My introduction to odd place names in the UK was as a 14-year-old Zimbabwean released into the wilderness of English state schooling. I was confused for about three months as I adapted to the contrasts between the archaic system I was used to and the Lord of the Flies-style bedlam that now ruled lesson time. Slowly, I adjusted and joined the ranks, shed my conditioning of obedient respect, and started smoking copious amounts of marijuana.
All of this went down in a little town called Leatherhead, where the shops seem to be in a state of constant closure. While I was there, the town received an award for having the worst High Street in the country. The images that came to mind when I first heard I was to enrol at a school in Leatherhead were of peasant life in a feudal kingdom and gruesome scenes from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It probably fell somewhere between the two.
The name traces back to 880 AD, when it was known as Leodridan, which means “where people can ride across the river.” This really captures the banality of the entertainment scene in town. One of its proudest claims is having been the venue for founder of Methodism John Wesley’s last sermon in 1791 before he died.
Brown Willy, Cornwall
The highest point in Cornwall at 1,378 feet above sea level, formerly known as Bronn Wennili, has been the topic of some controversy. Campaigners have called for a reversal of the title to the original name on the grounds that it would be more appealing to tourists, but many Cornish residents oppose the change. The Daily Telegraph supported the current name by telling campaigners to keep their “hands off Brown Willy.”
The hill is also deemed to be of high spiritual value by the Aetherius Society, a religious group founded in the mid-1900s whose members are trying to save humanity by supposedly improving relations with aliens. They claim Brown Willy has “holy energy.”
Cheesefoot Head, Hampshire
A large natural amphitheatre close to Winchester, made up of three green bowls, Cheesefoot Head sounds more like a dairy-based villain in a bad horror movie. I found out that I’ve actually been to Cheesefoot Head without knowing its name, as it hosted the 2009 Glade music festival that was home to a hybrid clan of electronic music junkies for 3 days.
In a different capacity, Eisenhower addressed US troops at the site ahead of D-Day and, during WWII, American soldiers would go there for events including boxing matches.
Twatt, Orkney Islands
If natural human dialogue applies to the residents of Twatt, I’m sure most of them have been punched in the face more than once.
“So where are you from then?”
Hailing from a town with the same name as one of the most derogatory words in the English language must be tough. Luckily for Twatts, their town is on the Orkney Islands, far away from the mainland and confrontational outsiders. To take the comparison a step further, the etymology implies that Twatt comes from the Old Norse term for “a small parcel of land.”
Effingham Junction, Surrey
Effingham Junction is always a favourite, crashing off the tongue as aggressively as “effing and blinding.” Often the final stop on the train home from London, or the purgatorial no-man’s-land I had to get off at in order to reach my final destination, it always drew out the expletives its name encourages.
On one boozy night that rolled into dawn, my brother and I missed our stop three times, in spite of our efforts to stay awake, and ended up spending a good deal of wasted time in the cold, shrivelled bosom of Effingham Junction station.
Catbrain, South Gloucestershire
Located just outside of Bristol is the village of Catbrain. This unfortunate name is the result of its Middle English origin, “cattes brazen,” which was a description of the type of soil in the area.
I can only imagine that, as language evolved, the residents with a sense of humour — or an interest in feline anatomy — pushed the village’s name towards what has to be one of the most ridiculous place names anywhere.
Wetwang, East Yorkshire
Teeming with all of 761 residents, Wetwang may either find its name has Nordic roots, translated as the “field for the trial of a legal action,” or that it was, simply, the “wet field.”
Wetwangers will find little pride in the fact that their town also shares its name with a humdrum swamp in The Lord of the Rings, otherwise known as Nindalf.
Sandy Balls, Hampshire
I stumbled upon Sandy Balls and was immediately disturbed, naturally, by the fact that it is a new family holiday village. I pity the children who have to reveal it as their parents’ chosen destination to fellow schoolmates.
Located in the New Forest, the Sandy Balls village has a range of lodgings and activities, all of which can be found on a website that shamelessly urges families to “Discover…Sandy Balls.”
Crackpot, North Yorkshire
If you’re travelling from Swaledale to Wensleydale, your GPS might direct you through the village of Crackpot along a precarious track at the edge of a 100ft cliff. There were reports several years ago of local Crackpotters having to use tractors to rescue ill-equipped cars weekly from the rocky trail. It throws out chaotic images of pasty villagers dropping all things crack-related and leading frantic rescue missions on a cliff face.
Just south of Crackpot is Crackpot Cave, located in the septic-sounding Scurvey Scar.
A website dedicated to Welsh tourism draws a blank when it comes to Stop-and-Call. It lists no accommodations and nothing to do, which is surely a bit harsh.
It’s largely moorland with a few buildings situated just outside of the port town, Goodwick. Its name and seemingly nonexistent list of activities suggest that the best thing to do in the area is stop and call to find out where the hell you are.
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