I’m sure I’m not the only person to wonder about the placenames scattered throughout the Dido Twite series and particularly in Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Some places certainly have correspondences in our world, viz. London, or the Canary Islands. But others appear on no modern A to Z or guidebook to Britain. So, if it hasn’t already been done it’s certainly high time to begin compiling a gazetteer to Dido’s World, which naturally I shall be adding to as we make our royal progress through the sequence (courtesy, of course, of James III).
What more natural place to begin than the house of Sir Willoughby and Lady Green. It’s clearly somewhere ‘up North’, but where exactly? I began my search with a ferret through conventional atlases. There’s a real Willoughby Chase near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, but this is a road on a recently built housing estate, its name probably inspired by Aiken’s novel; it’s situated near a former drovers’ way. There is a Willoughby-on-the-Wolds in Nottinghamshire, on its northern border with Leicestershire; known as Vernometum in Roman times, it sits close to the Roman Fosse Way between Leicester and Lincoln. There is also a Willoughby Waterleys just south of Leicester and another Willoughby a dozen miles further south, by Rugby in Warwickshire.
But … I don’t think any of these can be identified with the ancestral seat of the Greens. As the Green cousins head south from nearby Blastburn they cross over Great Whinside to descend into Herondale; the ‘-dale’ element suggests to me a location in or near the Yorkshire Dales further north. Suggestively, there’s a Thorpe Willoughby near Selby in Yorkshire on the Leeds to Hull railway line, but no great house nearby that I can see, unless it’s Nostell Priory between Wakefield and Pontefract (now a National Trust property). Like Willoughby Chase it too is fifty miles away from the coast, at least as the crow flies.
Ultimately though I believe it’s probable that Joan Aiken, a great Jane Austen fan, took the name from Marianne’s erstwhile suitor John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. Allied to chase — the traditional name given to an unenclosed game preserve owned by landed gentry for hunting — the whole suggests somewhere grand.
The information we’re given in Wolves is that Blastburn is two hours on by train from Willoughby Chase. Given that the trains in Dido’s World travelled between ten and fifteen miles an hour and allowing for stops, this suggests it’s a little over twenty miles away. By carriage it takes Miss Slighcarp and her charges from their bedtime (six? seven o’clock?) till just before midnight to get from the House to the farthest outskirts of Blastburn.
I’m guessing that this town is somewhere in the region of Kingston-upon-Hull;south of Hull the river Humber runs out towards the sea. We’ll find out from Is (Is Underground in the USA) that east of Blastburn is Holdernesse [sic]; in our own world Holderness is the finger of land ending in Spurn Head that sticks out into the North Sea. Other details emerge in Midnight is a Place, but not much more that helps directly with the Wolves Chronicles.
We learn in Wolves that Blastburn, a place of “great smoky lights and fearsome fiery glare,” has huge slag-heaps like “black pyramids” and that it has black and cobbled streets where work goes on all night. On the road south is a “bridge over the wide river with its busy traffic of coal barges and wool wherries.” (Coal is associated with the Yorkshire Ridings of course, but rather more towards West Yorkshire; and wool has been a mainstay of the Yorkshire economy since medieval times at least.)
Further south is “a long, slow ascent, the beginning of the wolds,” which Simon calls Great Whinside, and six hours after leaving Blastburn by donkey-cart the wretched travellers reach Herondale. The upland and the dale must surely be in what we know as the Lincolnshire Wolds, heading due south for London. Simon paints the sign for the Snake & Ladder Inn at Beckside (“the banks of the brook”). The route, by drovers’ roads, steers well clear of main roads and, of course, the railway.
The capital of the Chronicles sounds to have much in common with ours. Sylvia and her Aunt Jane live in an attic in Park Lane, by Green Park. The journey from the north takes the travellers over Hampstead Hill overlooking Chalk Farm, across Hampstead Heath and down into London. Smithfield Market is mentioned, as is Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. We shall be seeing a lot more of London in Black Hearts in Battersea and in many subsequent sequels.
I should add a word about railways here. Many technologies were more advanced in Dido’s World than ours — for example the Channel Tunnel was built a century and a half before we accomplished it. The rail line I show stretching up to Willoughby Chase and on to Blastburn was in reality mostly completed only between 1837 and 1843 rather than by 1832, as assumed here. We don’t know what London station Sylvia took her train from, nor do we know what stops she had on her journey north. But it doesn’t really matter — in the absence of fuller details we can imagine what we like. Until contradicted in a sequel!