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England has a wealth of quaint place-names like Stow on the Wold and the fictitious Much Binding in the Marsh. so it's not surprising that some of its newspapers too rejoice in quirky names, such as the Banbury Cake, the Kidderminster Shuttle, the Penwith Pirate and the Falmouth Packet.

All four publications are among the 300 regional and local newspapers now owned by Newsquest, a subsidiary of Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the U.S.


Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady upon a white horse.
The town is famed also for Banbury Cake,
That's the name of its paper, AND the one that you bake.

The real nursery rhyme Ride a Cock Horse made Banbury (Oxfordshire) one of England's best-known towns. While the "fine lady" is popularly said to have been Lady Godiva or Elizabeth I, historians believe she was more probably a local lass who rode in a May Day procession.

The town is also famed for the Banbury cake, an  oval "cake" of flaky pastry filled with mixed dried fruit, from which the weekly newspaper Banbury Cake derived its odd name. Established in 1973, the Cake claims to be Banbury's leading free newspaper.

Some historians believe the name Banbury may have come from Banna, a Saxon who built a stockade there in the sixth century. Banesberie was mentioned in the Domesday book. By the 13th century it had grown to become an important wool trading centre. In 1628 fire destroyed many buildings, though some have survived.

Today Banbury is an expanding market and industrial town, with a population of 40,000. The famous Banbury Cross sits in the middle of a traffic roundabout. It was erected in 1859 to celebrate the wedding of Prince Frederick of Prussia, the original cross having been pulled down 250 years earlier.

"For centuries the rhyme of Banbury Cross has been recited to children throughout the English speaking world," said the very knowledgable Banburyshire Web site. It quoted various versions of the rhyme, including one from 1785, which mentions both the cross and the cake:

Ride a Cock-horse to Banbury Cross
To see what Tommy can buy,
A penny white loaf,
A penny white cake
And a two penny apple pie.

"The cock-horse was a child's hobby-horse," said Banburyshire. "Originally carved from discarded roof timbers, the hobby horse dates back at least 400 years. During medieval times two people riding on one horse, a knight in front, his lady on a pillion, was called riding a cock-horse. Another possible explanation relates to a spare horse that was stationed at the bottom of steep hills to assist in hauling coaches. In the 18th century, children assembled at the foot of Stanmore Hill in Middlesex, to see the fifth horse attached to the Banbury and Birmingham coach."

Why did the fine lady have rings on her fingers and bells on her toes? Once again, Banburyshire had the answer: "Rings have often served as symbols of rank and dignity. Small bells were a feature of medieval costume, particularly footwear. In the 15th century it was fashionable for ladies to wear small bells on the end of their long, tapering shoes."


Penwith, the most westerly part of mainland Britain, is a region of Cornwall which embraces the town of Penzance. So the Penwith Pirate obviously derives its name from the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, which had its premiere on December 31, 1879, at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York with Arthur Sullivan conducting. It opened in London at the Opera Comique on April 3, 1880, and ran for 363 performances.

If the operatic nurse had had better hearing, the Penwith shopping guide might have been named the Pilot (like the U.S. newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, which is named the Virginian-Pilot). In the libretto, she declares:

Though I'm a nurse, you might do worse than make your boy a pilot.
I was a stupid nurs'rymaid, on breakers always steering,
And I did not catch the word aright, through being hard of hearing;
Mistaking my instructions, which within my brain did gyrate,
I took and bound this promising boy apprentice to a pirate.
A sad mistake it was to make and doom him to a vile lot.
I bound him to a pirate -- you! -- instead of to a pilot.

Three miles from Penzance is one of the most beautiful coastal villages in Britain, Mousehole (pronounced Mowzel, please). Richard Hilder's travel Web site, which displays several attractive photographs of Mousehole, says "It has remained largely unspoiled by the developments of the 20th century and continues to present the image of the classic Cornish fishing village of bygone days...

"In past times, the villagers have suffered the effects of winter storms on their harbour and one of these events is commemorated annually shortly before Christmas on 'Tom Bawcock's Eve' where a monstrous fish pie is baked and consumed by the patrons of the Inn on the quayside. This event, which becomes a major village party, attracts visitors from both the surrounding district and from all over the world.

"A few hundred yards along the coast from the village lies a huge cave which - so some people say - gives rise to the name of the village (Mouse Hole!)."


Twenty-five miles from Penzance is another publication with a strange name and a long history: the Falmouth Packet  (what kind of packet would issue from a foul mouth?). It began life as The Cornwall Gazette and Falmouth Packet (1801-02), Cornwall's first newspaper. The Falmouth Packet and Cornish Herald was published from 1829 to 1848. The present paper first appeared in 1855, as Lake's Falmouth Packet.

A library Web site says "There are no copies known from the year 1855, but the newspaper offices in Falmouth hold the years 1856-57 (incomplete). These files are in very poor condition; the newspapers have been folded twice and left against a damp wall, and the centre column has rotted away. They will need extreme (and expert) care in handling, but ... the offices have said they will allow the files to be filmed."

Terry Lambert, general manager of Cornwall's advertising-only products and editor of the newspapers said "In the 1960s, the Falmouth Packet was owned by the London Daily Express, run by Lord Beaverbrook. It was rumoured that Max Aitken, son of Lord Beaverbrook, heard the Falmouth Packet was for sale and ordered his executives to buy it. Unfortunately, sailing-mad Aitken thought the Packet was a ship and threatened to sack his top team when he discovered they had bought another newspaper. I don't know whether that's true or not."

Falmouth's name is derived from Vale-mouth, the town being at the seaward opening of the Vale (valley) containing the river Fal.

December 6, 2000 was the 150th anniversary of the last scheduled packet-boat (mail-boat) sailing from Falmouth, when HMPB Seagull set out from what was one of Britain's most important ports and one of the world's deepest natural harbours, carrying "mails for the Brazils."

"Thus ended 162 years as the communications gateway for Britain," comments Falmouth's maritime historian Andy Campbell, who must know more about the postal packet service than anyone else in the world. He has laboriously cross-referenced a huge database with lists showing nearly 400 vessels' names, sailing dates, commanders. routes and other details of nearly 7000 voyages between 1688 and 1850. Many of the old sailing ships were attacked by pirates, not off Penzance, but on the high seas.

Andy even discloses the 1835 method of preserving plants, remarking "The packet captains were often asked to bring back exotic plants [which explains] why there are so many interesting and mature gardens in Cornwall." He also displays a wonderful collection of maritime photographs (see link below).


A carpet-making city has a space-age name quite subtle:
Its weekly publication is the Kidderminster Shuttle.

The Shuttle wasn't named for today's Space Age. Editor Clive Joyce said the newspaper was founded back in 1870, and acquired its unique name because carpet-making was (and still is) the town's main industry.

When Kidderminster residents first made carpets in the early 18th century, cottagers made their own looms, and held the shuttles in their hands. Invention of the power loom saw the development of carpet mills, and Kidderminster became one of the world's best-known carpet manufacturing centres.

Sir Rowland Hill, educator, inventor, and postal reformer was born in Kidderminster in 1795. He invented a rotary printing press and evolved a system of prepaid penny postage that Great Britain finally adopted in 1839 and which soon became worldwide. His birthplace has a statue in his memory.

The Shuttle often publishes full-page advertisements for a real estate firm whose name has amused newspaper readers around the world for more than 80 years - ever since Edward Doolittle invited his young employee Reginald Dalley to join him in a partnership named DOOLITTLE AND DALLEY.


Copyright 2003

Eric Shackle

Story first posted March 2001

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