Posted in Travel, Writing

What’s in a Name?

Have you ever wanted to visit a place simply because its name intrigued you?

On a short break in North Devon, I am pleased to have the opportunity to visit Westward Ho! The exclamation mark that is part of the seaside town’s official name makes it sound so thrilling. The only thing I know about Westward Ho! is that Charles Kingsley wrote a novel by that name, so I assume he thought it worth celebrating. 

Yet as I plan our trip, I discover the novel Westward Ho! predates the town. Kingsley wrote it in 1855 while living in Bideford. (See header photo for Bideford’s statue in his honour.) Only in 1863 did an enterprising firm of developers start building an eponymous town nearby to cash in on the novel’s popularity.

copy of Tove Jansson's Moominsummer Madness and a cuddly toy Moominmamma
We love the Moomins…

In most countries, there’s no copyright on book titles, so I wonder this doesn’t happen more often. It’s a much more exciting approach to merchandising than the usual t-shirts, tea-towels and tote bags. My daughter and I would visit a real-life Moomin Valley like a shot.

So, if Kingsley’s book didn’t take its name from the town, where did it originate?

Received wisdom is that it came from Victorian water-taxi signs indicating their direction of travel along the Thames. There was also a play by the same name, written by John Webster and Thomas Dekker in 1604, about the westward expansion of London. There followed plays called Eastward Ho! and Northward Ho!  but no Southward Ho! Maybe Jacobean playwrights, like London cabbies, didn’t like going south of the river.

I wonder whether Westward Ho! is the only place name in the world to include an exclamation mark, and I’m pleased to discover another town with not one but two.

I think St-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! in Quebec, Canada, sounds like a fun place until I find it’s named after the French word haha, meaning an impasse, rather than for a civic sense of humour. It’s the same word we use in English to mean a concealed trench to prevent animals passing from farmland to gardens, dispensing with the need for a fence or wall that might spoil the landowner’s view.

Sign for Canada Post office at St-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! in Quebec (3037740822)

The nearest haha I know to Tetbury is at Westonbirt School, at the edge of its Grade I listed gardens. (See Historic England’s offical mention of Westonbirt’s haha here.)  A vintage list of school rules forbids pupils from roaming beyond the haha. This instruction must have perplexed new girls, unless they all had hahas at home.

Meanwhile, back in Bideford, I discover on YouTube a satirical song called “Westward Ho! – Massive Letdown” by Half Man Half Biscuit.


With a discography that includes “Trouble Over Bridgwater”, “Back in the DHSS”, “Dickie Davies Eyes”, and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Road”, there’s a band that knows how to work a name.

Consequently, when I finally arrive at Westward Ho!, I’m bracing myself for a let-down, but thick fog drifts in from the sea shrouding the whole place, making it impossible to form a fair judgment. My sense of wonder therefore remains intact. Not so my computer’s grammar checker, sent into meltdown by all those rule-breaking exclamation marks.

(This post first appeared in the October 2023 edition of the Tetbury Advertiser).


cover of Christmas with Sophie Sayers
Launching Friday 24th November

The manuscript of my next novel, Driven to Murder, (Sophie Sayers #9) with the proofreader, and due to be published on 26th January 2024 (ebook available to pre-order here with a placeholder title – cover reveal to follow soon).

I now have a little leeway to work on another project that I’ve been planning for literally years – a new collection of festive short stories featuring Sophie Sayers and her friends from my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries.

One of the stories also features staff and pupils at St Bride’s School, when Gemma Lamb accompanies a party of school carol singers to Wendlebury Barrow.

The collection also includes my first (and so far only) story about Sophie’s late Great Auntie May, in Christmas Ginger.

Some of the stories have been shared online before, and Christmas Ginger was included in the Everyday Kindness anthology, edited by L J Ross to raise funds for housing charity Shelter. But this is the first time the stories have been brought together in a book.

This collection of gentle, feel-good stories of Cotswold village life (with not a murder in sight!) would make a great stocking filler or Secret Santa present, or indeed a gift-to-self to help you get in festive mood.

Christmas with Sophie Sayers will be published worldwide on all the major retail platforms un paperback and ebook on Friday 24th November. The ebook is already available to pre-order on Amazon here. I’ll share buying links for other digital channels including Apple, Kobo and Nook as soon as they’ve been confirmed.


English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

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