Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Georeferencing: Martins Heron

As those who have taken master's level or third year GIS courses with me will know, I tend to spend a lot of time on different aspects of georeferencing.  Linda Hill, in her book Georeferencing: The Geographic Associations of Information, notes that georeferencing can involve both formal and informal representations of geographic information.  An example of a formal method is the use of latitude/longitude coordinates.  Informal includes the use of place names.  Georeferencing itself is defined as "relating information to geographic location," (Hill, 2006, page 1) a wonderfully brief definition, but dauntingly all-encompassing.

I would like to focus on both formal and informal aspects of georeferencing, but in these blog posts I will choose places that have both unusual names, but that also do not seem to make it into the 'official' place name lists.  These places, by their non-presence in such lists, challenge official representations produced in revered gazetteers such as A Dictionary of British Place Names or The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place Names.

Martins Heron is an interesting place name.  I will start with the lack of apostrophe.  This could be an artefact of English (non-)punctuation, a bit like eliminating the 'dot' after 'Dr.'  But perhaps not, since I recall seeing a recent debate in the papers over whether or not the apostrophe should be eliminated, with Waterstone's being a prominent contender for its elimination.  (I recall that the issue was never fully resolved unless it happened over the summer without my realizing it).

Second, who was Martin, and why did he have a Heron?  What is the story here?  I believe there is a story in here somewhere and if not, one needs to be written.  Here's where I dive into the dictionaries and encyclopedias to see what they have to say.  Wikipedia says Heron comes from an old English word for wasp, Hern, and that it is often mis-heard.  Not knowing old English, the 'wasp' aspect of 'Heron' was certainly lost on my ears upon my first hearing the name while waiting for the train to take me from Hounslow out to Surrey.  

On British train platforms, automated announcers list all the stops at which the approaching train will be stopping.  For three months I commuted from the Isleworth station (why is the 's' pronounced in Isleworth?...stay posted) to Egham, so I got to hear the wonderful name 'Martins Heron' read out each and every day, sometimes more than once.  Just the thought of Martin and his friendly/placid heron waiting somewhere beyond the end of (my) line was enough to keep me going, one foot in front of the other in a strange new land.

Now, apparently I have not only enough energy to 'go on,' in Beckett's words, but also to write blog entries about place names.  So, I finally got around to (unsuccessfully) looking up the name in A Dictionary of British Place Names (Mills, 2011), where we have entries for Marten, Martin, and Marton, but no Martins Heron.  The generic entry for Martin says it is a "farmstead near a boundary, or by a pool" (Hill, 2011, page 319), which definitely does not spoil the image of stoic Martin toiling near his placid friend, or following the bird's image on a gloaming evening's stroll.

So what does Watt's (2004) The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names have to say?  Much the same as Mills (2011).  That is, we get the three names sounding close to 'Martin,' and we get Hearne and Heronsgate, but we do not have Heron listed, much less the full two-term name 'Martins Heron.'  If Wikipedia is to be trusted, and for the most part it is a relatively trustworthy source for many things, Martins Heron is both the name of a suburb of Bracknell, and it is the name of a train station.  

As an outsider (but after a year, holding quite a bit more 'insider' knowledge of England) one of the most subjectively important anchors to the landscape around me was both imaginative, in the sense that I did not need to visit Martins Heron for it to have meaning for me, and marginal.  Does Martins Heron not count as a place name because it is merely a suburb, a place on the way to a station taking people elsewhere?  The next logical step would be for me to actually visit the place, and I have, but only through the window of a Southwest train on a sunny day's ride connecting at Reading, with a return connection to Oxford.

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