Discovering Warrington


Map of England and Wales, showing Anglo-Saxon ...
Image via Wikipedia


“D’you hear that, lads? We must be nearly there now.”

Weary grunts and the splash of oars were the only response as the helmsman, Cnot, steered the longboat toward the sound of the river going over the weir. As he took stock of the surrounding countryside, he dared to hope that this time it would be different, that this time he would finally make his mark.

Coming as he did from a long line of Norse sailors, he was used to the rough and ready humour of his comrades as they went a-viking round the Celtic seas. But the worst thing any of his cousins had to put up with was being told to ‘paddle yer own Canut”. As a growing lad, he had had to learn not to cringe at the never-changing repartee that followed when he was asked who he was, and had to reply, “I’m Cnot, the Explorer”.

But in his mind’s eye, the weir and its approaches segued into the burgeoning town he fondly imagined would be called after its founder; the homestead of Cnots’ people – Cnottingham.

History, however, had other ideas.

In the centuries that followed,settlers and invaders of various denominations would arrive at this, the shallowest point on the border river. Adhering to the yet-to-be-written rules of internet communication,  they would uniquely reference the location of their site at a nodal point to which all traffic would have to be bussed, M6 permitting.

Strangely, in spite of this protocol, none of these early arrivals were in fact American, although they evinced many of the same qualities, including a mania for naming things. So what did they call this place? Stay with me, this may take some time.

The pre-Roman inhabitants, Danes, Anglo Saxons, and anyone else who happened to be passing by knew that river valleys produce good farmland.And so they established their farmstead, or ‘tun’ in Old English, next to the river dam, or ‘wearing’. With a sense of the bleeding obvious which subsequent generations were wont to overdo, the settlement was known as ‘farmstead by the weir’ – Wearingtun.

When the Romans came along, they established their craft centre and curio shop at Howley, a mile or so downriver. Sadly, in his holiday reports for Baedecker’s Ancient Britain, Julius Ceasar gave no indication as to why they shunned the original location. There are those – xenophobes I calls ’em – who hold that Italian logic could not cope with the fact that a solid Roman road, or Via, was pronounced that same as a river crossing. Be that as it may, Wearingtun seemed set fair as the winner of  Name That Town.

And then the Normans came and cocked it up.

Gallicly ignoring the name by which the parishioners of St. Elphin’s knew their town, and having more trouble with their ‘l’s and ‘r’s than a Japanese in a laurel shrubbery, King William’s clerks left the name to posterity in the Domesday Book as Wallintune. This inclined Angevin and Plantagenet kings to think that the place had something to do with Hadrian, and that Strathclyde, north of the border, started in Lancashire.

No change there, then.

To be fair to the French, if we really must, they could have been misled by the court of King Edward the Elder which,  a few years earlier in 923 had established a fortified city, no less, at Thelwall, less than a mile or so upriver. Being blessed with linguistic savoir faire, or so they would have us believe, they perhaps deduced that a wall of thels, or planks was connected with the downriver settlement.

But, just like their rugby, they only got one half right. Had they consulted their Funk and Wagnall (Continental Edition), they would have realised that the name Thelweale referred to a plank bridge, not a wall, across a deep pool, or weale. The pool in question being the Mersey, as any Scouser knows.

This river, the Meares Ea, or Border River, had marked the boundary between Mercia and Northumbria even in Cnot’s day, and so was of considerable strategic importance. It had always been the practice of early rulers to award the governance of the wild frontiers to the more powerful of their warlords, mainly on the assumption that if they were fighting the barbarian hordes, they were less likely to be plotting to overthrow the sovereign, seated in stately, soft Southern comfort.

In their turn, these Marcher Lords would appoint senior members of their household as castellans and revenue officials, or reeves to look after their various forts and county holdings.

How appropriate, then, that by the time of the Tudors , the High Shire Reeve of the district, with his castle in Bewsey, was the latest scion of the Jeeveses-in-residence to the Earls of Chester, one Sir Thomas le Boteler. He it was who, by the diligent taxing of his county, in 1526 left enough money in his will to endow one of the earliest grammar schools in England.

The Viking founders were old bones by then, of course, and never even had a look-in at the Naming Game. Poor  Cnot. If only he’d spelled his name with a K and found a ford instead of a weir…

But these are the vicissitudes of language – a vowel added here, a consonant dropped there – much like a mediaeval version of Countdown. By the time Noll Cromwell dropped by and enfranchised an ethnic restaurant in the cottage opposite his old mate Granby’s pub, the township had settled on the spelling and decided to be called Warrington.

All things considered, though, it could have been worse for Warringtonians. An ironic chronicler with a crystal ball and an eye to TV ratings might have been tempted to call the town Cnot’s Landing.”>Scary Castle</a> by Shari Weinsheimer

One comment

Leave a Reply