Tuesday, January 07, 2020

the scouring of the shire

I went to Northampton the day before New Year's Eve. Nothing so very remarkable about that, you might say, but you'd be wrong, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the journey there from Newport is a bit of a twisty-turny cross-country route making use of short sections of no fewer than six motorways: the M50, M5, M42, M40, M45 and M1. This motorway-hopping isn't exclusive to trips to Northampton; our occasional trips to see our friends Jenny and Jim who live near Melton Mowbray involve the same first three motorways and then M6, M69, M1 to finish. Any lengthy trip not going either directly north-south or following one of the radial routes out of London will probably be pretty similar. In both cases the trip involves traversing the entire length of at least one motorway - the M50 in both cases and the M45 and M69 respectively.

I'd never been on the M45 before but it is actually Quite Interesting, mainly for historical reasons: it was one of the first to be built, at the same time as the first section of the M1, and its junction with the M1 at what is now junction 17 (more exotically known as the Kilsby Interchange) is the oldest free-flowing motorway-to-motorway interchange in Britain. Yeah, I know, right? It's generally derided as being a bit of an irrelevance these days (most traffic now takes the M6 slightly to the north), but as with all these things that's a question of perspective. If you live in Dunchurch or Daventry it's probably pretty handy, just as the quaint old M50 is to me, should I wish (as I often do) to get from South Wales to the Midlands and beyond.

Secondly, Northamptonshire is smack dab in the middle of a part of the country that I am pretty confident, even now, doesn't actually exist. Here is a rough approximation of my mental map of southern Britain:

So as you'll observe, there are two main things to take away from this:

I am constantly in a state of amazement to discover that Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire share a border, since I deem Gloucestershire to be yokelishly West Country, cheese rolling and all, and Oxfordshire to be solidly Home Counties, dreaming spires, floating languidly around in a punt wearing cricket whites.

But the fact that I am forced to accept that southern Britain narrows dramatically once you get north of a line connecting the upper reaches of the Severn and Thames estuaries makes it all the more implausible that, conversely, stuff, still less several counties worth of stuff, exists between what I've deemed above to be the Home Counties area and the vast featureless expanses of East Anglia. This mythical zone includes things like Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and the aforementioned Northamptonshire, and maybe Cambridgeshire as well, although I'm pretty sure Cambridge exists. I think this problem is compounded (and maybe the Cambridge thing is a good counter-example here) by all of the mythical counties being "shires" whose associated town is, although theoretically real, completely devoid of any significance that might anchor it slightly in the real world. I mean, Bedford, maybe, Northampton, possibly, but Buckingham? Hertford? These are absurd fantasy creations of some sort of SimCountry simulation set in a slightly wider geographical area that has the room for all this stuff. Huntingdonshire was exactly the same, but at least it had the good grace to eventually stop even claiming to exist.

Perhaps part of my resentment of Hertfordshire, just to take it as an example, derives from my discovery that it does not contain a town called Tillit, and that therefore the story about pub landlady Lucy Lykes and her postal address must be apocryphal. That address, for those of you unfamiliar with the gag, is as follows:

Miss Lucy Lykes
The Cockwell Inn

There supposedly once was a pub of that name in Liverpool, but it has gone now. The gag doesn't work without the rest of the address, anyway (and even in its original form you have to deliberately mispronounce "Herts" as "Hurts" rather than "Harts"), although I suppose you could have gone with something like:

Miss Lucy Lykes
The Cockwell Inn
Upper Mersey Tunnel

Anything with the word "cock" in it is worthy of a snigger, though, and it just so happens that the person (a friend of Hazel's) that we were visiting lives round the corner from a pub with the proudly unadorned name of The Cock. I wanted to canvass her opinion on the place, but I couldn't think of an acceptable way to phrase the question. There is also a Bants Lane, if you like that sort of thing.

1 comment:

Emma said...

Buckingham is indeed real, though weeny. It has a Waitrose though.