A street in Wales has replaced one in New Zealand as being the world’s steepest. How long until another road claims the title?
The world has a new steepest street! But it’s more than 1,000 years old. So, did something happen to the previous steepest street? Is this an off-colour attempt to look on the bright side of a horrendous natural disaster? No, the previous steepest street is still there.
So, has the old one somehow got less steep, perhaps because of a horrendous natural disaster? No, it’s as steep as ever. There is no horrendous natural disaster involved with this story. So what’s happened?
Well, a street has been discovered that’s steeper than the street that, for some years, has been proclaiming itself to be the world’s steepest street. But how can a street be discovered? Was it buried? Is it part of a newly unearthed hilly suburb of Pompeii? No, stop trying to link it to horrendous natural disasters.
The new steepest street has been in continuous occupation since time immemorial. Much longer, in fact, than its predecessor as holder of the accolade. So, the fact is – and I hate to be rude about what we now know is, at best, the second steepest street in the world – that this predecessor was an impostor, a usurper, albeit an unknowing one. It was never steepest. Even on the day of its construction, a steeper street already existed.
Fundamentally, this is a damning indictment of the system by which the title of world’s steepest street is awarded, a process that, slightly suspiciously, appears to have something to do with Guinness. Common sense suggests that Guinness is not a substance likely to be of help in the global ranking of gradients in built-up areas.
I should clarify that there is no suggestion that the whole steepest street issue got screwed up because everyone involved was off their face on Guinness, or even that their concentrations were marginally impaired by the responsible enjoyment of Guinness. They may not have drunk any Guinness at all. The link with Guinness is pretty tenuous. Guinness World Records, formerly the Guinness Book of Records, isn’t even owned by Diageo plc(which owns Guinness) any more.
But the fact remains that it’s called Guinness World Records because of Guinness, the drink, not because of a random Andrew or Steve or Janet Guinness who loved measuring things and decided to put them all in a book. So there’s Guinness all over this mess and perhaps we all ought to think about that before we buy any more Guinness.
It turns out, you see, that when a street claims to be the steepest in the world, Guinness World Records is rigorous about the evidence of the street’s existence and precise steepness that must be provided. So when the advocates of Baldwin Street in Dunedin, New Zealand, (until recently proclaimed the world’s steepest street) said it had a gradient of 35%, that assertion was carefully verified as was the fact that it is genuinely a street rather than a random strip of mountainside devoid of asphalt or dwellings.
Where the rigour lapsed, however, was in failing to check whether there were any other streets that were steeper. It’s a strange lapse, when you think about it. It seems so obvious: in order to know which is the world’s steepest street, you need to measure the steepness of every street in the world.
Now, you may say that that is one hell of a logistical challenge. Who’s going to pay for that to be done? Not Diageo plc. And the wearying expense and difficulty is, to my mind, only compounded by the undeniable truth that finding out which of the world’s millions of streets happens to be steepest is a colossally unimportant task. I would have been content with a state of affairs where everyone agreed that Baldwin Street in Dunedin is certainly jolly steep, and probably a lot steeper than most streets, and we left it at that.
The problem came in choosing to elevate that undeniable status to “world’s steepest street” without knowing how steep all the other ones were. It’s a strange mistake for a records organisation to make. You’d think that Guinness World Records, of all institutions, would be well aware that a person or thing being very [insert adjective] does not make it particularly likely that they are the most [insert adjective] in the entire world.
The tallest bloke you’ve ever met is almost certainly not the tallest man on Earth. He might be, but you really have to check. You can’t just watch him fetch a football off a garage roof, say “Wow” and then stick it in your book – not if you think that being accurate about these records matters. Personally, I don’t think it matters, but I’d expect the people running Guinness World Records to think it does if they want to cling on to an iota of professional pride and aren’t just in it for all the free Guinness they probably no longer get.
There are other people it seems to matter to as well because, bizarrely, being named the world’s steepest street actually generates a bit of tourism. Some people want to go and see the world’s steepest street. More people than want to avoid it. I don’t really understand why. Steep is a bad thing for a street to be. Streets are supposed to facilitate access to houses or shops. The steeper it is, the less well it does that. It would be like being the street with the worst maintained road surface in the world or being littered with the greatest density of impacted chewing gum.
Nevertheless, there is genuinely a small amount of sadness in Dunedin that Baldwin Street has lost its status and a small amount of joy in Harlech in Wales that a very old street there, called Ffordd Pen Llech (which looks like more of a lane if you ask me), has been confirmed as always having been steeper.
But how long can that joy last when the majority of the world’s street gradients remain unmeasured and unverified? What a precarious position: constantly worrying about losing the title if another street proves it’s in a more precarious position.