Shitterton: They swear it's lovely here

For centuries, this pretty Dorset village has enjoyed a special place in the Gazetteer of Britain. But now, there's a stirring behind the hedgerows, and some of its residents are (whisper it) rebranding their community. Things may never be quite the same... Rhodri Marsden reports

I think I'm in Shitterton. But I'm not sure. Satellite navigation technology, while adept at guiding me round complex urban one-way systems, is less than helpful in locating one of the rudest place names in the country; it offered me a choice of going either to Shillington in Bedfordshire, or Shutta in Cornwall. But no sign of Shitterton.

After going back to basics and consulting a map, I head into the Dorset village of Bere Regis, emerge at the other side and arrive at a cul-de-sac with a wooden signpost bereft of its nameplate. If this is indeed Shitterton, someone either loved the name so much that they felt the need to swipe a memento, or they were so concerned about its power to corrupt innocent minds that they prised it off and slung it into a nearby hedge.

I wind down the window and call out to a passer-by: "Is this place called, er...?" My enquiry feels impertinent, mainly because I was brought up never to say "shit" to strangers. But they're clearly used to timid visitors, here. "Yes, yes, this is Shitterton," comes the boisterous reply.

Goadsby's, an estate agent, currently has a wonderful four-bedroomed barn conversion in Dorset on its books. It boasts a tranquil, rural setting, hefty beams and gorgeous communal gardens. Even prospective buyers who might be worried about the state of the property market would be keen on viewing it.

But what the particulars don't mention is the exact location. Goadsby's manager coyly admits that they don't reveal this initially, before hastily adding that they "haven't found the name an issue". Oh, but it is an issue - and one, apparently, that's being batted backwards and forwards by its residents. Is it Shitterton? Or Sitterton? Dorset's civic leaders would prefer the latter, to be sure, and elements in the village are said to be all for a spot of 21st-century rebranding. But for now, Shitterton it shall remain.

This isn't the only place in Britain proudly to wear the Shit- prefix - an unholy trinity is formed with Shittlehope and Shitlington Crags, both in the North-east of England - but Shitterton is the only one of the three actually to be named after excrement. According to the mathematician Keith Briggs, who keeps an informative website on this burning topic, the name is probably derived from a river called Shiter, "a brook used as a privy".

As I pass over Shitterton Bridge, I note that the stream that bisects the village - and was once presumably a cascading torrent of shit - is in fact a picturesque little waterway. The absence of any shit in the immediate vicinity is reflected in the distinctly unshitty names of the surrounding houses: Honeycomb Cottage, Rose Cottage, Sunnyside, Merrydown.

But there has been an attempt to rewrite history. There is a row of ex-council houses on a road defiantly labelled Sitterton Close; Sitterton House has eradicated any whiff of ordure by dropping that all-important "h"; and even Wessex Water's local sewage pump, situated slap bang in the middle of the village, is labelled as being located in Sitterton. Is this really a village that dare not speak its own name?

Not according to Diana Ventham, who, with her husband, owns Shitterton Farmhouse and the internet domain name shitterton.com. Until they recently wound down the business, they rented out the cottages adjoining their home to eager hordes of tourists who came to visit Monkey World (a local ape sanctuary), explore Thomas Hardy country and send postcards back to their families wishing that they, too, could have come along on an away-break to Shitterton. "The name attracted a lot of people, there's no doubt about that," Ventham says, "and we love it. My mother, who lives with us, is in her nineties; she used to tell people that she lived in Sitterton Farmhouse, but even she has come around. She's definitely a Shitterton person now."

Ventham's half of the village contrasts markedly with the prudish Sitterton Close; numerous references to Shitterton are dotted around, and there's a house that's mischievously called Pooh Corner. "There are people who call it Sitterton," she says, "but I really don't know why it bothers them. As far as I'm concerned, the only annoying thing about it is that the Shitterton sign keeps being stolen."

I point out that it wasn't there when I arrived a few minutes earlier. "Really? That's three gone this year, already. We're trying to get planning permission for one that's engraved into a huge lump of Purbeck stone. They won't be able to get that into the boot of their car."

