Along with millions of other people I quite enjoyed looking at the attempts made by some anonymous Brits to label the states on a blank map of the US, whilst simultaneously sympathising with their lack of knowledge and the sheer number of segments of land America is parcelled up into. While the Americans’ attempts to label a blank map of Britain seemed a more pertinent comparison than their attempts at Europe, I did wonder how well the average citizen of the United States would fare in all honesty at labelling their own country: or for that matter, how well could the average Brit label Britain? And by that I don’t mean England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, which one could only hope would glean a fairly high success rate. I wondered how many people could successfully fill in a blank map of Britian’s – or even just England’s – counties?
So here’s a challenge if you choose to accept it. Below is a blank map of the Counties of England. Click to englarge/download/copy and do your worst. If you’re feeling clever/brave/stupid post your results in the comments section. I will post a link to the answers at the end of the article if you want to cheat/check how you’ve done.
My first thought when I looked at the blank map was astonishment that there were as many counties as there actually are – especially in the middle bit. I filled in the South quite easily and quite quickly: having been born and brought up in the south east and moved to the south west this wasn’t too challenging. I stumbled a bit around Gloucestershire, and wondered whether or not Avon was still in existence before putting Worcestershire in the wrong place and moving on up the Welsh border as far as Cheshire, having a stab in the dark that Manchester was its own entity and stuck ‘Greater’ in front of it for good measure, and filling in the northern midlands that I’ve either been to or could recognise from adjacency on the map from when I’ve travelled to and through. I was quite pleased that I knew where Staffordshire was, worked out that the one that looked like a fish must by process of elimination be Warwickshire, then realised Worcestershire wasn’t where I’d put it, and I should have realised that having had family living there for some years. After I moved it I remembered I’d been on holiday to the now empty gap above Gloucs. and east of Wales: Ross-on-Wye, I was thinking, the Wye Valley, Forest of Dean… Hereford! Yes.
The far north of England was unexpectedly easy, or perhaps not so unexpectedly seeing as I have actually been to parts of it. Yorkshire was (I thought) obvious but what was directly south of it? And what about that huge great section of the east coast: how was it possible that somewhere could be that big and I wouldn’t know what it was? I found myself wondering if East Anglia was in fact a county not a region – I had thought it a collective label for Norfolk and Suffolk but maybe that’s what that big un-namable blob is? You may laugh. At least I didn’t think it was abroad.
I happened to speak to my mum before I had a chance to check my guesses, and wondered aloud if she knew what was directly south of Yorkshire. She was convinced it was either Staffordshire or Northamptonshire – both of which I’d put a lot further south. I then started to wonder whether or not I’d put Beds and Herts the wrong way round…
Which I had, it turned out. Although I sort of knew I had, and if I’d thought about it I ought to have recognised the head-ish shape of Bedfordshire from the antique map of his home county that my dad has on his office wall. Yes, I admit it, I cannot recognise on a map of England the county from which half my family comes.
This whole thing is arguably a pointless exercise. To all intents and purposes the counties of England – and the UK as a whole – have been replaced by postcodes and administrative districts. The number of counties in England seems to vary depending on whose authority you are depending. I got my map from Wikipedia so I went with 48, but according to the Association of British Counties there are 39 in England, 13 in Wales, 34 in Scotland and 6 in Northern Ireland. These have more or less been in place since 1066, although borders have been variously realigned, some – like Avon – have disappeared, and some – like Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire – have been amalgamated. Until 1996 the Post Office used counties for the sorting and delivering of mail, but now even addresses are somewhat obsolete, as all that the postal service/GPS needs to locate someone’s letterbox is their house name or number and a postcode. For governmental purposes only 27 of the ‘ceremonial’ counties have a county council. Other counties, such as Greater Manchester and Bristol, are known as ‘metropolitan’ counties and are organised differently again. On a day to day basis the county boundaries are probably less important than the designation of the local unitary authority, which, if you live where my dad does, could even mean your entire village is split into two so that one end of a street is looked after by one district council, and the other end by another. Unless of course you live in Cornwall where plenty of people think there should be an extra ‘r’ in county and therefore the border is really quite a big deal. Confused yet?
