Britain’s Narrowest Street
by Ben Johnson
Nestled along the side of Greggs Bakery on Exeter’s High Street lies the narrowest street in Britain.
Once known as Small Lane, it was renamed Parliament Street sometime between 1651 and 1832, probably as part of an obscure (and not very funny) joke.
In fact, there are two competing theories as to why it is called Parliament Street. The first is that it is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Cromwell’s Commonweath, and more specifically the immense amount of power that Parliament enjoyed in the years following the English Civil War.
The second theory is that the name came about in 1831, when the House of Lords rejected an electoral reform bill which had already passed through the Commons. This bill had enjoyed a large amount of public support as it was intended to reform Britain’s electoral system and resolve some problems with unfair boundaries and political corruption. As soon as it was overruled, riots broke across in cities across the country, including Exeter.
Although the nomenclature is uncertain, what we do know is that Parliament Street dates from the 14th century and is the undisputed narrowest street in Britain. It measures just 25 inches at its narrowest point and 45 inches at its widest, and has a length of about 50 metres. It’s also a bit whiffy, thanks – no doubt – to Friday and Saturday night revellers who take advantage of the street’s relative privacy!
Rest assured however that the stench was much worse in the 18th century! So bad, in fact, that in 1740 the City Chamber ordered that doors be permanently locked at each end of the street to stop local residents from emptying their chamber pots directly onto the pavement.
In 1836 local residents tried to get Parliament Street widened, but these plans never materialised. In fact, Parliament Street remained relatively unchanged from its 14th century origins until the building of the Guildhall Shopping Centre in the 1970s, when about two thirds of the original stonework that once lined the street was replaced.
Today there is a small plaque next to the Greggs Bakery store which reads: Parliament Street – believed to be the narrowest street in the world. Width 25” increasing to 45”.
Don’t get too excited though; Parliament Street isn’t actually the narrowest in the world. According to the Guinness Book of World Records that honour lies with Spreuerhofstrasse in the German city of Reutlingen, measuring in at a tummy-tucking 12 inches at its narrowest point!