While there is no evidence that having an address that alludes to sewage, genitals, prostitution, bottoms, murder or masturbation makes your house any less pleasant to live in, Shitterton isn't the only place in the UK where residents have turned against their addresses, in spite of having decided to move there in the first place. Ed Hurst, who co-wrote three books (including Rude Britain) that look at the origins of rude place-names, recalls visiting a street in Lincolnshire called Fanny Hands Lane and knocking on a few doors to uncover some history. "I wasn't prepared for the sheer hostility that I encountered," he says. "They were sick of having their road sign pinched, they were sick of pizza not being delivered because the restaurant thought it was a hoax call. As it turned out, it was just named after a woman called Fanny Hands."

Campaigns by residents to effect name-changes that might give the area a bit more class are, by and large, destined to fail, according to Hurst. "There's a Slutshole Lane in Norfolk that is still called Slutshole Lane, despite residents' best efforts," he recalls. "And there's a Butthole Road, which they're trying to change to - wait for it - Buttonhole Road.

"Thing is, nearly all of these names have perfectly innocent origins. Butthole Road is just named after a borehole, a water source." Not someone's arse, then? "Well, exactly."

Shitterton probably started a slow metamorphosis towards Sitterton during the Victorian era, at the same time as towns and villages on the river Piddle were being renamed to Tolpuddle, Affpuddle and Puddletown - presumably in order not to cause embarrassment to travellers asking for directions.

John Hyde, who is 90 years old next month and has lived nearly all his life in Shitterton, certainly remembers what he called the place as a child. "Shitterton," he says, emphatically. "Definitely Shitterton."

There's something about the Dorset accent that makes the word "Shitterton" sound particularly rich and unctuous, and Hyde certainly makes the most of it. "As an infant, I went to Shitterton Girls School - that's Shitterton - before going to the boys school down the road," he says. "But when they built these houses in the 1930s for people who worked on the local watercress fields, they named the road Sitterton Close. It's strange."

As our discussion continues, Hyde starts diplomatically to refer to the village as "Shitterton-or-Sitterton" - a name that could be a compromise to suit all parties. "But the strange thing is," he continues, "that those 1930s houses aren't even in Shitterton-or-Sitterton. When I was a boy, if I was meeting someone round there, I'd say, 'See you up Podges.'" Podges? "Yes. But I've no idea why," he laughs.

Despite the notion of a vicious rivalry between residents who rejoice in living in Shitterton and those who'd rather die than admit living there, I'm having trouble finding any staunch Sitterton supporters (which is a great tongue-twister, if you're ever on the lookout for one). A couple who identify themselves as "the Butterfields" are taking the shopping out of their car; neither has the slightest problem with Shitterton. "It is what it is. We don't really take any notice of it," they say. Down the road, however, Marianne Turner displays an almost romantic fervour for the old name. "It's just so precious, isn't it?" she says. "But I am always queried about it when I give my address on the phone, and I still receive mail sent to Sitterton.

"I even ordered some notepaper from a local printer, carefully spelled out the name of the village as Shitterton - and it all came back with Sitterton on it. I'm glad the Ordnance Survey have changed it back to Shitterton on their maps, though." Maybe, after few letters to the major satnav companies, the whole cartography industry will finally be sitting on the Shitterton side of the fence.

Just when I thought I would never get to hear the other side of the story, and that this supposed crusade against Shitterton had been cooked up by Dorset Council to get people to visit Monkey World, I approached a woman walking her dog at the bottom of Sitterton Close. By this point, everyone had been so proud of their village's name that my opening gambit, I must confess, had become a little over-friendly, some might say downright rude.

"Hello - I just wanted to ask you, are you a Sitter, or a Shitter?" A cold, steely glance. "I'm walking my dog, thank you very much," came the reply. Hmm. I reckon she's a Sitter, no question.

It seemed wrong that Shitterton should be deprived of its identity by puerile thieves, so I nipped into the nearest store in Bere Regis, bought some paper, crayons and drawing pins, and sat down to create a temporary sign. According to Diana Ventham, the council's replacements have been getting flimsier and flimsier as more and more of them have disappeared into the ether; and nothing could be flimsier than the scrawled SHITT I now attached to the wooden signpost. But at least the village now proudly announced itself to anyone leaving Bere Regis.

