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Rotten Luck

It seems to me that it's a repeated trait of Londoners from the past to corrupt words or places and to put the worse spin possible on them. One name that is said to be a corruption has always puzzled me, and that is Rotten Row.

Rotten Row is a broad track which runs along the south side of Hyde Park. It leads from Hyde Park Corner to Serpentine Road. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was a fashionable place for the upper-classes to be seen horse riding. Today it is still maintained as a place to ride horses in the centre of London, but it is little used for this purpose nowadays.

Rotten Row. noted as The King's Private Road


The track was created in the late 1680s, but not for the masses. King William III had recently moved his court to Kensington Palace located to the west of Hyde Park, but frequently made journeys to Whitehall, a forty-five minute carriage drive to the east. The roads linking the two were not the best and William found the journey, “both tedious and irksome”. It also meant that he would be seen and would see the common people during his journey, possibly something to be avoided in his mind. So he commissioned the building of a private road through Hyde Park to improve the comfort, time, privacy and the scenery during his travels. It was designed and laid out by Captain Michael Studholme, Surveyor of "their Majesties roads" at the time.

However, Hyde Park had a reputation as a bit of a no go area especially after dark as it was noted for the amount of robberies that took place there. it being the favourite haunt of highwaymen. To deter any would be assailant from lying in wait, William commissioned the erection of three hundred oil lamps along its length, which must have kept the local lamplighters gainfully employed, also making it the first artificially lit road in Britain.


Before William took this piece of park for his own, it had been used as a place for fashionable picnics and horse racing as far back as 1637. At the end of the English Civil War in the mid 1650s the park was closed to public access and seems to have been used solely for the amusement of Oliver Cromwell, then Lord Protector to picnic and exercise his horses. On one occasion Cromwell took a carriage and team of horses to the area that Rotten Row would eventually be laid out on and attempted to try and post the fastest time between two points. Having failed on two attempts, he is said to have whipped the horses into a frenzy for the third run, causing him to lose control and was thrown from the carriage, but caught his foot on the way down and was dragged for several minutes along the ground. To add to his injuries the pistol in his pocket (or perhaps he was just pleased to see someone!) went off injuring his leg.

In the 1660s the area was again being used for carriage outings and picnics, but had been superseded by another part of the park for the centre of fashionable London. Samuel Pepys writing in his diary noted that having ventured into the park on more than one occasion, either having been not suitably dressed or riding in an inferior carriage, he had shied away from the area known as The Ring frequented by the best of society and taken the air around the southern fringes of the park, the area that would be laid out as Rotten Row some twenty year later

The track was called in turns The Kings Private Road or The Kings Carriage Drive, but in courtly circles it was known as Le Route de Roi, Kings Road in French. The route was strictly off limits to the great unwashed, which may have caused some resentment in such a public area, but is that enough to foster the corruption of Route de Roi to Rotten Row?

Myself, I can’t seem to equate the London dialect to that corruption. Having practiced for several minutes in the mirror I ended up with something akin to Roderry nowhere near rotten. There has been some speculation that the name is derived from Ratton Row, denoting a row of cottages or buildings that are rat infested, but as no such structures existed along the route, I think this can be discounted. There is some claim that the soft sandy covering along the track is known as "Rotten" but I can’t find any evidence as this being a universal term.

Looking at all the theories that have been put forward, I believe the one with the most credibility is that of Ratten Row, which comes from the Norman meaning a roundabout or circuitous route, used for the route that corpses were carried to their burial grounds away from the public’s gaze.

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