There are thought to be about 3,000 roads in Britain called High Street, with another 2,300 having a variation on the name such as Upper High Street or High Street East. In the vast majority of cases the high street in a town or village is the main commercial or shopping thoroughfare.
The name seems to have emerged in the 12th century when the word ‘high’ began to be used to indicate something or someone of a higher, or more important, status than others.
At first the term high street did not apply to any one street in particular, but was a generic term used to indicate the most important road in a place. Most of the streets now known as High Street originally had another, more local name, but came to be called the more generic term as its use became widespread.
During the 20th century, the term reverted to having a more generic meaning. People now often talk about ‘high street’ shops, when what they really mean is national chains of shops. As the 21st century progresses it is becoming possible for a chain of ‘high street stores’ to only have shops in out-of-town shopping centres – and not to have any shops actually on a road named High Street at all.
Answered by: Rupert Matthews, historian and author