A review of Rude Britain on amazon.co.uk ponders how different Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca might have been if it had begun: "Last night I dreamt I went to Shitterton again..." Well, at least if anyone tries to pay Shitterton a visit now, they'll have better luck finding it than I did.

What's in a name? Britain's rudest places

Cockington

Just a mile from Torbay's seafront lies the thatched village of Cockington, whose pretty houses are steeped in history. Nelson dined at Cockington Court, and Lutyens designed the local pub, where sniggering over the village name is kept to a minimum. Quiet and quaint, Cockington is a pricey place to live and its proximity to the "English Riviera" makes it a honeypot for holidaymakers.

Lickey End

In spite of large-scale development in the 1990s, Lickey End is a local beauty spot that makes up one part of the Lickeys, a collection of villages near Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. It draws walkers looking to explore the Lickey Hills, and there's a good local school, making it popular with families. Residents ignore the wisecracks about their village's name, maintaining a dignified air in the face of ridicule.

Nob End

Nob End, near Bolton, Lancashire, is a 21-acre site that includes the southern half of the village of Little Lever. It was formed by the dumping of toxic alkali waste during the 19th century, which resulted in an unusual landscape of chalk-loving vegetation. This rare site of special scientific interest is offset by the distant industrial landscape of Greater Manchester and the quaint cottages that line the nearby waterways and weirs.

Thong

Thong is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it hamlet, south-east of Gravesend in Kent. It has absolutely no connection with skimpy undergarments. Travel links, however, are good - it's just 500 yards or so from the A2 (almost too close) and five miles from Ebbsfleet International station. The few shops that are there wouldn't see many people through the week. Luckily, the giant Bluewater centre is close at hand.

Ugley

Ugley in Essex is anything but; it sits between Saffron Walden and Bishop's Stortford, in prime commuterland. The name probably means "Woodland clearing of a man named Ugga". The Ugley Women's Institute grew so tired of the juvenile jibes that they changed its name to the Women's Institute of Ugley, a rebranding exercise not yet repeated by the Ugley Farmers' Market.

Pratts Bottom

Located just within the M25 motorway, to the south of Orpington in Kent, Pratts Bottom was first recorded as Spratts Bottom in 1773, but it quickly changed to its present form, meaning "valley of a family called Pratt". Very expensive and very desirable, its moniker seems to make no difference to people seeking rural bliss in close proximity to London. The village website admits that it is "often the butt of jokes".

Lower Swell

Fans of the puerile will love Lower Swell in Gloucestershire. Not only does its name raise eyebrows, but the river Dikler and the Golden Ball pub rarely fail to raise a smile, too. That said, it has some of England's finest countryside, a tranquil village green and plenty of mellow stone cottages - and the quintessential Cotswold town of Stow-on-the-Wold is just up the road.

Wetwang

Wetwang is a Yorkshire Wolds village that sits on a busy main road along the coast. Debate surrounds the origins of its name; it means either "field for the trial of a legal action" or just "wet field". Whatever the meaning, the name attracts so many sniggers that the late Richard Whiteley was bizarrely made the honorary Mayor of Wetwang, a title now held by the BBC Look North weatherman Paul Hudson.

Twatt

Fifteen minutes' drive north of Stromness in Orkney lies the hamlet of Twatt. The name comes from ancient Norse, meaning "small parcel of land" - and there's not a lot there apart from a clutch of unexciting buildings and the A967. The beauty of Twatt, though, lies in its wild setting, breathtaking views and a sense of total isolation. Houses here are decidedly affordable.

Balls Green

Sounding more like a reason to visit the doctor than a dot on the map, Balls Green is a tiny hamlet between Tunbridge Wells and East Grinstead, close to the borders of Surrey, Kent and Sussex. It has pretty peg-tile cottages and detached, oversized houses clustered along its one quiet lane. Too small even for a pub, drinkers need to look a few miles up the road to the Dorset Arms in Withyham to slake their thirst.

