Britons are proud of their roots. It is not just the Scottish with their bagpipes and deep-fried Mars Bars, or the Welsh with their choral hymns and satisfied sheep, who are boastful. Across the nation, there is a sense of fervent local pride. Lancastrians, for example, talk big about LS Lowry and chip butties. Geordies show off by wearing the skimpiest of clothes on the coldest of nights and claim that they are the only tribe in the UK that can smell out a Gregg’s Bakery five streets away. Anybody from Essex finds it imperative to swank around his county rolling his shoulders like a wide boy. Somerset is proud of its snakebites and Scrumpy, Hampshire has its own dress code (blancmange-coloured, cashmere sweaters, hi-visibility yellow corduroys and slippers embroidered with pheasant motifs), while those who hail from Gloucestershire are uncommonly pleased that man’s shortest known measurement of time is the split-second between announcing you are from the horsy county and those within earshot chanting, “okay yah”.
This pride defines our country. It gives football clubs their nicknames: Leicester City Football Club is known as “the foxes” because it is sited in the county that once had the largest local hunting industry, while Charlton Athletic is called the “addicks” after the haddock sold at the local fish and chip shop. Norfolk folk are commonly nicknamed “dumplings” because of their aggressively rural ways.
Yet these modern boasts and occasional barbs remain mostly unrecorded. There is, for example, no Mancunian flag of an Overpaid Latin Footballer Salient Leaping, no duster of a Glaswegian Cubit Arm (an arm with the hand made into a fist) or Balti Curry flapping in the Birmingham wind; or at least that has been the case until very recently.
ALL HAIL COUNTY FLAGS!
In 2007, the government announced that new flags (in addition to the Union Jack, the St George’s Cross, the Scottish and Welsh national flags and the European Union flag), could now be flown without the need for consent. Among the new pennants able to flutter from our civic buildings were county flags. This change sent the local county council bureaucrats into a creative spin, excited about formally recognising their county with a duster. But, unfortunately, none of the new flags seems to bear any relation to how the residents see themselves or the rest of the country sees them.
Devon, for example, decided it needed a county flag shortly before the 2007 ruling. It was doubtless inspired by its neighbour Cornwall whose stay-at-home residents like to brag about pasties and their “fierce Celtic independence”, while its diaspora likes to fly the Cornish black and white cross of St Piran. “Devonians are only too aware of the ubiquitous Cornish flag that is often seen in the form of car bumper stickers on vehicles entering Devon from Cornwall,” says Bob Burns from Devon. “People are quite aware that the Cornish make political capital by claiming to be different.”
The flag finally chosen for Devon, and now officially recognised by its local county council, is a black and white cross on a green background. The green is supposed to represent the “lush of the rolling Devon hills”, the black is meant to symbolise the “high and windswept moors”, while the white is (you’ve guessed it) “the salt spray of Devon’s two coastlines”. I’ll bet a crust of Wonderloaf to a cream tea that most locals and no visitors can identify it. The Cornish, on the other hand, have criticised it as being too similar to their own and claim it is linked to St Petroc, who is associated with them.
A more appropriate flag for Devon, as there is a derelict car in every outbuilding, might be a banner featuring a Vintage Motor Car Statant (all four wheels on the ground) and bearing a Countryside Alliance march sticker. Further-more, it would be correct in the county of red cheeks, red earth and red apples for it to be resting on red bricks. This may sound daft but such a flag would carry as much authority as the newly created bogus cross, according to the College of Arms, the body responsible for official heraldry in Britain.
As David White, the Somerset Herald at the College of Arms, says, “There is no such thing as a flag that is separate from a coat of arms. A flag is a coat of arms put on a bit of cloth and flown on a square banner and if anything has been added or subtracted from that coat of arms, it has no authority. A cross such as the Devon cross may be a welcome sign of support for a local area but it has no more worth than that.”
COUNTIES’ COLOURS AND CRESTS
English counties are based on historic sub-divisions that were established by the Normans who had been influenced by the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and shires. Many of those original fiefdoms had their own colours; Wessex, for example, had a golden dragon as its standard while Northumbria had a flag (first recorded in the eighth century) of gold and purple. However, it was not until the 1888 Local Government Act that the first county councils, known as administrative counties, were created and only then were most of them awarded coats of arms by the College of Arms. “Those county crests belong exclusively to the county council and not to the general public living in the county,” says White. “County flags based on the crests that can be seen on bumper stickers and poles in the back garden are wrong.” However, archaic rulings by the heralds, who have been trying to lay down the law on heraldry since medieval times, seem to have been largely ignored by the counties, many of which have chosen to go Devon’s anarchic way.
Lincolnshire has adopted a flag chosen in a competition in conjunction with BBC Radio Lincolnshire and Lincolnshire Life magazine. Like Devon, it has adopted a cross on a green and blue background, representative of the fields and the sea. A V-shaped flag with a partridge would be more remin-iscent of its steep combes and excellent shooting. Derbyshire, too, has decided on a cross; it is green on a blue background, designed by a BBC Breakfast show listener. “It’s green because we are a lush county,” says the official bumf, “while the blue represents our rivers and reservoirs.” Again, this shows a striking lack of imagination. After all, Florence Nightingale lived in Derbyshire; it is the home of Bakewell tart, Edith Sitwell, Mick Jagger’s grandmother and several great houses including Chatsworth, owned by the Devonshires. Furthermore, Henry Mosely Stevens, inventor of the hot dog, was born in Derby. The Devonshire arms, showing three stags’ heads with a serpent twisted to form a knot, would be far more representative if the serpent were replaced by a hot dog.
Wiltshire’s new ensign features a great bustard on a green and white striped background. It was decided, rather oddly, that the recent reintroduction of this bird to the county was of greater importance than its magnificent score of ancient white horses carved into its chalk hills or the stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge. Kent is universally known as the “garden of England”, yet it hasn’t adopted a trowel and a trug logo but a Wiltshire-style white horse on a red background.
There are, of course, some county flags that are historic, such as the red rose of Lancashire and the white rose of Yorkshire. The Essex flag, depicting three Saxon swords, and the ensign of Middlesex (now an area rather than a county) with its three swords, are the famed emblems of the Saxon kings. But the rest are, as David White calls them, “bogus populism”. If Britain is going to have “bogus” popular flags then I suggest that rather than meaningless crosses and predictable colours, we should adopt more accessible, modern symbols.
A Commuter Train Static might suit East Sussex, for example, while Electric Gates Shut would be perfect for Surrey. I like the idea of a Lurcher in Full Chase for the Fens and a Hippie Sandal Dormant as the totemic sign for North Wiltshire. A Hoodie Embattled would be right for Liverpool while I suppose Swindon with all its roundabouts would suit a Roundel (a generic circle in the heraldic dictionary). So where does that leave the Cotswolds – my neck of the woods – which so far has no flag and no plans to introduce one?
At first I thought that an appropriate banner might be a Horse Box Passant. The equine transporters dominate the Cotswolds in much the same way as white caravans clog Cornwall and ice-cream vans crowd Margate. Then I realised I had ignored the great heraldic convention – one must
feature a beast. The sensible Cotswold flag therefore would include a horse, but a horse could represent half our counties, so therefore its immensely proud rider would embody the area better. A Fake-Tan Cubit Arm with Circling Tiffany Bracelet Gripping a Pair of Reins is my suggestion.