields here. Covered in whitewash as a form of preservative, it was always referred to as "The White Chapel".

One important activity which generated many place-names were the fairs and markets where people traded before the arrival of shops, department stores and shopping malls. Most towns boast "Butchers Rows" and "Piggeshills". Just stroll along Cheapside in the City of London and spot the "Wood", "Honey", "Bread" and "Milk" streets.

There was, and is, a Love Lane nearby - but modesty forbids me to tell you what commodity was bought and sold in this neighbourhood. Ironically, the City of London police headquarters are now to be found here.

If you ask most people which is the poshest part of London, they will unhesitatingly reply "Mayfair". But this wasn't always the case. Because, once upon a time, a thoroughly disreputable and orgiastic 15-day fair was held in this neighbourhood every May (indeed, May/Fair).

Observer Ned Ward - an even smuttier version of Samuel Pepys - visited in the early 18th century and berated the rascals and strumpets as being "a scandal to the Creation, mere antidotes against lechery, and enemies to cleanliness".

The Fair was closed down in the 1730s when the authorities allowed a property developer called Edward Shepherd to build on the site. Hence our Shepherd Market.

Shepherd Market retains its delightful village atmosphere, full of small shops, intimate pubs, fruit and veg stalls and cafes where, weather permitting, one can eat baked beans on toast outside and watch the world go by. A number of exceptionally beautiful women still wander up and down, flashing delectable smiles at single men.

Friendly place, Shepherd Market.

Shepherd Market is off Piccadilly, London W1. A blue plaque near the Curzon Cinema commemorates the old May Fair.

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