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North of Watford Gap

August 7, 2017

We drove up to Preston at the weekend (nephew’s wedding, very enjoyable) and I noted, as we went up the M1, the Watford Gap service station. People used to say that the North began at this service station; or at least southerners were often accused of thinking that. In fact Watford Gap is not really very far north, being in Northamptonshire, barely the Midlands – but you have to pass it if you’re driving up the M1, hence the expression. What’s interesting, though, is that that expression quickly became corrupted to “north of Watford”. The town of Watford is a completely different place, in Hertfordshire, even less far north. It’s only just outside London. So this mistake intensified the meaning of the expression, making southerners, and Londoners in particular, seem even more metrocentric. The mistake became entrenched, to the extent that in the 1980s there was a TV show called North of Watford; and that’s the version that almost everybody uses now. But I thought it worth recalling the original expression.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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9 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    The Blue Boar services at Watford Gap assumed legendary status in the early 1960s due to the number of musicians who used it. The services opened at about the same time van owning bands started touring the country so became a focal point. It’s been said it was talked about so much Jimi Hendrix assumed The Blue Boar was an exclusive nightclub.
    It seems rather quaint now – it’s hard to imagine The Rolling Stones entourage pulling into the Clacket Lane services or Led Zeppelin at Knutsford but they probably were.

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    I also travelled ‘oop North’ for my brother’s wedding many years ago, in a village near Stoke on Trent. On the way back I stopped with my parents at a pub for lunch, just south of Peterborough. My mother ordered a sandwich and was taken aback when it automatically came with a bowl of chips. Without a flicker of irony, she was chatting to the barman (my mother was very good at chatting and terrible at irony) and remarked how ‘you do like your chips up here in the North’.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    I was doing a job at the GMEX centre in Manchester in the early 90s – the fact I didn’t want gravy on my chips probably made the local papers. The rules change around the country from gravy to vinegar via curry sauce and each are equally relished. No pun intended.

  4. John Dunn permalink

    I have always assumed that the original version of the phrase is ‘north of Watford’ and, indeed, that the phrase was in use long before anyone had ever thought of building motorway services at Watford Gap. I suppose now the task is to find the oldest recorded use of either version. Or do you already know?

  5. I don’t already know; and I could be wrong. But I thought it more likely that the expression was originally “north of Watford Gap” because one has to pass it if one is driving north – which is not the case with Watford (why pick that town rather than another?). But as I say I could well be wrong. Let’s do some research and find out.

  6. Simon Carter permalink

    This is a hard phrase to trace! One source suggests Watford Gap was a junction point on stagecoach routes to the Midlands and East Anglia which makes a kind of sense.
    Is there a northern equivalent, i.e. south of…..?

  7. John Dunn permalink

    Somewhat improbably it is our much maligned Members of Parliament who come to the rescue, since the only corpus that I have been able to search and which gives useful information is that of Hansard! From this I learn that the first use of the phrase ‘north of Watford’ in the House of Commons was in 1969; there are a further 23 instances from the 1970s and 87 from the 1980s, while the first occurrence of the variant ‘north of Watford Gap’ is not recorded until 1990.

    • Well, that is interesting, and does suggest support for your view; but it is still possible that north of Watford Gap was the original expression and predates the 1969 usage you’ve found in Hansard. The 1969 speaker could have been an early adopter of the shorter usage; and the 1990s speaker could have been resurrecting the original form!

  8. Simon Carter permalink

    To further confuse the issue there is a part of the Grand Union canal called the Watford Gap. Could that have been the one referred to in the expression?

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