Saturday, 28 August 2010

Counting counties

I have never met Jim of narrow boat Starcross, but from his links list I think he may be some sort of kindred spirit: CAMRA, British Roads, Monty Python and... 'Real British Counties', the website of the Association of British Counties, an organisation that seeks to preserve the traditional use of county boundaries and names from the ravages of the Post Office and local government reorganisation, not to mention empire-building cities. (Birmingham is in Warwickshire! Liverpool is in Lancashire!) On their maps you will still find Rutland, and Huntingdonshire (in which Ramsey lies), and the three Ridings of Yorkshire, and a single Sussex.
And these are still perfectly genuine, and valid, and should be used and referred to. But when the Post Office decides that counties are redundant, and more fatally, since 1965, local government has first appropriated the counties as local authority areas, and then altered their boundaries at will, abolished them, and created new ones, it's easy to lose sight of the historic, stable and unchanging counties which could provide a fixed reference point on a constantly shifting map.

My interest in this goes back to when I was eight or nine, and happily (no that's a lie. I hated school) attending school in East Sussex, to be told that as from a certain date (was it January 1st 1974?) I would henceforth be educated by West Sussex. This was probably the same time that Mid Sussex District Council took over the functions of Cuckfield Urban and Lindfield Rural District Councils. Honestly, which would you rather have had. Maybe the fact that I now research and teach about local government can be traced back to this formative experience. I also, while working in Huddersfield heard a splendid story - I would love to believe it to be true - that when Kirklees Council was created, also in the 1974 reorganisation, that the first act of the new authority, based in Huddersfield, was to send council workmen to dig up the superior flagstones from outside Dewsbury Town Hall, which now came within the ambit of the new authority, to install them outside the council's headquarters at Huddersfield Town Hall (a fine building indeed, but not a patch on Wakefield's).

I also like this map (larger version here) because I'm fascinated by counties and their boundaries. It's a novelty when we're in the middle of the country, to keep crossing and recrossing county boundaries, from Derbyshire to Nottinghamshire to Leicestershire; from Warwickshire, to Staffordshire, to Shropshire and Leicestershire again. They're all just so close together in the middle! If you look at where I live, which is just on the right hand pointy bit at the bottom edge of Sussex (the large mauve county on the bottom right of the map), you can see why I find this exciting.

8 comments:

  1. Wrong, how did I know that:) we live on the coast almost directly below the x of Sussex.

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  2. Not wrong! The right hand pointy bit is Beachy Head, and we live just up the left hand side of that lump. But further east than the x, I'd say... That's more like Brighton :-)

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  3. And we would not like to associated with "Skid row on Sea would we - oh no. Sorry about my mistake btw.

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  4. Aaah, you've touched on a hobby horse of mine too. Problem is, where do you draw the line (not geographically but chronologically). People still go looking for Middlesex County Council offices!

    Worse still, it's often about snobbery. People in Croydon like to think they're in Surrey even though they're not. Berkshire was dismayed in 1973 when they lost Abingdon and Wantage and got Slough in return. Not good for the image of the "Royal County". Berks by the way is still a county but has no county administration, being 4 unitary authorities now following a misguided kamikaze action in the 1990s.

    Then you get the ridiculous postal addresses like Yateley, Camberley Surrey. Yately is in Hampshire, but they have to put up with a Surrey postal address because Camberley, the nearest proper town is in Surrey. Half the people in the home counties don't know which county they're in.

    I could go on. The whole thing is a mess. Bring back Wessex and Mercia etc.

    Neil

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  5. I like the idea that the old counties burble quietly on beneath the surface, untouched by the doings of the Boundary Commission and the Post Office... A little secret world waiting to be discovered.

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  6. Oh yes, talking of Croydon... as a child I lived in Thornton Heath, most definitely Surrey, accorrding to my parents. Likewise, I was born in Beckenham, Kent. But if anyone asks now, I say I was brought up in Sarf London - much more cred. Even at a pinch born there - my birth certificate definitely says London Borough of Bromley.

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  7. Hi Sarah,
    Glad to see you found my links interesting! My interest in counties was fostered by an old wall map of the UK I was given as a child that distinguished between counties by different coloured backgrounds. I still think of Leicestershire as "yellow", Lanacashire as "pink" etc!
    I may be going to the Black Country Festival, although probabaly without Starcross. If so, I'll look out for you.
    Jim

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  8. Wasn't it All Fools' Day, 1974?

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