Sunday, 8 November 2009

London loves.....postcodes

Do not underestimate the power of a London postcode.

They are the definitive alphanumeric signifiers of status and location. It isn’t the boarded up council estates or luxurious mansion houses that decide whether your area is grit or glamour, it’s the postcode. SW1 and SE17 are very close to each other geographically. In postcode terminology they’re in different universes.

Paris has its arrondisements, New York its boroughs, London has its precious postcodes.

Trying to sell a house? Your postcode could literally halve or double your selling price. Been on a hot date? Getting the night bus home to N17 rather than say NW3 might wreck your chances of a second date. Postcodes can even influence the way your CV or job application is viewed. There is a class thing going on. Some postcodes signify wealth and charm, others signify poverty and dereliction.

I have a personal bugbear. I don’t like my postcode. And I’ve lived with it for 18 years. N22. I often feel embarrassed saying it. I don’t know why. It somehow just seems so bleeeurgh. Prosaic. Silly. Boring. Suburban. It’s the highest of the N numbers making it sound really far out. It’s not. Look at the map; it’s just above N8 and next door to N10. I can’t help it, sometimes I just long for my beloved old N4. Everything seems ok in N4, surrounded by part-time hippies, eco warriors, middle class Arsenal fans and alternative therapists. N22, on the other hand, sounds like you’re at the top of a massive hill like some kind of freakish Gulliver accidentally stomping over the N1’s and E2’s.

Ok, rein it in Josh; you’re firing off postcodes like an anti-tank gun. Some people may be a little confused. If you are confused, i.e. if you are not from London, I don’t have time to go into great detail. Sorry. There isn’t any great logic to the system to be honest. For a start the numbering goes in no logical sequence (almost the complete opposite to the Parisian system which runs from one to twenty and is arranged in a near-perfect clockwork spiral beginning on the banks of the Seine and ending in Belleville. In London, W13 is squashed in between W5 and W7! Crazy.

The suffixes themselves are not even logical; there is no ‘S’ prefix (simply South) in London (only SW’s and SE’s) and there is no ‘NE’ (North East) only N’s and NW’s. Crazy. There is of course an explanation for this; in 1866 ‘S’ and ‘NE’ were scrapped and re-assigned to Sheffield and Newcastle-Upon Tyne. But that kind of logic cuts no ice with me. It makes London seem messy and disorganised!

Just to make things even more confusing, some central areas, the EC1’s and WC1’s have random extra letters attached (e.g. EC1V or WC1H). I find this little quirk an endearing feature I must say...

But please don’t ever attempt to work out which London borough you’re in by using the postcode system because, as Wikipedia rather eloquently puts it “the boundaries of each [postcode] sub-district rarely correspond to any units of civil administration such as parishes or boroughs. Despite this they have developed over time into a primary reference frame”…... Primary reference frame?! Yeah, thanks Postmaster General. Thanks for making things so easy to understand back in the 1800s.

Ach, what am I moaning about? There’s no geographic consistency in London anyway so why should the post coding be well ordered? London is an insane hybrid mish-mash of bending, maze-like roads built totally at random at different points in its two thousand year history. Starting with the Romans and hybridising all the way up to us. There’s even a possibility the construction of the 2012 Olympic Games site could create a new postcode where once barren wasteland was simply incorporated into surrounding codes. It’s happened before. Thamesmead in the 1970s was assigned SE28, after extensive development work was done to create the area.

But of course postcodes do not exist in isolation. When we think of them we think of the areas and what they signify. So, for example, E1 we think Whitechapel (Kray Twins, murdered Victorian prostitutes, skinny jeaned Scenesters). SW1, Sloane Square (‘could one please pick me up from Harrods in the Bentley?’) while N16 Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill is an odd blend of quintessential liberal Socialist Worker middle class North London and orthodox Jewish families.

I’m so obsessed with postcodes I once wrote to the Notes & Queries page of The Guardian requesting an explanation for the randomness of their assignment. I’m still waiting to hear back...

