What Is The Origin Of (142)?…

The Great Wen

Regular readers will be aware that I spend a little time exploring some of the highways and byways of our metropolis, London. I find its history fascinating and still miss, albeit fleetingly, my daily commute up to the Smoke. For some, though, the hustle and bustle, the noise and the dust is so off-putting that they would do anything to avoid it. They might be tempted to refer to the capital as the Great Wen, a rather uncomplimentary, if archaic, sobriquet that it has earned in certain quarters.

But what is a wen? Its origin is from the Old English noun, wenn, which was used to describe a tumour or a wart, coming into our language from the Proto-Germanic wanja. Specifically it was the best type of tumour to have, if you were unfortunate enough to have one as I do, one that is benign and was generally situated on the scalp. By the Middle Ages it was beginning to be used to describe any form of protrusion and in a figurative sense as a form of insult, a kind of medieval version of a big lump. Shakespeare used the word in this sense in Henry IV Part 2, first performed in 1600. Prince Hal uses it pejoratively to describe his free-booting companion, Falstaff, who was a little on the chunky size; “I do allow this Wen to be as familiar with me, as my dogge.

By the 18th century, though, wen started to be used as a descriptor for a city. Cities were beginning to increase in size as more and more people fled the countryside in search of employment and those mythical streets paved with gold. Men of sensitive dispositions were appalled at the squalor and noise of these conurbations, full of ramshackle tenement buildings and streets, not to mention rivers, full of rubbish and excrement. One such soul was the Dean of Gloucester and economic theorist, Josiah Tucker, who wrote in his Four Letters of National Importance, published in 1783, of London “if therefore the increase of Building, begun at such an early period, was looked upon to be no better than a Wen, or Excrescence, upon the Body-Politic, what must we think of those numberless streets and squares that have been added since?”  The gloss on Wen may lead us to conclude that even then its meaning was beginning to be lost in the mists of time.

It was William Cobbett in his Rural Rides, published in 1822, who specifically nailed London as the great wen when he wrote, “but what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster, called by the silly coxcombs of the press, the metropolis of the empire?” For the next thirty years the custom was to use the phrase, the great wen of London, but by the 1850s the phrase that was sufficiently well known that the possessive was dropped and capital letters at the start of each word were used to denote that they were talking about London.

In a game of word association, I would probably respond to great wen with Big Yin, a phrase used by our Scottish friends to describe anyone of above average height, although these days most people associate the phrase with the comedian, Billy Connolly. Its antonym is a wee bauchle, which is used to describe a short-arse, often one who was shabby in appearance. A bauchle, after all, was a shabby, down-at-heel shoe.


Rural Rides (26)


The Cotswolds

After far too long the metaphorical Mr Cobbett was able to release his trusty (and rusty) steed and head off towards that beautiful part of England around Chipping Campden in the heart of the Cotswolds. We spent a couple of nights in village of Mickleton at the Three Ways House, home of the world-famous Pudding Club. Coincidentally, we timed our visit with a Pudding weekend – it meant that parking spaces were at a premium – but were able to sample their wares. My spotted dick with a huge jug of custard was delicious.

One of the principal attractions of the gaff was that it was within walking distance – a couple of miles or so as the crow flies across the undulating fields – of one of my favourite gardens at Hidcote Manor. The walk was pleasant enough and not too arduous and we were blessed with fine weather and firm dry conditions underfoot. One of the benefits of arriving by foot is that you feel amply justified in taking advantage of the many benches dotted around the garden and take in the wonderful scenery and drink in the floral scents.

The garden was originally designed by an American, Lawrence Johnston in around 1910 and is heavily influenced by the work of Alfred Parsons and Gertrude Jeckyll. The clever use of stone walls, box hedges, hornbeam and yew creates a series of areas or outdoor rooms, each with their own theme – the White Garden, the Fuchsia Garden (magnificent on our visit) and the like. Each time you go through an archway or turn a corner you encounter new delights and a different vista. It is well worth a visit.


Just down the lane is to be found Kiftsgate Court Gardens which, unlike the National Trust run Hidcote, is privately owned and only allows the great unwashed to tramp around between 2 and 6 o’clock. Perched high up the garden offers wonderful views of the vale of Evesham and the surrounding countryside.

The gardens are the work of three generations of women. Heather Muir started work in the 1920s creating a paved formal garden in front of the portico of the house. The steep slope was tackled and a summer house was built half way down. A path leads you on to the Lower Garden complete with a semi-circular pond. The views are stunning. Muir’s work was carried on from 1950 by Diany Binny and then her daughter and current owner, Anne Chambers, bore the responsibility from the 1980s.

Surrounded by a magnificent yew hedge, planted in the 1930s, is now a rather incongruous pool with water feature, adding a touch of modernity to what is otherwise a garden with a traditional feel. It was originally a tennis court but the upkeep proved too expensive. The other notable feature of the garden is the Kiftsgate Rose – alas, it had finished flowering by the time of our visit – which, at over 50 feet high and 80 feet wide, is the largest climbing rose plant in Britain.

We retraced our steps and rewarded ourselves with a couple of pints at the Kings Arms in Mickleton where TOWT was stung four times by a wasp which managed to inveigle its way into her trousers. At least it gave us the opportunity to rediscover the delights of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.

The countryside can be a dangerous place at times.