The Language of Signs: London

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In my many years of travel, I’ve always made it a point to snap pictures of street signs or other signs that I find interesting or funny. It’s rather fascinating to observe how a culture communicates rules of the road or expected social behavior.  For example, in London, many of the signs are very polite.

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Near Southwark Cathedral on the South Embankment, London
Photo by: c.b.w. 2006

At home I’m accustomed to the red Exit sign that shows me how to get out of any building. In the London Tube, however, there is what I consider a more gentle way of pointing out the exit.

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Follow the sign to leave the London Tube!
Photo by: c.b.w. 2006

At Tate Modern, this sign is posted on the elevator. I found it very thought provoking in that it asked people to be mindful instead of simply putting a wheelchair symbol and hoping for the best.

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If this sign doesn’t inspire you to make the extra effort to climb the stairs, I don’t know what will!
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

However, the use of symbols is employed around heavy tourist areas to accommodate those who don’t speak English. Around Buckingham Palace I spotted these signs:

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What do they mean??
Photo by: c.b.w. 2006

Now, I’m not sure what these signs are indicating, but I have a couple of guesses. Traffic comes from all different directions on the roundabout in front of the palace (and they drive like idiots), so maybe it’s telling people to watch for traffic. Or, perhaps it’s a sign telling people there’s a tourist site (the eye points to the palace) and there is also a place to pick up a taxi. Either way, they are helpful!

Tourists also get reminders on how to cross the street safely. Foreigners are often thrown off by the reversal of traffic direction on the roads. Americans in particular are in the habit of looking for traffic on the right side of the road instead of left. To keep tourists from getting squashed, crosswalks in the central part of London are painted with a handy bit of advice!

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Look both ways! (In reverse)
Photo by: c.b.w. 2006

Crosswalks also receive a little extra attention in that they are marked with special road lines to warn drivers ahead of time to slow down. Hence, the infamous zig-zag pattern before the thick horizontal bands of most crosswalks.

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Watch out for pedestrians! Zig-zags in Muswell Hill
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Traffic signs in London are very similar to those in the U.S. in that they convey the same concepts, but different words and shapes are used.

Yield = Give Way:

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Give Way in Notting Hill
Photo by: c.b.w. 2006

Speed limit signs are round with a red rim:

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Slow down in Muswell Hill!
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Bike lane signs are also round with a red rim:

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Ironically, this sign was by a pub. A way to curb drunk driving??
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

In Europe in general, the names of streets are placed on the sides of buildings or walls. Very rarely have I spotted a street name on a separate pole or traffic light. I prefer this system mainly because it’s easier to see the sign and there’s less likelihood of a car accident wiping out the sign. Tourists, however, have a hard time making the adjustment. Sometimes I chuckle when I see someone with a map looking everywhere but halfway up a building. In neighborhoods, street names are usually placed on brick walls that flank a residential entrance or a retaining wall.

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Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

On most of the main roads, street name signs also include the name of the London borough where the street is located as well as part of the zip code. For example, Drury Lane is in Camden and Portobello Road runs through Kensington and Chelsea.

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Do you know the muffin man? Camden, London
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

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Photo by: c.b.w. 2006

Of all the interesting signs in London my absolute favorite is a small laminated sign zip-tied to the fence at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. For me it has always embodied the broader purpose of traveling and experiencing new places.

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Simple, yet powerful. Speaker’s Corner, London
Photo by: c.b.w. 2006

Keep an open mind, my friends!

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There are too many signs for just one post! Next week, we’ll head to Ireland and Prague, Czech Republic to check out their “sign” language.

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Just curious . . .

What are some interesting signs you’ve seen in your travels?

Londoners, correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t the zig-zag road lines slowly being phased out? I though I read that somewhere.

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Previous New Familiars posts:

Grocery Shopping in London

Lunch In A Chinese Home

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c.b.w. 2013

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26 thoughts on “The Language of Signs: London

  1. I have actually seen this very fingerpost, in the South of England.

    One of the reasons for the zig-zags either side of a pedestrian crossing is to indicate that parking is not allowed there. All pedestrian crossings in the UK have lights, and if you don’t see the lights WAY before the zig-zags, you shouldn’t be driving.

    The most photographed road sign in the UK has to be this one on Orkney.

    I’ve seen that one too. I drove right past it, didn’t bother to stop.

    Google images will also take you to the Austrian village of F***ing. Don’t bother, though.

    I always think this sign means ‘Man in road having difficulty with umbrella’

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    • Ah, thank for further insight on the zig-zags! I love that they have multiple functions. I noticed the lights before crosswalks, too. Brilliant, if you ask me! U.S. drivers have no regard for pedestrians and I think that is largely due to little or no road signage altering drivers that there is a crosswalk.

      Awesome sign links!! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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  2. I enjoyed this post CB. We’re are used to driving as the Brits do, so when in right hand drive countries our heads move like wobbly dolls, checking out oncoming traffic.

    Love the Tate Modern sign…pertinent as well as polite.

    Don’t like the signs on the sides of buildings even though I know that’s an option. Doesn’t work so well if you’re driving though.

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    • I’m proud to say I cross the street like a European – there’s a lot to be said for walking like you expect cars to stop instead of meekly stepping into the crosswalk. However, I am super careful about making sure I am in a crosswalk when I do this!

      I can see how building signs might be tricky from car level, but it’s pretty nice at bus level. I guess they can’t make everyone happy! 😉

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  3. Fascinating! I love these signs, especially ‘Drury Lane’ & ‘Portabello Road’. Both inspire me to break into song!

    In Canada, there’s a rule that one is not supposed to pass another vehicle when approaching a designated crosswalk. Major crosswalks have road signs, white lines on the road and flashing lights that are activated by a pedestrian pushing a button. With all that, we still have ignorant drivers. Hubby witnessed a young man get struck by a car passing through a crosswalk, saw him flip over the hood of the driver’s car.

    Glad you mentioned about the street signs on the side of buildings. If we ever got to Britain, I’d be looking for signs right by the roadside, not on the buildings.

    The different wording on familiar sign shapes is interesting to see, too. 🙂

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    • Drivers hardly ever stop for pedestrians in the U.S. even though there are laws giving pedestrians the right of way. I don’t know if its apathy, disrespect, or impatience that makes drivers ignore those of us on foot. I wish we had flashing lights on crosswalks!

      Like

  4. Reblogged this on Corporate Skirts and commented:
    Loved this post. Signs have been used through the ages to communicate a lot by as little as possible. Yet here you see polite, encouraging ways of getting people to do the right thing, particularly loved the elevator one.

    Like

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