What Is The Origin Of (277)?…

Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire

As a child, I can distinctly recall my parents telling me to go up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire, a rather twee way of saying go to bed. I have never really given the phrase much thought since until, the other day, I caught myself using it. The name of the county of Bedfordshire is clearly an amusing extension of the word bed and the wooden hill is a metaphor for a flight of stairs, which, in most houses, were made of wood. It is a logical and more palliative alternative to the instruction dreaded by many children but is there any more to it?

The first use of the word Bedfordshire to denote a bed can be attributed to the poet Charles Cotton. In his mock epic poem based on Vergil’s 4th book of the Aeneid, Scarronnides, published in 1665, he wrote, “now when with rakeing up the fire/ each one departs to Bedfordshire:/ and pillows all securely snort on…” Pompous alternative, suitable for a mock epic, it may have been, but the poet saw no need to explain it. His readers would have got the reference and so we may conclude that it had some currency in the 17th century.

The wooden hill seems to have been a much later metaphor, one of the first instances of its use appearing in the Morning Advertiser on November 4, 1856 in an article in which the correspondent recalls the arrival of a new tutor; “he and myself, after all the others were safe up the wooden hill, should return into the school- room…” Again, it is likely to have been in use in speech before it found its way into print.

A poem published on December 22, 1880 in Eddowes’s Shrewsbury Journal entitled The Christmas Tree contained both elements of our phrase but they appeared separately, rather than in one phrase; “up, with glee,/ the wooden hill/ to the Christmas tree” and further on “To Bedfordshire/ now toddle we”. A later reference in the Yorkshire Evening Post of October 19, 1921 suggested the wooden hill and Bedfordshire were synonymous; “They cannot go to bed like sane people. No; they must talk about “going up the wooden hill” or say they like a trip to Bedfordshire”.    

There was almost an inevitability about the two elements being joined into one phrase but one of the earliest examples, from the East London Press from October 1885, had a delightful variant; “soon as the evening shades prevail, multitudes of little feet climb the wooden hill that leads to the counterpane country”. For me, the alliteration of counterpane country is more pleasing to the ear than the lame joke that is Bedfordshire.

What undoubtedly brought the phrase into the national consciousness was a song written by Welsh comedian and singer, Nixon Grey, or, to give him his real name, David McNeil. Famed for his bright yellow suit, he wrote a ditty entitled Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire which was later recorded by Vera Lynn in 1936. It went “up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire/ heading for the land of dreams…”, and, frankly, its lyrics were drenched in saccharine.

In an interview he gave to the Liverpool Echo on May 25, 1923, Grey gave an insight into the origin of the song’s title. Whilst on tour, his landlady served him his supper and after a little bit of small talk, announced, “well now I must be off up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire”. The article went on, “struck by the rhythm of the phrase, he went over to the piano and strummed out the melody, and the next morning he had the verses and chorus complete”.

The rest is history, but I much prefer counterpane country.

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