As an Englishman living in New England, one of the most common feelings that I have when I travel (after fearing for my life because of Massachusetts drivers) is a sense of déjà vu, when I see places that I’m sure I’ve already visited before. Travelling along the highway I am confronted by a long series of names that were borrowed from English towns and cities; Winchester, Dover, Mansfield and it’s almost like being back in England. Some of these names bring up pleasant associations like a sleepy cathedral city and some of them not so pleasant; the English Hull for example should have “Twinned with Hell” on its welcome sign. Other towns and place names are a potential minefield for those who did not grow up in New England, especially the Native American names. If I dare attempt the pronunciation of places like Ponkapoag Pond or Scituate then my wife is only too happy to correct me!
The place names here also make it harder to work out the past of a town without actually studying it. There are some easy and boring ones locally (Milton for example is mill town) but the names borrowed from England are meaningless in their new context. In England a town that ends with Bury or Borough is usually a corruption of burh, a Saxon name for a fortified place. A settlement that ends in caster or chester was established on a Roman castra, meaning a military camp or fort. A town in East Anglia that ends with wich means “place of inbreds” such as Norwich (OK I made that one up). Even county names in England have meaning; for example Sussex is the land of the South Saxons. There are Native American examples like these; for example the name Scituate is derived from satuit, the Wampanoag term for cold brook but apart from the Native American terms the place names are a lot less interesting.
At the weekend my wife and I decided to do some “leef peeping” and reading that autumn foliage was at its peak in New Hampshire (the trees in Boston are not quite ready yet) we headed north. We ended up stopping off in Exeter, mainly because Exeter was my hometown in England and I wanted a photo in front of the town sign. We found a pleasant small historic town, founded in 1638 (old for the US but about 1600 years newer than my Exeter in England). There were enough references to the American Revolution to make me grit my teeth just a little. It was pretty strange for me seeing the word Exeter so many times for the first time in many months. The town had small independent restaurants, a lovely bookstore and even a historic college with buildings in the same attractive style as Harvard. The autumn foliage made for some great contrasts with the historic buildings.
I remember reading a Bill Bryson book years ago extolling the virtues of small town New England and he was right. There are some really pleasant small towns out there. The proprietor of the bookstore didn’t watch us like we were about to walk out of his store with half of his stock in my backpack. In Boston when you are crossing the road at the crosswalk you feel like you are in mortal danger, even when you have a green light. In Exeter drivers not only stopped at crosswalks, they patiently waited for you to fully cross the road before they started moving again. If a Boston driver did that I would probably die of shock. It was a really nice day and the beauty of the changing trees in the autumn sunshine reinforced my belief that New England is a pretty good place to be, even if the place names are just a little less interesting ;)