Mapping Willoughby Chase

Nostell Priory, Morris's Country Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen (1880) Wikipedia Commons
Nostell Priory, Morris’s Country Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen (1880) Wikipedia Commons

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).

Willoughby Chase
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.

Willoughby Chase, by Pat Marriott, as it appears only in the American first edition
Willoughby Chase, by Pat Marriott, as it appears only in the American first edition

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.

Dido's World: sketch map 1
Dido’s World: sketch map 1

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!

29 thoughts on “Mapping Willoughby Chase

            1. My strongest memory (apart from Battersea) is of standing on the Mall and as the royal coach went past asking where it was going; my mother said “Just to the end and round the roundabout and back again”; in truth it was a very long wait as she had a coronation to undergo!

              Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, I haven’t read the books but I still enjoyed the post, so I look forward the the next instalment. I’ll try and make a point of trying the books out but I have a bit of a queue of books to read at the moment.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. So thoughtful of you, Chris, to do the legwork for us. But here’s something to consider: if the world of the Wolves Chronicles can have a tunnel under the river, why not also trains that travel faster than 15 mph?


      1. Dido and Pa features the Rotherhide Tunnel under the Thames. In fact the tunnel, built between 1825 and 1843, was the first successful tunnel under a navigable river. At 400 metres long it couldn’t match the twenty-odd miles under the Channel, but clearly Napoleon’s engineers thought the Chunnel a practical possibility at the turn of the 19th century.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Trains not travelling faster than 15 mph? Perhaps there was a law against it (even if there was no need for a man with a red flag to walk in front) or perhaps competition with horse-drawn coaches wasn’t as fierce as we might think!

      In our world train speeds went from 8 mph in 1825 to 14 mph in 1829 and then 20-25 mph in 1834, so I suspect Joan was trying to ground her world in some kind of reality.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. As the Chronicles, courtesy of Dido and Is, roam over not only England, Wales and Scotland but also touch on the US, South America and the South Pacific, those geographical details and associated sketch maps will amass horrendously, Lory — hang on, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride!


      1. jbulloug

        Not to mention France, in Cold Shoulder Road! Being an American with little knowledge of British geography I am enjoying your detective work linking places in Wolves of Willoughby Chase to real places! After we read Nightbirds on Nantucket, my family has been talking about visiting Nantucket this summer to see the Sankaty Lighthouse and other landmarks from that book, and maybe even search for a pink whale. If we go, I’ll surely share anything we learn with you!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah yes, I’d forgotten France … I look forward to hearing about your family’s proposed Nantucket visit, John, especially as I hope to get round to ‘Nightbirds’ this year. I’ve often wondered about that pink whale, especially with recent reports of that pink lake dolphin. My thoughts were that the colour may have come from parasites, so I was interested to read about this, on humpbacks: Conchoderma auritum, a type of gooseneck barnacle, is apparently a species that makes its home “exclusively” on the Coronula diadema barnacles that make their home “exclusively” on humpback whales, and these gooseneck barnacles look like pink noodles hanging off the skin!


  2. Just a quick additional note: for some reason, I had imagined Willoughby Chase being in the west, near Cumbria. No idea why — and certainly if I’d taken a minute to look up things like Holdernesse, I’d have seen my error. So, many thanks for the visual aid.
    And I agree with you about the Jane Austen source for “Willoughby” — opulent and enthralling, but also lacking in restraint and awareness.


    1. Hah, my Coronation memories didn’t involve an elephant trying to stop a building sliding into Thames, but they did involve seeing Chu Chin Chow on Ice, a musical version of Ali Baba with the forty thieves skating around to music. Not as exciting though as Dido later seeing an ice yacht sinking into a thawing river…


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