Wednesday, January 08, 2020

I am the county count, and I love to count counties

A quick follow-up to my last post in which I controversially claim that vast swathes of Eastern England do not exist - here is a very unscientific survey of counties which end in "shire" and some details about their associated towns, or rather the implied associated town that you end up with if you strip off the "shire" from the county name. There are a host of caveats to this, most obviously that the concept of a "county" is, like many other things, a more loosely-defined and ambiguous thing than you might initially suppose. As an obvious example, what we're really talking about here are the ceremonial counties of England, but these are really only retained as a quaint historical artefact these days, and the "proper" county list contains a whole host of self-administering metropolitan areas which make the map a lot messier and render concepts like "county town" problematic.

CountyImplied townDoes it exist?County town?
BerkshireBerkNoNo, Reading
BuckinghamshireBuckinghamYesNo, Aylesbury
CheshireCheChester doesNo, Chester
HampshireHampSouthampton doesYes
LancashireLancaLancaster doesNo, Preston
ShropshireShropNoNo, Shrewsbury
WiltshireWiltWilton doesNo, Trowbridge
YorkshireYorkYesIt's complicated

So as you can see the vast majority have an associated town which does exist and is, in most cases, generally accepted as being the county town, inasmuch as that term has any meaning any more. The exceptions are interesting and perhaps warrant a few extra notes:
  • There is no county of "Yorkshire" any more; I include it merely to note that York exists (which I'm sure you knew anyway). Yorkshire is divided into four these days (North, South, East and West, broadly speaking), and even after this subdivision North Yorkshire still manages to be England's biggest county.
  • Huntingdonshire doesn't exist any more either, if it ever did. I include it, like Yorkshire, just because it conforms to the pattern I'm trying to illustrate.
  • The only county which definitely still exists (my earlier protestations aside), has an associated town which exists, isn't complicated by any internal metropolitan subdivisions and where the associated town isn't the county town is Buckinghamshire, presumably because Buckingham was deemed too insignificant.
  • Cheshire is not, sadly, named after Che Guevara, nor indeed after Che Stadium.
  • There is a subset here of counties which don't have a name which is just a town with "shire" on the end, but which nonetheless derive their name from a town. It's easy to see how this works for Lancashire, Cheshire and Wiltshire, less so for Hampshire, and much less so for Shropshire (which does indeed ultimately derive its name from Shrewsbury, via some serious mangling).
  • The interesting outlier here is Berkshire, which is the only one not to derive its name from a town in some way. The current theory seems to be that it derives from a large wooded area on a hill, there evidently being nothing more interesting lying around to name it after.
  • Both Devon and Dorset historically carried a "shire" on the end of their name which has since been trimmed off. Dorset derives its name from the name of a town (Dorchester), Devon does not.
  • Borsetshire, by contrast, has retained its "shire", presumably so you can sing (to the Archers theme tune, of course) "let's all go to Borsetshire, it's a made-up county" and have it scan properly.


The black rabbit said...

The very mention of Huntingdon or indeed Huntingdonshire elicits a cold sweat and a thousand-yard stare from me like a Vietnam vet being reminded of S-s-s-s-Saigon. (“I wasn't really sure what was going on. I wasn't really sure what was going on”).

My family boated (in a narrow boat) around the area in the very early 1980s.

I say boated. I mean survived. Just.

It was then ... and from all accounts still is... an eerie place.

I remember well the strange flatness of the land, for as far as the eye could see. Oppressive, featureless, yellowy-grey skies (the same light whether day or night) and despite it being so far inland... always so windy. So, so windy. No noise there... other than that constant, howling, shrieking wind.

The constant flatness is only really broken by the huge, cogged (western) fen drainage machines and the towers of dark, foreboding churches... each often with a wild-eyed clergyman within, repeatedly baying obscenities at the top of his voice, from the belfry.

On this point, these mad clergymen seeeem to be the only humans in this part of the land. I think I saw the occasional, squat, ape-like creature with clawed-hands and webbed-feet, slide into the drainage ditches as we boated by, but by no means could I have called those things "human".

If one is fortunate enough to happen across a tree of any size at all in Huntingdonshire, it will invariably be gnarled and twisted and bare, even in the height of “summer” (I use quotation marks there as there ARE no seasons in that part of England).

We boated around many villages and settlements during that God-forsaken fortnight in Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, taking in such places as Eaton Socon (where we picked up our Hoseasons horror sorry, hire boat) Great Gidding, Godmanchester and not forgetting Yelling.

Oh, how I wish I could erase the events that befell us in Yelling from my tortured mind.

I’ve noticed that Bob Mortimer, on his twitter account, is now selling old Huntingdonshire village names as cat names. I know! Names such as Godmanchester and Great Gidding as I’ve mentioned above, but also others like Leighton Bromswold and Stow Longa as well as Pidley Of Course. (“Pidley Of Course”, not “Pidley”, of course).

Two of my four sisters and I went over a weir in that narrowboat in Huntingdonshire (true story) and I also managed to fall in to the Great Ouse there - and nearly drown. I say “fall in to"... but I maintain to this day that I was beckoned in to the murky depths by a magical gudgeon that watched me, intently, from the deep.

Cambridgeshire wasn’t much better to be fair.

Places like Ely (Kerrreist is that cathedral creepy), Soham (we all know what happened there) and Wicken (my Uncle Ruary has set up the national dragonfly centre there (at Wicken Fen) for some reason. God knows why).

So anyway, yeah. Huntingdonshire can go fuck itself.

As can Cambridgeshire, to beef air.

electrichalibut said...

Well, I think part of my inability to form any sort of mental picture of these places is because I've really never been there much. We certainly never went there as kids, and while I've since been to Cambridge, High Wycombe (as you know), Hemel Hempstead and Bedford (and now Northampton) for various reasons, to a large extent one town looks like another most of the time. My Dad shares my enthusiasm for hills, so a family holiday to somewhere predominantly as flat as a pancake would have been unthinkable.