Brian Viner: Country Life

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Our friend Nancy is having a house built, and is trying to think of a suitable name for it. We had a little brainstorming session around the lunch table the other day, but couldn't come up with anything that tickled Nancy's fancy. Hey, there's a thought: Nancy's Fancy.

Twenty-five years ago, when I arrived at St Andrews University, a student directory was dished out containing everyone's home addresses. I had never met anyone really posh before, so had never met anyone who lived in a house with a name instead of a number. A few of my schoolfriends lived in houses with names as well as numbers - Dunroamin', 163 Liverpool Road - but I identified that as a bit naff even then. Anyway, as I became acquainted for the first time with Etonians, Harrovians and Wykehamists - of whom there were rather a lot at St Andrews, having invariably failed to win places at Oxford or Cambridge - I used to enjoy making the connection between their poshness and their addresses: Glebe House, Alkerton Grange, Thirlwell Manor, Raworth Hall and even, in the case of one minor royal, St James's Palace. It must have appealed to the latent snobbery in me because in my second year, when I acquired a steady girlfriend, I remember being decidedly impressed that her home address contained just three words: Ardshiel, Gartmore, Stirling.

Out here in Herefordshire, we and most of our friends live in houses with names. Here, though, it is not so much evidence of poshness as remoteness; there's no point having a number when your nearest neighbour is half a mile away. And many of the names are more descriptive than grand, referring to the building's former use: Nancy herself is moving from The Old School House, although she rejected my suggestion that her new house, next door to her old, should be called The New Old School House.

This kind of pragmatism in naming houses can be taken too far. I know of a house called The New Little Chef, which apart from anything else makes me feel ancient, since I remember when Little Chefs were considered to be excitingly modern. I never thought I'd see Little Chefs in there with school houses, post offices, police stations and forges, with an "old' in front of them and a 4x4 in the drive. But I suppose it's inevitable, especially as architects get cleverer at adapting buildings for living purposes.

Moreover, so-called progress makes some buildings obsolete as businesses, which is why there are so many Old Post Offices. Sooner or later, in estate agents' windows in our country towns, I suppose we can expect to find details of The Old Job Centre ("eight very small bedrooms") and The Old Texaco Petrol Station ("exceptionally large gravel turning circle").

I've never been much of a fan, either, of house names that are meant to be funny. Someone told me the other day that there's a house on the road to Kidderminster called Wit's End, and I don't think I'd like to live there. On the other hand, I know someone who bought a large country house in France that had five toilets and named it St Cloud, which I thought was ingenious. Cinq loo, if you're still wondering.

Not far from us in Ludlow, prospective property-buyers face an altogether new problem. The Merchant House, Shaun Hill's Michelin-starred restaurant, has closed and reverted to domestic use. But would you want to live in a house with a name that everyone associates with a restaurant, even a restaurant voted 14th-best in the world? Claude Bosi's Hibiscus, just up the hill from The Merchant House, is also closing. I'm told that it is likely to remain a restaurant, but whether it does or not, will the new owners keep the name Hibiscus?

Whatever, Ludlow - famed not so long ago for having more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere outside London - soon seems likely to have only one, the excellent Mr Underhill's. That's a name, incidentally, that was inspired by a cat. Proprietors Judy and Christopher Bradley had a cat called Frodo, and Frodo's pseudonym in The Lord of the Rings is Mr Underhill. I wouldn't want to name a building after our old cat, Sooty, but Mr Underhill's has a certain grandeur.