North Lanes

Is it ‘Brighton Pier’ or ‘the Palace Pier’? ‘Hilton’ or ‘Metropole’? ‘Holiday Inn’ or ‘Bedford’? ‘Brighton Dome Concert Hall’ or ‘the Dome’? ‘South Lanes’ or ‘Lanes’? ‘The North Lanes’ or ‘North Laine’? It is of course the latter in each instance.

I recently met with Dr Graeme Davis, a Hove-based language specialist, research fellow and generally good fellow, to discuss the origins of the word ‘laine’ and why ‘North Lanes’ may be more acceptable than local wisdom suggests.

Brighton, back when it was called Brighthemstone or similar, was surrounded by five tracts of farming land. The conventional logic today is that these five pieces were called laines. Old maps mention them as West Laine, North Laine, East Laine, Hilly Laine and Little Laine after all. Although lane and laine are pronounced exactly the same, the suggestion is usually that they are two completely distinct words where the former refers to a passageway (as in the Lanes) and the latter refers to a field (as in North Laine).

Graeme believes that lane and laine were essentially exactly the same word. In the case of the five fields around Brighton, the word laine came about through, perhaps, deliberately lengthening on a map (a common practice apparently) or simply as a spelling mistake which has stuck.

Either way, what is certain is that this old spelling was revived by Brighton Council during the 1950s when the term ‘North Laine’ was bestowed upon the area that we know today in accordance with its historic location. Graeme suggests that the word had been dead for a century and a half and few at the time would even have recognised it – an example of mythologised history.

If a field was essentially being called a lane, the argument is that fields consisted of a number of passages between the smaller sections (‘paul-pieces’) of which they consisted. Without an ‘i’ and pluralised, we get ‘North Lanes’. Pedants like me may be horrified but the case stacks up.

Cllr Jason Kitcat recently announced proposals to rename the Preston Street area ‘West Laine’, perhaps unaware that North Laine was named in a similar manner some years previously. I cannot predict whether or not the term would be successful. What is certain is that somebody like me will be writing a column sixty years from now explaining why ‘West Lanes’ may not be as bad as pedants of the future suggest.