To see London you have to hear it

Following on from yesterday’s podcast about the London place-name “Bayswater”, David opens up another front on that field of action: the ancient (it’s Anglo-Saxon) place-name suffix “ee” (or “ea” or “ey”).


London Calling. David here.

“To see London, you have to hear it.”

Quoting myself there. That sentence – to see London you have to hear it – is how I opened London Walks, London Stories, the London Walks book, all those years ago. Thought long and hard about it. Should we have a keynote? If so, what should it be? And should we sound it right at the beginning? Did a bit of pondering and decided yes, we should. And yes, we should lead with it. That was the hard part. The easy part – it only took me two weeks – was figuring out what the keynote should be and fashioning what I hoped was a ringing, arresting, opening sentence. To see London you have to hear it was what I came up with. 

And that’s all by way of saying, that sentence and indeed this podcast is a kind of stern light – maybe the first of a string of stern lights – to yesterday’s filleting of the London Placename Bayswater.

Those of you on the other side of the Atlantic, do you know the English verb chuffed? It means very pleased. I was well chuffed by an email that came in a few hours ago in response to yesterday’s podcast about the word Bayswater.

And I must say, doubly chuffed because the email came from a New Yorker. Because, let’s face it, some of them can be a little bit stiff-necked about New York’s preeminence, or so they take it to be a given, in the Great Cities of the World Sweepstakes. His remarks were in response to what I’d said about New York street names – that they’re a little bit tedious, not overly imaginative – compared to London’s place names.

Anyway, here’s what this Noo Yorker said.

Boy you hit the nail on the head today.  And to think you pointed out a nail that I didn’t even know existed let alone be bothered by how much it was sticking up.

When we take the subway from the Upper West Side to Midtown we get on at the 77th St station with stops at 72nd, 66th, 59th, 50th and 42nd.  That’s on the #1 train if local, the #2 or #3 train if express.

In contrast to get to Westminster from West Hampstead – it’s my understanding that you live in West Hampstead – you stop at Swiss Cottage, St John’s Wood, Baker St, Bond St and Green Park.  On the Jubilee Line for heaven’s sake.

Like the difference between watching a Secret Service agent standing in front of the White House door, and the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace!

As my Hist of Sci prof said – England is full of texture.

And then he added – this has to be one of my all-time favourite postscripts:

P.S. I am a little mad because you’ve made me aware of yet another significant way in which NYC can’t compare to your home town.  (With the one exception that I wish you’d grant – Central Park over Hampstead Heath.  But – damn – there’s that comparison of dull and enervating vs stimulating names again!)”

I didn’t have the heart to write back and say, “yes, I know what you mean, it wouldn’t do to call it Central Heath would it? But as park’s go it is very impressive.”

Anyway, I think we’ve started a hare here. Not about the merits of a park over against a Heath – but the joys and delights and London placenames. Finding out about London placenames – it’s a little bit like learning a foreign language. It makes for a richer experience. It opens doors of meaning and understanding. 

So here’s another attainment in the To See London You Have to Hear It Skill Set.

A suffix this time. A very old suffix, Anglo-Saxon as it happens. The suffix Eee. You open your ears you hear it all over London. Chelsea, Putney, Stepney, Hackney, Hornsey, Battersea, Bermondsey, Thorney, and so on.

It means, the rising ground up above surrounding wetlands. Often an island or promontory.

I think my favourite of those is Thorney. Thorney Island. You know where Thorney Island was? It’s where parliament and Westminster Abbey are today. Hundreds of years ago that was an island. An island covered with bramble bushes. Ergo the first part of the name: Thorney Island. Thirteen centuries ago or thereabouts somebody called it “that terrible place”. Well, it was unprepossessing, low lying, damp, covered with bramble bushes. Didn’t have a lot to recommend it. And you know, there are probably a few isolated instances of people today saying, don’t kid yourself, that leopard’s not changed its spots – it’s doing a damned good job of living up to that moniker: thorney. 

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