Some places just sound better than others. Whatever they may actually be like on the ground, there are places with names that seem to possess an inherent resonance and romance – Alderley Edge, Casablanca, Durdle Door, Chichen Itza, New York or Leigh Delamere Services for example. Maybe the last one’s just me.
Others may sound off-putting, with names that seem to sound a titular warning, asking – ‘Do you really want to be here? A few personal examples: Skinningrove, Slough, Knowle, Croydon, Lullsgate Bottom, Penge or Bradley Stoke (or Sadly Broke as we called it when I was a teenager). Of course, like anywhere, spend time in a place and the chances are, you can find that there’s more to it than first appears.
In Slough’s case, maybe it’s an echo of Bunyan’s ‘Slough of despond’, snakes shedding their skin or Betjeman’s poem about the town – ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough…’ but for me the very name feels off-putting. Having been there a few times for work, the reality, at least on the surface, doesn’t challenge the grim suggestion of its name.
Once when on holiday in Morocco I decided to get off a train in Casablanca, lured by the pleasing sound of the name and the eponymous film. The city’s name, it turned out, is the most romantic thing about the place, which, from a fleeting tourist’s point of view, looked like an ugly mess of concrete sprawling away from the Atlantic port: a coastal Coventry of the Maghreb.
Or, Severn Beach, a place name which for an outsider might have a certain ring to it but as a regular visitor when much, much younger it seemed a bleak, grey and rather foreboding place, overshadowed by what was then the only Severn Bridge at the point where it stretched a slab-like arm towards industrial south Wales. The stark contrast between expectation and reality is played up to extreme in the old Adge Cutler and The Wurzel’s song ‘Aloah Severn Beach’.
As a West Country child Severn Beach felt a long way from the more traditional British Seaside charms of Weston-Super-Mare, or Clevedon. Although, the reason we were there, was to scrabble around looking for fossils under the cliff at Aust – which is not in fact entirely grey or black, but layered with red mudstone, white alabaster and black shale. It’s also a site of Special Scientific Interest due to the abundance of fossil beds.
I do appreciate that judging a place based on its name is plain wrong. A ridiculous practice, riddled with all kinds of personal prejudice and associations, unconscious or otherwise. Yet I still do it, which is why a couple of weeks ago I set off on a walk to ‘One Tree Hill’.
Maybe it was a latent teenage memory of the U2 song – named for One Tree Hill in New Zealand – that drew me, but more likely it was the combination of height and solitary tree that appealed. Certainly not anything to do with the fact that I probably read Lord of the Rings too many times when younger and wanted to pretend that this urban walk might, if conducted via the woods, cemetery’s and parks of South East London’s Green Chain, be a bit like setting off for Weathertop in the wilds beyond the Shire.
So on a blustery day, accompanied by my three year old son, who was dragged, or rather, pushed along with the promise of a visit to the Walrus at the Horniman en route, the journey began.
Would this semi-mystical sounding Hill in Southwark live up to its billing? Would the One Tree still be there? Would Bono, Adam, Larry and the Edge be found coincidentally hanging about at the crown of the hill?