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Maps provide a wonderful resource to explore Kent’s placenames and their imaginative potential. Trace, for example, the line of the railway along the River Stour as it carves a gap through the Kent Downs, and recall the announcement as your train pulls out of Ashford - “Calling at Wye, Chilham, Chartham, and Canterbury West” - rhyme and alliteration create a wonderful poesy of place.

Naming imbues space with meaning (a ‘sense of place’), although the original sense may be obscured or lost in time. Kentish toponyms originate from various phases of settlement, although the majority are of ‘English’ origin. Some pre-Roman names do exist, more often the names of natural features, for example several Kentish rivers. The Darent, for example, is thought to derive from the Welsh Derw, which the Romans latinized as ‘Derventio’ – “the river where oaks are common”.1 The county’s own name are early in origin (Roman ‘Cantium’), while a limited number of village and town names are Celtic, for example Penge (pen + ced, ‘wood’s end’), and Dover (from ‘Dubras’ ‘the waters’).2

For many authors, placenames offer an opportunity for playful reworking (Hardy’s Wessex is full of real places renamed, and characters whose names are drawn from the landscape, Jude Fawley, for instance, grows up in ‘Marygreen’ (in reality Great Fawley). The author who most draws our attention to both the authorial and historical malleability Kentish placenames is Russell Hoban, an American who made England his home. His re-namings of places in Riddley Walker so evocative his post-apocalyptic Kent, that his readers can cast their eyes across ‘Riddley-world’ from the vantage-point of the crest of the Kentish Downs:

“Standing above ‘Mr Clevvers Roaling Place’, you can see the ‘River Sour’. Directly below is ‘Widders Dump’, further out ‘Bernt Arse’. On a clear day, you can glimpse ‘Dunk Your Arse’. You will not find these places on an Ordnance Survey map, but, in a sense, they do exist. They are a corruption of contemporary placenames conjured by Russell Hoban in his cult novel Riddley Walker, a tale of a post-apocalypse Kent. They are, in order, the Devil’s Kneadingtrough - a dramatic chalk coombe (dry valley), the Stour, the hamlet of Withersdane, Ashford, and Dungeness. Hoban’s story is of a world reverted to the Iron Age, written in a degraded language most easily understood if read slowly and aloud.” (Vujakovic, 2017, p.134)

Hoban’s tale projects us several thousand years into the future and a Kent crawling out of nuclear catastrophe. Riddley, the books eponymous hero, narrates his experiences in a world that resembles the ‘Iron Age’ in terms of technology, economy, landscape and life-style (with similarities to the feudal world of Richard Jefferies, less readable, post-apocalyptic ‘After London’ (1905)).

Riddley provides us with his own hand-drawn map of ‘Inland’, as much of his home region as he knows.

“THIS HERE IS MOSLY JUS PLACES IVE TOL OF IN THIS WRITING. I DON’T HAVE NO ROOM FOR THE WOAL OF EVERYTHING THERE IS IN INLAND [England?]”

His toponyms gain authority through cartographic representation – maps are power. His map shows a landscape impacted by sea-level change, the ‘Rivver Sour’ is a tidal estuary as far as ‘Cambry’ (Canterbury), the Isle of Thanet is once again a real island (‘The Ram’ after Ramsgate), and far tip of Dungeness is cut-off from the mainland (although retains its twentieth-century outline, an unlikely outcome after such a period of constant erosion and deposition). This new coastline is, in fact, a return to that of the late Iron Age and Roman eras.

Hoban reminds us that placenames should be meaningful and matter, sadly, today, placenames are simply ‘sounds’ to most people, however poetic or even linked to a strong sense of belonging. They certainly mattered and had meaning when people first created them (Chilham = ‘homestead of a man called Cilla or woman called Cille’ Old English (OE)). Or, as in his novel Riddley’s people have re-imagined them to represent the new reality on the ground. Today we rarely question the origins of the toponyms on maps or road signs, or in our heads. By conjuring with placenames Hoban forces us to seek meaning.

Hoban creates the new names in the context of his characters relation to place, hence Godmersham ((OE) ‘the homestead of Godmaer’) is a place of refuge for Riddley and others – ‘Good Mercy’. The ‘dead towns’, devastated by war take on sinister, satirical appellations, Ashford becomes ‘Bernt Arse’ and Dover ‘Do it Over’ while Canterbury ‘Cambry’ is surrounded by land labelled ‘The Barrens’. Others hold personal meaning (the map as biography) Withersdane (possibly OE: ‘sheep pasture’) becomes ‘Widders Dump’ – the widow maker - where Riddley’s father is crushed to death in front of Riddley while excavating iron machinery of a by-gone age.

An interesting passage in Hoban’s book exposes any idea that renaming place is a simple artistic device. The passage shows his deeper interest in how names may evolve by explicitly exploring the (albeit fictional) etymology of one of his folk-names. In a story within the story ‘The bloak as Got on Top of Aunty’, he examines the origin of ‘HAGMANS IL’ (the present hamlet of Hinxhill). Permutations include ‘Hangmans Hil’ (an obvious etymology, and one with precedent in the English landscape (see also Gallows Hill)), ‘Hogmans Killen’ (where a man named Hogman made pots), and where he was murdered by his wife, so mutates to ‘Hogmans Kil’, and finally settles as ‘Hagmans Il’ – “becaws she ben a rough and ugly old woman and it come il he marrit her.” The protagonist of the story within the story even suggests a change to ‘Hagmans Thril’ as the ‘bloak’ managed to survive sexual intercourse with death (‘Aunty’).

Those of us familiar with the story and immersed in Riddley’s landscape may find themselves thinking in ‘Riddley speak’ for many localities; some places do lend themselves to his tone and meaning, but not all. This author, for one (a onetime resident of the Parish of Wye and Hinxhill), does not think of Hinxhill as ‘Hagmans Il’, but rather as the evocative ‘Hengist Hill’, its purported origin being the Old English ‘Haenostesyle’ – ‘hill of the stallion or man named Hengist’ (OE hengest + hyll).

Bibliography

Mills. A. D. (1998) The Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names [OUP: Oxford]
Vujakovic, P. (2017) ‘Mind the Gap’, Kent Life, May 2017, pp. 134-5.
Vujakovic, P. (2021) Map as biography: maps, memory, and landscape – thoughts on Ordnance Survey map, Sheet TR04, 1:25,000 Provisional Edition, Ashford, International Journal of Cartography, 7(2) special issue Cartographers Write About Cartography, pp. 190-197.


References

  1. Darent Catchment Partnership - https://darentpartnership.org.uk/darent/darent (accessed 27/01/24) ii Kent points of Interest; place names - https://kentpoi.co.uk/heritage/places/ (accessed 27/01/24) 

  2. Kent points of Interest; place names - https://kentpoi.co.uk/heritage/places/ (accessed 27/01/24)