Penistone

Penistone is a thriving market town west of Barnsley in South Yorkshire, in the foothills of the Pennines. Its name derives from the Old English "tun", meaning farm or village; Penstun and Penstone are early versions of the name. The Domesday Book simply refers to it as "wasted". It has all the amenities you'd expect in a rural town of 8,500 residents, including a cinema, farmers' market and, er, morris dancers.

Bitchfield

Five miles south of Grantham, Lincolnshire, is the delightfully named village of Bitchfield. But the name's definitely its main attraction; there's nothing to see, just two groups of buildings connected by Dark Lane, and a small chapel. Beware: avoiding Bitchfield because of its name may land you up in nearby Bulby, Aslackby, Sproxton or Burton Coggles. Not much of an improvement.

Tosside

Tosside in Lancashire is considered by residents to be the smallest place in the world. Its origins stretch back to the Vikings, with its name derived from "tod", meaning fox, and "saetr", meaning high summer pasture. Located between the villages of Slaidburn and Wigglesworth, within the Forest of Bowland, it's a designated area of outstanding natural beauty that can be explored on foot or bike. It may be tiny, but Tosside does have a pub - the Dog and Partridge.

Prickwillow

Prickwillow is set on the banks of the river Lark, four miles east of Ely in Cambridgeshire. The "Prick" in Prickwillow is said to be a reference to the "prickets" of willow - long, thin skewers used to make thatch - that grew in the nearby marshes. The village lies below sea level and a series of pumping engines were installed to ensure that the land remained arable. Some of them can be enjoyed at Prickwillow's Museum of Fenland Drainage.

Crapstone

Crapstone in Devon is to be found on the western edge of Dartmoor, one mile away from Yelverton. The locals are fiercely defensive of their village, even starting a campaign on Facebook complaining about a television advert that claimed to be set in Crapstone but was actually filmed near "the Pimple" in Tavistock. It has been noted that Crapstone's industrial hub is the Crapstone Business Park, while its financial district is the counter of the local post office.

Bell End

Five miles up the road from Lickey End is the minuscule hamlet of Bell End. Set on the busy A491, between the M5 and Stourbridge, in the Bromsgrove district of Worcestershire, it consists largely of the Bell Inn pub and a couple of houses. So there are very few residents to suffer the shame of living in Bell End.

Cockermouth

Cockermouth in Cumbria sits at the confluence of the rivers Cocker and Derwent. It's an ancient town, with Roman, Viking and Norman influences, which has grown over the centuries to a population of nearly 8,000 people. It's the birthplace of William Wordsworth and Fletcher Christian. In spite of its proximity to the Lake District, it suffers much less from summer tourists than close neighbour Keswick (that means Cockermouth is not as popular or pretty). It's also home to the Belfagan all-female morris dancers.

Spital in the Street

Boasting just a few buildings and a public phone-box, Spital in the Street joins a long list of Lincolnshire places with a hint of unsavouriness. It's on the busy intersection of the A15 and A631, north of Lincoln, and has the equally daft Owmby-by-Spital and Normanby-by-Spital as near neighbours. Not as remote as it seems, Spital in the Street is half a mile west of Hemswell Cliff, which has a school, museum, pub and hotel.

Titlington

The cheekily named Titlington is six miles west of Alnwick in Northumberland and 10 miles from the coast. The population has dwindled over the years, and it now consists of a few houses and the spectacular Titlington Mount, a country pile used for corporate functions and weddings.

Upper Dicker

Originally the site of a medieval trade centre ("dicker" means barter), Upper Dicker sits within sight of the South Downs near Polegate. Not the prettiest village (or name) in the area, the housing stock is a mixture of Downland vernacular and modern boxes, slightly blighted by a fast through-road. There's a smattering of shops along the main road and the posh St Bede's senior school is in the village. Lower Dicker is just down the road.

Muff

Muff - from the Irish word "magh" - is a village in County Donegal, on the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Over the last decade, Muff has seen a huge growth in population, with people from Northern Ireland moving across the border. The first week in August sees the Muff Festival - and there's a diving club in the village called, yes, the Muff Diving Club.

Jonathan Christie

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