Where Words Take Us – Kerb

Stepping Stones on the streets of Pompeii
Stepping Stones on the streets of Pompeii
Image by: Carole Raddato

Kerb is today’s random word because the theme of this week’s Chronicle is how people emerge from lockdown with lives utterly but successfully transformed. How they kick Corona to the kerb, so to speak. But you may remember that I promised to steer clear of Covid-19.   

Let’s rather follow the kerb all the way back to the Romans, who invented them. Most of the streets were narrow. In Pompeii, for example, 80% were single-laned with high kerbs to direct storm water, as well as the constant overflow of thirty-six public fountains.

Stepping stones were placed at regular intervals along the roads to keep people’s feet dry but required specially designed vehicles, just wide enough to drive through the stepping stones with steering mechanisms that made them manageable on the streets.

Traffic Control

London Taxi on the Street
London Taxi on the Street
Image by: Samuel Wölfl

The construction of kerbs and sidewalks only really found momentum in the eighteenth century, though, especially in London. Traffic increased over time to such an extent that, two hundred years down the line, people are now discouraged from using those same roads, even charged for entry into the high-congestion zones, with a hefty fine of £160 (R3 500) for non-compliance. The same effect as in Roman times, really, just for different reasons and with different Ts & Cs.

A similar traffic-control system has been on the cards in Dublin for a while now, but it still hasn’t materialised because it isn’t as simple as that in Dublin.

Mountjoy Square

What on earth am I now doing in Dublin now, I can hear you ask. Well, one of the most beautiful kerb stories come from the streets around Mountjoy Square.

Last Wicklow Granite Pavement
South-West Corner of Mountjoy Square.
Image by: The original uploader was Gavinmc at English Wikipedia. / FAL

During the early sixties, all the houses on the square were under threat of demolition. Desmond and Mariga Guinness, cofounders of the Irish Georgian Society, set up the Friends of Mountjoy Square to assist in buying up all the houses until they found new owners. 

A very knowledgeable young guide told me the following story, but my memories are scant and it seems impossible to confirm the exact details. It may thus be apocryphal, but under the Guinnesses’ leadership, the members of the Georgian Society lay themselves down on the paving stones of the south-west corner of the square to prevent workmen from demolishing the last blocks of Wicklow‑granite paving left in the area.  And so they kicked the developers off the kerb and out of their neighbourhood for good.

* I owe special thanks for this issue

to Carole Craig, who shared some secrets from her wealth of journalistic knowledge and experience,

to Audrey Mac Cready, who spent a whole day scouring the Irish newspaper archives and other sources to help me piece together the shards of memory that underlie this story,

to Peter Ucko, for his fresh eyes, and time spent at unearthly hours of night and morning to help me keep my deadline.

* It is with sadness that I have learnt of Desmond Guinness‘s death on 20 August 2020. He was a legend in so many more ways than one.

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10 Responses

  1. My ‘kerb’ story:
    As a schoolchild, I had a history book containing a small b&w photo of the kerbstone at Newgrange. This was well before I had notions of becoming an archaeologist, but in retrospect, I wonder was it a trigger.

    Anyway, back then I couldn’t understand why this kerbstone was so important. As a city girl, a kerbstone was a commonplace, low piece of paving in every street. It was some time before I discovered that the megalithic ‘kerbstone’ at Newgrange was a different beast altogether!

    Gas to see the consequence of writers making assumptions about their readers’ understanding – note to myself, as the writer of historical novels.

  2. A wonderful kerb story from Dublin! And it’s true. Don’t let facts stand in the way of a good story.

  3. A delightful meander from ancient Rome to historical Dublin and Mountjoy Square. In my wildest imaginings I couldn’t have anticipated that kicking Covid to the kerb would take me on such a fascinating trajectory. An Informative, thoroughly enjoyable read.

    1. Thanks, Melody. The opportunity to meander is what I like most about this column. It’s like a free-association game and I can literally go anywhere, which fits my fanciful whims to the tee. I get bored so quickly with one topic. 😉

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