Britain’s as romantic as it is confusing. Outside the cities, British house are more likely to have names than addresses. You want to name your house Island of the Floating Feathers? As long as you work it out with the local council, you can. Although I don’t know how the council would react to that one. They’re more used to The Smithy, The Old Schoolhouse, Oak Tree Cottage, Trelawney. Every village in Cornwall has a house called Trelawny (or Trelawney), after John (or Jonathan, depending on your source) Trelawny, a Cornish national hero who got in a wrangle with James II back in the 17th century and had a song written about him in the 19th, by which time it was too late for him to appreciate it. That’s the sad bit about being immortalized.
But going back to the Island of the Floating Feathers: The council might agree to it. You can be pretty sure there won’t be a duplicate in the village, which is another reason to nix a name. And it’s not as if you’re calling it My Neighbour Painted Her House an Ugly Colour, which any council could find a reason to turn down.
The advantages of house names are romance, atmosphere, self-expression, and tradition. Ah, tradition. There’s a lot of that over here. I don’t know when houses were first given names, but it was long before civil engineers were invented. Naming houses is as natural as naming people. You have a bunch of these things, and you have to distinguish one from another. As soon as a settlement got too big for everyone to know everyone, a medieval village, say, might start informally talking about the manor, the blacksmith’s cottage, plum tree cottage, river cottage, bridge cottage, the old lady with the wart’s cottage. Eventually those became the houses’ names, only sooner or later the old lady with the wart’s cottage would be shortened to Wart Cottage, until someone new moved in and said, can’t we change this to Island of the Floating Feathers? And the person in charge at the council replied, “Please state your reasons for wanting to change this house name.” In triplicate and black ink. If you have to file a paper copy of anything official in Britain, they’ll want it in black ink.
Except for the black ink and the business about the wart, of course, I’m making this up. House names probably started much earlier than the medieval period. But it’s good to remember that everything started somewhere, at some time, with some set of people who had no idea what they were setting in motion.
The down side of this arrangement is that anyone from outside the village is immediately lost. Say you’re driving a delivery van with a package for Craken Wartha, and you’re new on the route. You’ve found the village, but after that you have two choices: Drive around aimlessly and hope you see a sign that says Craken Wartha or stop and ask directions. Or you can do both, one after the other after the other, with increasing degrees of frustration. Anyone marketing a sat-nav system with all the house names programed into it would make a fortune, but no one’s done it yet, so imagine you spot two women walking a small, silly dog. They look local, by which I mean they’re not carrying the beach or hiking gear that would mark them as visitors. Salvation, you think, and you roll down the window and ask where Craken Wartha is.
As it happens, the two women are Wild Thing and me (which should, grammatically speaking, be I, but c’mon, who actually says it that way?). And we smile and point and say, “Go down the hill, cross the ford, go up the hill, take a right at the chapel,” and so on, but you’ve stopped listening because we don’t sound like locals.
Have I mentioned that Wild Thing and I have American accents? And that we came by them honestly? No one who asks for directions believes a word we say. Their eyes glaze over and their faces get this look that says, There has got to be someone else I can ask.
Sometimes we don’t know the directions. It’s surprising how many times you can pass a house but not remember where it is when someone asks for it. It’s tempting to spew out a string of lefts and rights and obscure landmarks, since no one’s going to follow them anyway, but we don’t. We say what anyone else would: “Ask at the post office. They know everything.” And we point them to the post office, knowing that if they see anyone else on the road, even if they’re staggering under a load of beach gear or a snootful of alcohol, they’ll roll down the window and hope to hear the right accent.