30 April 2021

Would you believe it? Wood block surfaces still visible on London streets

A few months back I was involved in an email exchange about the patch of wood blocks adjacent to Bunhill Row Cemetery, just off Artillery Row, specifically, and perhaps coincidentally (ironically?), in Chequer Street. Back in ye olde Victorian times this street ran alongside Star Works, the De La Rue postage stamp manufactory, though I don't know if this company was related to Danny

This little road is a patchwork of setts and cobbles and looks to have been repaired, extended or updated with various kinds of blocks. It’s probably more likely, due to the pristine condition of this area, that these were laid more recently, perhaps using blocks that were found in the vicinity and some clever person had the idea to make a feature of them. 
In addition to this patch of wood, there are also granite setts and vitreous setts, the latter being a by-product of the gas industry and said to be identifiable by their bluish glaze. Note also a couple of interesting man hole cover plates along here. It’s like a road surface nerd’s dream!

Ah, but this isn't the only patch of wood paving in the metropolis – I have happened upon quite a few other places that show hints of this eco-friendly-but-hard-to-maintain wooden surface. I've found enough to start a specific collection on my desktop and here I am sharing some of them with you... 

At 90-92 Pentonville Road N1, on the corner of Penton Street, there is evidence of a whole paved private courtyard that is currently used for car parking. Patches of wood can be seen peeking out from under the receding Tarmac. 

Research shows that this was once the display forecourt outside the ground floor showroom of R. W. Wilkins & Son, marble, granite and stone merchants, monumental masons, sculptors, table-top manufacturers, shopfitters, and interior decorators in marble and tiles. This had originally been constructed as three Georgian houses with deep front gardens, mirroring those across the road, and was converted into one premises in the 1860s by Henry Webb Wilkins, probably RWW's father. The rectangular blocks appear to be the same shape and size as the ones at Chequer Street. 

Many good remnants of wood block can also be found nestling within the segments of some old manhole and utility covers. Fir instance, just east of here, near the border of Islington and Hackney (when this was Finsbury and Shoreditch, respectively) there are examples in Mora Street on the southern side of City Road:

And on the other side of City Rd in Shepherdess Walk on the northern side. My pics were taken on a rainy day but, believe me, there's wood under them there puddles:

There's another example not far from there in New North Road, at the end of Wharf Road by the Royal Mail depot, and another on Clerkenwell Rd at the end of Leather Lane (centre pic below)**. Plus a couple in West Square, Lambeth, a well-to-do 1790s development of private houses, one of which is shown below right:

In the middle of Grays Inn Road at the junction of Acton Street by the zebra crossings, there is a superb example, as shown below, top left, with the streetscape below it. And there are two more good examples in Islington High Street as shown below, middle and right – one set within the pavement near Pizza Express (middle pics), another in the road at the rear of the former electricity transformer station and tram depot (top right). A third one, by the southern door to that building, at the corner of Duncan Street, sort of facing The York pub, has been recently covered in Tarmac (bottom right).  

Update: The Grays Inn Road pic shown above was taken in 2021. This cover plate was subsequently covered in Tarmac, but in April 2024 I noticed that the surface has worn away to reveal how the pieces of woodblock within the segments are now much smaller. Hmmm, how very strange. I wonder if someone tried to remove the wood blocks and then replaced them after they'd discovered that the chunks did not come out complete. See right.

I'd really love to experience the sound of horses walking on a wood-blocked street. The super-informative Roads Were Not Built For Cars shows us that Bartholomew the cartographer, produced road surface maps of London where streets coloured yellow denoted wood, green indicated sheet asphalt, blue was setts, and pink for macadam (a pre-cursor to Tarmac). The rationale that wood blocks offered the benefit of a quieter environment explains their implementation in residental streets such as West Square and in the old hospital zone around City Road.

The same 'quiet' effect would also apply at this next location – the rear of City Hall, on Belvedere Road, built as the London County Council's head offices in 1911 and, hence, a really busy municipal street. 

Here, long wooden oblongs, arranged in a grid format, have been uncovered for many years. Whenever I am in the Waterloo area I often go to check they are still visible. The random piece of flat metal is, I suppose, an attempt at protection.

Update July 2021: due to the wet weather, the woodblocks in Artillery Row are framed in grass. I think it’s lovely.

Update August 2023: I have set up the London A-Z Directory of Woodblocks. If you can add to the list, please leave a comment under this blog post or email me at jane@janeslondon.com

**Update re the Leather Lane manhole – the man hole cover within the road junction at the end of Leather Lane has now gone due to recent resurfacing of Clerkenwell Road. However, another manhole cover outside No.83, set in the pavement by the lamp post has tiny bits of wood block visible around the edges. 


  1. There are two manhole covers in Thurland Road here
    The round one can be seen in the middle of https://www.londonpicturearchive.org.uk/view-item?i=218161
    but ironically the square one was back then almost totally hidden by tarmac - it's under the "copies or screen grabs" in the watermark. As you can see, the two cocks that the sewerman (one of my grandfather's colleagues in the Bermondsey Borough Council sewers department) was operating are still there in the middle of the road. Nothing else in the photo survives.

    Here's another:


  2. Thanks Geoff...That's SE16. It looks like two round manholes that would have been wood filled at the end of the street in Dockley Road.
    And re the Georges Rd, SE1, one... yes yes yes... I've got a pic of that somewhere. I knew I had others; I just hadn't re-named the files so they aren't coming up in a search.
    Thanks again


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Thanks, Jane