The eye is easily drawn into Savoy Court, a small turning off the Strand. The art deco facade and entrance to the Savoy Hotel is one of London’s minor landmarks. If you let your gaze linger, you might spot something decidedly odd about the court. Cars are instructed to enter via the right-hand lane, contrary to normal UK traffic regulations.
It is often claimed that Savoy Court is the only road in Britain where you may drive on the right. This is not quite true. Such a set up is common at bus stations, for example. Bus doors are always on the left-hand side of a vehicle. Whenever the bus is serving an island bus shelter, it makes sense for it to approach from the right and loop anti-clockwise around the shelter, so that its doors always face into the island to allow boarding or disembarkation. Hammersmith bus station is a good example. Instructions to “drive on right” are clearly marked on the tarmac by the entrance.
“OK, but that’s for buses only,” you might retort. True, but there are many examples where cars and other private vehicles are required to drive on the right. The car park at Victoria station, for example, has a reversed layout. The setup is potentially confusing for pedestrians crossing the entrance of the car park, who must remember to look for approaching vehicles in the non-intuitive direction. Even named roads can be right-handed. Petty France in the Square Mile has a cycle contra flow on the “wrong” side of the road. Most impressive of all, if that’s the right word, is the Tottenham Hale gyratory. Until recently, a short section known as The Hale featured a reversed-direction dual carriageway. Vehicles were separated by a central partition, but they nevertheless proceeded in the “wrong” direction. There are many other examples across the country.
But what’s the Savoy’s reason for its contrarian courtyard? The Savoy Theatre’s entrance is on the right-hand side. Forcing vehicles to enter on the right allowed cabs to queue up to the doors of the theatre, without blocking the hotel entrance just beyond. Boring, but true.
Other inaccuracies persist with this legend. Look up the story online and you will find dozens of sites parroting a supposed Act of Parliament in 1902, which gave the hotel permission to reverse driving priority. No such act exists, and no record of a relevant debate is to be found in Hansard, the official record of the Houses of Parliament.
Neither I nor the Savoy’s archivist have ever found any mention of official sanction. I suspect it was never given. The court was most probably made right-handed in the early 1930s, a time when traffic enforcement was not as strict as today. My best guess is that the Savoy, being on private land, simply went ahead with its novel road scheme without any public debate or permission from the local authorities.
The set-up has not always worked harmoniously. Queues to turn right into the courtyard from Strand caused major holdups in the 1960s. A policeman was stationed on the junction to help ease the flow. Right turns were eventually outlawed, although this has since been reversed.
Incidentally, the story that Britain’s left-handed road system originated on London Bridge appears to have at least a patch of truth to it. The narrow bridge had long been a traffic bottleneck. In 1722, Lord Mayor Gerard Conyers decreed that “all carts, coaches and other carriages coming out of Southwark into this City do keep all along the west side of the said bridge: and all carts and coaches going out of the City do keep along the east side of the said bridge”. In other words, “keep left”. The directive may have been arbitrary, or it may have been based on earlier custom to drive on this side. Nobody really knows, but many just-so stories have been advanced. Some say that the Romans always marched on the left, and that the habit has remained with us through the centuries. Others point to a medieval origin. Sticking to the left of the road would place oncoming traffic to your right, and therefore in range of your sword arm (assuming you are right-handed). Your carriage could be defended from any approaching ne’erdowells. It’s possible, though unproven.
Matt Brown, Editor-at-Large of Londonist.com, debunks the capital’s most tenacious myths in his new book Everything You Know About London Is Wrong. In this guest post, he looks at one of the most famous bits of trivia to do with London’s roads.