Premium

Forgotten originals: Little-known English villages with very famous names

Australia’s trendy second city might be better known, but Derbyshire’s version - the original - has much to recommend it
Australia’s trendy second city might be better known, but Derbyshire’s version - the original - has much to recommend it Credit: getty

The greatest cities in America and Australia owe much to some forgotten corners of this green and pleasant land. 

Washington

While George Washington’s great-grandfather left for Virginia from Hertfordshire, the direct ancestors of the first US president came from - and owe their name to - a sleepy and little-known village in the historic county of Durham.

The original village has since been subsumed into a new town of almost 70,000 people, but Washington Old Hall, the great family’s ancestral home, still stands. It is owned by the National Trust and wakes from its winter hibernation on February 9. The name Washington, of course, now belongs to America’s capital city and a West Coast state.

Gertrude Bell Credit: getty

Another famous child of Washington, Durham, was Gertrude Bell, who studied at Oxford and then spent years exploring the Middle East, earning herself the nickname “daughter of the desert”. Thanks to the knowledge she attained Bell was later employed by Britain’s Arab Bureau, became close friends with Lawrence of Arabia, and helped determine the future of the region at the Middle East Conference in Egypt. She was later an advisor to Prince Faisal, Iraq’s first ruler, and died in Baghdad in 1926, where she is buried.

Melbourne

Australia’s trendy second city might be better known, but Derbyshire’s version - the original - has much to recommend it, including a fine Norman church, from around 1120, and a market square lined with handsome stone buildings.

Melbourne Hall was the home of Queen Victoria’s first prime minister (and, for a time, spoken of as a potential suitor), William Lamb, the 2nd Viscount Melbourne, whose name first made its mark Down Under in 1837. It can be visited on Sundays during winter months, on Wednesdays and weekends from April to September, and most days in August.

It beats Australia Credit: GETTY

Another son of Melbourne was Thomas Cook, founder of the package holiday. His first trip, in 1841, was a one-day rail excursion at a shilling a head from Leicester to Loughborough. During the next three summers Mr Cook arranged a succession of trips, taking passengers on trips to the Midlands towns of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Birmingham. Four years later, he organised his first trip abroad, taking a group from Leicester to Calais to coincide with a Paris exhibition.

From its humble beginnings Thomas Cook steadily grew, adding more destinations and holidays and today it is the second largest European travel company.

Thomas Cook hailed from Melbourne Credit: getty

Boston

Emigrants from this small port in Lincolnshire (population: 35,000), linked to The Wash by a river called The Haven and lying on the prime meridian, named what is now the biggest city in Massachusetts (population: 6.9m).

Its crowning glory is St Botolph’s Church, a wonder of medieval engineering whose tower extends more than 80 metres into the sky. It can be seen from Norfolk in the right weather and was once used by naval navigators, earning it the nickname “Lighthouse to the Fens”. It also helped British bomber pilots find their way home after missions over Germany during the Second World War.

St Botolph’s grand interior contains subtle links to the calendar. There are 365 steps to the top of the tower (the number of days in a year), 12 pillars supporting the roof (months), 52 windows (weeks), and seven entrances (the number of days in a week).

Today the locals call it the Boston Stump.

St Botolph’s Church Credit: getty

Throughout the Middle Ages the town was an important trading post, with wool, salt and lead being exported to Dutch and German ports, and in return it was flooded with not just European goods but intellectual and non-conformist ideas. John Cotton, the vicar of St Botolph’s in the early 17th century, encouraged those who disliked the lack of religious freedom in England to head east with the Massachusetts Bay Company. He joined them in 1633.

Just up the coast from Boston are some very nice beaches. Bracing Skegness, more than 80 years on, is still home to a Butlin’s holiday resort; perhaps you’d prefer Anderby, where the Cloud Appreciation Society set up its first cloud-watching observatory in 2005.

Woodstock

The era-defining 1969 music festival, and dozens of settlements in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, can trace their names back to an Oxfordshire market town that simply oozes history.

Mentioned in the Domesday Book as a royal forest (the name is Old English for “clearing in the wood”), Woodstock welcomed Æthelred the Unready and Henry I, and was the scene of Henry II’s courtship of “Fair Rosamund”. To conceal the illicit affair, so goes the legend, he built a bower for his mistress which he surrounded with a complex maze. When Henry was away, however, Queen Eleanor managed to find her way to the centre by following a strand of Rosamund’s silken dress. She then condemned her rival to death by poisoning.      

Fair Rosamund by John William Waterhouse

Edward, the Black Prince, was born at Woodstock Palace in 1330, and Elizabeth I was imprisoned there during the reign of her sister Mary. The palace was largely destroyed during the English Civil War, but the remaining stones were used for the construction of nearby Blenheim Palace, residence of the Dukes of Marlborough and childhood home of Winston Churchill.

Curiously, George Eden, 1st Earl of Auckland - after whom the New Zealand city is named - was an MP for Woodstock.

Gotham

A fanciful English folk tale about this forgotten village in Nottinghamshire gave New York City its nickname, and Batman his hometown. With King John planning to pass through on a hunting trip, a decision that would put Gotham on the King’s Highway and make its residents subject to new taxes, the locals decided to feign lunacy to scare off the regal entourage (mental afflictions were, at the time, considered contagious). So when the royal outriders showed up they found villagers endeavouring to drown an eel in a pool of water, others rolling cheese down a hill, and some building a hedge around a cuckoo in a futile attempt to stop it flying away. The became known as the Wise Men of Gotham, and their ploy worked a charm – John and his party steered well clear.

The fools of Gotham Credit: getty

Having heard this story on his travels, the author Washington Irving applied the nickname of “Gotham” to his home city, the idea being that New York is full of eccentrics. Batman creator Bill Finger borrowed the name for his comic book after spotting an advert for “Gotham Jewelers” in a New York phonebook.