Mikhail Bakunin: address to the Congress for Peace and Freedom, Geneva, 1867
As previously discussed, we reject the idea that our shires are in any way expendable in the regional interest. The English shires are the building blocks of the English regions, just as they are themselves composed of towns and parishes whose autonomy deserves to be respected and cherished.
From time to time, we find ourselves arguing against those who demand that shire boundaries be disregarded in pursuit of more ‘sensible’ regional areas. We’re told that we’re over-ambitious to include as Wessex the east of Berkshire or the north of Gloucestershire. Such reasoning ignores the associations of the word ‘shire’, with ‘share’ and ‘shear’, denoting a portioning of something larger. A shire cannot have divided loyalties; it cannot be partly in one region and partly in another yet retain its unity, otherwise what is it a shire of?
This is not to say that shire boundaries cannot, and therefore do not, change. History shows that they do. Real subsidiarity must allow for whole shires to change region or nation, and equally for their constituent towns and parishes to change shire, if that is the local will. (Among other things, this argues for the return of Berwick-upon-Tweed to Scotland, it being the original county town of Berwickshire and quite attracted right now by the thought of restored rule from Edinburgh.)
Those who today view themselves as living in occupied north Berkshire, or who reject their supposed legislative transformation from Hampshire hogs to Dorset dogs, may take comfort in the restoration of the Cornish border that occurred on 1st April 1966. Professor W.G. Hoskins, in Devon, his monumental history of his home county, set out the story down to 1954:
“The western boundary of Devon has a curious history. If we begin at its southern end, we follow the Tamar for half its length, to a point just north-east of Launceston. Here a great tongue of Devon, two or three miles wide and seven miles long, thrusts deep into Cornwall; but three miles farther upstream the river becomes the boundary again and continues (except for negligible breaks) to within a few yards of its source near the north coast. From this point a direct four-mile line down a steep, wooded combe brings one westwards to the Atlantic coast at Marsland Mouth.
The great tongue of land of which we have spoken covers some nineteen square miles and consists of the two large parishes of North Petherwin and Werrington. These parishes have always been included in the archdeaconry of Cornwall for ecclesiastical purposes, but are still in Devon for all other purposes. They were already included in Devon in 1086 and as they were entirely owned by the Devonshire monastic house of Tavistock it has been suggested that the abbot saw to it, when the boundary was drawn, that the whole monastic endowment on both sides of the Tamar was conveniently included in the one county. But until 1066, or shortly afterwards, this large estate had been included in the Cornish hundred of Stratton and was a part of the royal demesne which descended to Gytha, the wife of earl Godwin. Some time between 1066 and 1068, when Gytha left England for ever, she had transferred the estate to Tavistock abbey. There is evidence that it was still reckoned to be in Cornwall as late as 1084, but by 1086, when Domesday Book was compiled, the abbey had been deprived of it and it was included under Devon, where it has remained ever since.
It is almost certain that the Tamar had been the original boundary along its whole length, except for the parish of Maker at its mouth, and that the transfer of these nineteen square miles from Cornwall to Devon took place silently when Baldwin de Brionne, sheriff of Devon, held the farm of Harold’s and Gytha’s lands in Devon. As Werrington (the political name of this territory) was Gytha’s only considerable Cornish estate, it too fell under his administration. Such an arrangement suited the sheriff of Devon financially, for he paid an inclusive rent for the farm of the Devon lands and should have paid a further rent if Werrington had been officially known to be in Cornwall; and since the Exon Domesday returns were drawn up at Exeter under his supervision he had the opportunity also to set the official seal upon a deliberate fraud of the exchequer. The estate was therefore described under Devon in the final Domesday return, and as recently as 1929 a Cornish bill to restore the status quo of 1066 was defeated in a committee of the House of Lords.”
Now we know that 37 years later the boundary was restored to its proper place, with the consent of every council affected. It pays to take the long view. We act in the belief that England more generally can be the kind of place where local boundaries are determined by what local folk agree upon and are not something to be imposed by self-proclaimed experts in London. And what goes for local boundaries may also go for regional ones. If Cornwall can get justice after some 900 years, then so too can Wessex.