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The meaning and origin of the expression: Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire

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Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire

Meaning

Upstairs, to prepare for bed.

Origin

Up the wooden hill to BedfordshireIt would be difficult to find an expression that is more expressive of its time and place than 'up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire'. That time and place being cosy middle class English Home Countries homes around the 1930s and 1940s. The phrase was a coy way of encouraging children to get ready for bed. They would no doubt also have been exhorted to 'pop into their jim jams' and be enticed with the promise of being tucked up and read a bedtime story. Sleepy Time Tales was a typical book of bedtime tales and, at that time and place, the depiction of a golliwog on the cover wouldn't have raised any eyebrows.

The scene is set extremely well by the lyrics of Vera Lyne's eponymously titled recording, 1936:

Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire
Heading for the land of dreams
When I look back to those happy childhood days
Like yesterday it seems
It was grand my mother held my hand
Daddy was the old gee gee
The old wooden hill was the old wooden stairs
and Bedfordshire of course where I knelt to say my prayers
Climbing up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire
They were happy happy days for me.

'Bedfordshire' was just a convenient elongation of 'bed'. 'Wooden hill' had been used as code for 'stairs' for some time. Here's a couple of examples from newspapers of the late 19th century:

The New Zealand Star, in a story titled Farmer Tubb's Revenge, which was probably imported from the old country, August 1881:

I'll just take a turn round the garden and then toddle up the wooden hill.

East London Press, October 1885:

"Soon as the evening shades prevail," multitudes of little feet climb the wooden hill that leads to the counterpane country.

[Note: for those unfamiliar with the word, counterpanes are bedspreads.]

The first example that I can find of the addition of Bedfordshire comes in George Sturt's reminiscences A small boy in the sixties, 1927:

Going to bed was "Going up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire".

Sturt died soon after this book was published so of course his 'sixties' were the 1860s.

The phrase sounds now unutterably twee and you aren't likely to hear it outside of archive clips of Joyce Grenfell and her contemporaries.