Devil’s Dyke

At university in England, I hoped to come across some interesting names. Cricket reports and British era names from random reading had given me an appetite for the unusual. Imagine my disappointment when, instead of a Sidebottom or a Drinkwater, I ran into a Yard and a Watson on my first day of class. Over the next few weeks, I met people with the most regular, prosaic surnames. Where were the unusual names? There was one double-barrelled surname, which belonged to a classmate who came from the New Forest, and in her case, it was the place that attracted my curiosity more. I had read The Children of the New Forest only about a decade earlier, which is not much time when you’re in your twenties, and I remember plying this classmate with questions on her life there.

The places I visited didn’t have very interesting names either. Rottingdean, though picturesque, was endowed with a name not quite apt for the setting. Lewes felt misspelled. Bath left nothing to the imagination. And even though I haven’t been to the Lake District, considering all the creativity that gushed from the poets when they walked its countryside, what were the English thinking when they named it?

Names are important. ‘What’s in a name’ is the name equivalent of ‘participation is important, not winning’. Anne of Avonlea makes this point exceptionally well.

“What a lot of elephant’s ears,” exclaimed Diana. “I’m going to pick a big bunch, they’re so pretty.”

“How did such graceful feathery things ever come to have such a dreadful name?” asked Priscilla.

“Because the person who first named them either had no imagination at all or else far too much,” said Anne, “Oh, girls, look at that!”

“That” was a shallow woodland pool in the center of a little open glade where the path ended. Later on in the season it would be dried up and its place filled with a rank growth of ferns; but now it was a glimmering placid sheet, round as a saucer and clear as crystal. A ring of slender young birches encircled it and little ferns fringed its margin.

“HOW sweet!” said Jane.

“Let us dance around it like wood-nymphs,” cried Anne, dropping her basket and extending her hands.

But the dance was not a success for the ground was boggy and Jane’s rubbers came off.

“You can’t be a wood-nymph if you have to wear rubbers,” was her decision.

“Well, we must name this place before we leave it,” said Anne, yielding to the indisputable logic of facts. “Everybody suggest a name and we’ll draw lots. Diana?”

“Birch Pool,” suggested Diana promptly.

“Crystal Lake,” said Jane.

Anne, standing behind them, implored Priscilla with her eyes not to perpetrate another such name and Priscilla rose to the occasion with “Glimmer-glass.” Anne’s selection was “The Fairies’ Mirror.”

The names were written on strips of birch bark with a pencil Schoolma’am Jane produced from her pocket, and placed in Anne’s hat. Then Priscilla shut her eyes and drew one. “Crystal Lake,” read Jane triumphantly. Crystal Lake it was, and if Anne thought that chance had played the pool a shabby trick she did not say so.

So, you see, it isn’t just me. Places and people need to match their names for best results. My full name runs to 21 letters, which tells you that there is a lot of writing in my life. On the other hand, there is a wonderfully carved valley in the South Downs, glorious on a sunny day, called Devil’s Dyke. The spectacular chalky headlands of East Sussex? Beachy Head. Seaford and Shoreham are pretty towns, slightly let down by predictable names. England, why do you inflict these “shabby tricks” on your gorgeous self?

As for people, I did ask a friend if he would like to add Knatchbull to his surname, but he remains non-committal. (I think we continue to be friends.)

A woman from many places.