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

Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire'?

Go up the hill to Bedfordshire was phrase uttered to children in the UK when it was time to go upstairs to prepare for bed. The expression is now sounds rather antiquated to many, but it is still used.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire'?

It 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 Counties 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.

Up the wooden hill to BedfordshireSleepy 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, although being a real place, has no particular connection with sleeping. The name was used in the expression just as 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.

If you do now hear 'up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire' spoken you will probably be in a middle class home in the south-east of England or watching an archive clip of Joyce Grenfell or her contemporaries.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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