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Watford Gap again

October 19, 2017

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about the expression north of Watford Gap, in which I noted that the expression is now frequently shortened to north of Watford and many people think the latter is the correct expression (although Watford Gap and Watford are completely different places). You can see the original post here:

Anyway, my theory was disputed by some readers, including Mr John Dunn, who believed that north of Watford was the original expression and backed it up by noting that this version is quoted in Hansard as early as the late 60s, while north of Watford Gap does not appear in Hansard until much later.

I did not know for sure who was right, so left it there. But a recent report in the Times (17/10/2017) suggests my original claim was correct. According to the historian Max Adams, Watling Street (the A5, which runs through Watford Gap) was a “cultural boundary” for Viking settlers; many Viking place-names are found to the north of it, but none to the south. This is because Watford Gap is the site of a watershed: rivers to the south of it flow south; while rivers to the north of it flow north, which would have been natural trading routes for the Vikings. So in a sense the north really does begin at Watford Gap.

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    That makes perfect sense. But…why would it take over a thousand years to recognise the fact via the saying?

  2. John Dunn permalink

    The article (though the version I read was on the web-site of a different newspaper) and the blog post that it provoked raise a point that had not previously occurred to me, namely that the two versions of the phrase have, or can have, different meanings. What I, buttressed by my mildly painstaking research, persist in considering was the original, gapless, version of the phrase was, I think, generally used to complain about attitudes that were perceived as being excessively Londoncentric (hence the choice of a town on the edge of the capital). The later, gap-enhanced version, however, seems capable of being used to point out differences between the north and the south of England, which is rather something different. It also appears that the gapless version is in the the process of being superseded by the omni-directional, and therefore more inclusive ‘beyond the M25’.

    • Well, fair enough. I still think it would be rather a coincidence that the town chosen to exemplify Londoncentricity should just happen to carry an echo of the older phrase; but coincidences do happen, after all. I enjoyed the phrase ‘mildly painstaking’, by the way.

  3. John Dunn permalink

    Thank you. I wouldn’t want you to think I took no pains at all, but my researches didn’t involve too many of them.

    I woke up this morning to a memory that in the dim and distant days of my youth there was another phrase that was used to bemoan excessively Londoncentric attitudes: north of Potter’s Bar. This seems now to have fallen into disuse.

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