I’ll leave you with a few of my personal favourites…

1. N5 - majestic, crisp, beautiful. Highbury

2. EC1-to-EC4 - the City sends Dickensian shivers down my spine

3. E8 - Dalston and London Fields. Horribly trendy and yet a fantastic blend; the epitome of gentrified, shabby chic, arty, industrial-turned-Bohemian, beautiful Victorian semi detached, railway arched, fabulous pubbed, retro, multicultural, down to earth, working class liberal East London

Go on readers. Show yourself some love. Move to the postcode you’ve always dreamed of. (But remember kids, SW3 might be a little bit out of your league...)


  1. It's simple: they're arranged alphabetically by area. Thus I recently moved from Hornsey, N8, to Holloway, N7. Holloway is 7 to Hornsey's 8 because it is one before it alphabetically in the big list of 'N' areas. Highbury is N5 because inbetween it (5) and Holloway (7), alphabetically, is one other region: Highgate (6). And you used to live in N4, which is alphabetically just before Highbury - Finsbury Park. I thought everyone knew that.

  2. But why then, are all the 1's right in the centre? N1, E1, W1, WC1, EC1, SE1, SW1...... N1 I suppose could come under Angel, but really should be Islington. The rest I can't see that they are all alphabetical A's or B's....?

  3. love the map...

  4. Each area has a "head district" which is the number "1", then the rest follow after THAT in aphabetical order. Very interesting!

    And I'm pretty sure everybody doesn't know that. I just found it out at ...

  5. Yep, all of the postcodes that have a 1 in them, (n1, e1, etc), and where the District Offices were based. As the postal district masters chose the postcode numbers, they put their place first, then the others in order. Also, there is no NE or S as there were only 6 postal district offices in london (excluding the city of london which was rich enough to have a lot more dedicated ones, since companies were more willing to finance them), and there wasn't one in those areas. Also, north east london london used to be under the essex councils, hence why a lot of the amartuer teams round where i am, tottenham, play in the essex combined leagues. Enfield Town played there when they formed a few years ago, despite being in London. Also waltham forest, waltham abbey and a few other local teams. I think even Leyton FC did, but i'm not sure about that. I think Dagenham was formally in the essex councils, and i'm pretty certain crimes in Dagenham were dealt with by the Essex police force until the Met police took it over.

    By the way, the reason i know is that i live in n17 and the pub directly opposite me, about 40 meters away and less than 1 min walk, has been in e17, n17 and e 17 before finally being in n17. It was also transfered from Waltham Forest to Haringey Council, or the municiplal borough of Tottenham as it was known then, as the river lee used to be the boundary, but then people realised if houses were built on the little island in the middle of the river lee, which they were and where i now live, that it would be very complicated. Hence the changes.

    Good blog by the way!

  6. What about Outer London?! EN, IG, RM, DA, BR, CR, SM, KT, TW, UB and HA are London Postcodes too!!

    1. Following that reasoning Daniel, NY (as in New York) perhaps should be clased as a London postcode also? Outer = Outside. Deal with it. >;o]

    2. Following that reasoning Daniel, perhaps NY (as in New York), should also be classed as a London postcode? Outer = Outside. Deal with it. >;o]

    3. dox you are a stupid idiot who doesn't understand both the English Language or my "reasoning". Outer in this context means "further from the centre than the inside but still within the limits". I suggest you go back to school and retake both English and Geography.

  7. I'm afraid I really find it terribly sad and unnerving that lots of people in London place so much emphasis and importance on something as extrinsic and superficial as a postal code. Addressing a class system, preconception or stereotype on an area creates a self-perpetuating spiral of unnecessary insecurity in some and an ego-centric superficiality in others. It garners an unwarranted and falsified sense of self worth and importance among those who place importance on it.

    I live in london, and I find that many people here are too self involved and caught up in their highly superficial bias towards 'cool' it's attributed geographic area.

    Really, when you think about it, what is it all for and what fundamental purpose does any of it serve?