I grew up in the Royal County of Berkshire, only to have it chopped up into six unitary authorities in 1998. I still put Berkshire on postal mail going to the various members of my family who still live there, however, and my increasingly scattered group of friends originating from my school days playfully refer to it as ‘The Shire’ when an outlier is headed in that general direction. Although I don’t feel any major patriotic ties to the area I do tell people I’m from Berkshire (usually because people don’t know where Finchampstead is). I have had a complete stranger tell me that I have an unmistakably Berkshire accent. (Which for the uninitiated is pretty much your standard unidentifiable BBC middle England received pronounciation, but much to my cockney mother’s chagrin I gained my glottal t’s in Bracknell but it’s her own fault for making me go to school there.) I don’t think I can pinpoint anything about myself which could only have become a part of who I am by being raised in Berkshire, but certainly in many parts of this country – many counties – that wouldn’t be the case. This is because, to quote directly from the Association of British Counties:
They have become bedrocks of the history, culture and geography of Britain. They provide an instant means of reference to different parts of the country, to a set of cities, towns and villages; to distinctive scenery, architecture and wildlife; to particular industries and pastimes, accents and dialect, tourist attractions, weather and so on. A large literature focuses on each of the Counties; they give their names to clubs and societies, to teams people play for, to regiments they serve in; they are familiar holiday and business destinations. Above all else, they are places – places where people live and “come from”, where they “belong”.
The Association works to promote the traditional notion of counties as fixed geographical demarcations rooted in history and local culture, to both preserve and nurture a sense of local identity, a sense of place, a sense of belonging. Along with European directives for Protected Designation of Origin for local foods such as Stilton cheese, Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb and Cornish pasties, this movement is just one part of a burgeoning sense of the importance of the local, the regional, the idiosyncratic and traditional things that perhaps seem on the brink of being swallowed up in the ever-shrinking, fast paced electronic age where we can access seemingly anything and everything at the click of a button and can pinpoint the location of Joe Bloggs’s humble abode with a combination of four letters and two or three numbers. Last year in particular we Brits got very patriotic with the Jubilee and the Olympics, but this is what that patriotism is – or ought to be – rooted in: the real, small places where it all comes from.
I did get Staffordshire right. And Northamptonshire! Neither of which are anywhere near Yorkshire, (by the way, mum…) although previously unbeknownst to myself Yorkshire in fact occupies four of the spaces on the map and includes North Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire. Also discovered that something I could only describe as ‘Birminghamshire’ but (wisely) left as a blank was in fact West Midlands. Apart from one majorly laughable clanger – I managed to place Lincolnshire on the complete opposite side of the country for some reason – I didn’t do too badly. Of the 48 counties of England I named 41, 35 of which turned out to be correct. I switched two neighbouring counties and two in the middle I got wrong but at least put them in the right general area. My only defence regarding Lincolnshire is that I was thinking of Lancashire when I did so, and they do at least begin with the same letter.
So what have I learned from this apart from some pictorial-geographical information that may or may not stand me in good stead for a future pub quiz or to shout at the telly when my brother insists we watch University Challenge? I know England better than I think I do, but I recognised best/quickest the places in which I have actually spent some time. It is much easier to put a name to a place when you have some idea what the place is: when I think of Oxfordshire or Northumberland or Kent I can visualise the landscape and have some sense of place to associate with the somewhat arbitrary ceremonial label. So to label my country better, I’d need to know my homeland better.
Basically, I need to get out more.
To see the correctly labelled map of the 48 ceremonial Counties of England and see how many you can identify click here and scroll down.
For lots more maps, information and everything you could want to know about the Counties of Britain, head over to the Association of British Counties at http://abcounties.com/about/
Think you can do better than I did, or could you make a mistake as laughable as swapping a whole county to the other side of the coast? Let me know in the comments…
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Henley Pre-gatta – during a Thames riverside walk with lots of waterbirds, rowers, and paint drying on picket fences I discover whether or not the pageantry of the Regatta is as much a part of the identity of Henley as is the Thames and its physical surroundings and natural environment.