Can't Swallow The Brown Willy?

A campaign has been mounted to replace the slightly snigger-inducing name of Cornwall's mighty 420m high point with its Cornish original.

From Brown Willy to Rough Tor in the snow!!, 69 kb
From Brown Willy to Rough Tor in the snow!!
© Master Chief, Dec 2010

It's thought the hill was once known by the Cornish name Bronn Wennili, or Hill of Swallows, but that over centuries this gradually morphed into today's Brown Willy.

Now local campaigner Chris Hines would like to reinstate the original. But why?

Mr Hines, incidentally one of the founders of environmental group Surfers Against Sewage, told the BBC:

'It is that kind of giggle factor. I am hoping the council will turn the name back to Bronn Wennili.'

'Restoring the original name Bronn Wennili to the highest point in Cornwall is a complete no brainer' he went on in a recent press release.

'It has a lovely meaning – 'Hill of Swallows' - a name that the county and its people can be proud of and something that will be slightly more attractive to residents and tourists than Brown Willy!'

'During the summer I was asked to give a key note presentation to the AGM of West Cumbria Tourism where I flagged up what lessons they could learn from Cornwall. The emphasis was on using the coastline for tourism but I thought about what their tourist offer is based around. It struck me that while they have Scafell Pike, we have Brown Willy! Not quite so appealing! I also researched the name and discovered Bronn Wennili and thought that changing the name back would be a simple and effective way of delivering some positive change.'

Chris Hines and Jack Russell Maui contemplate Brown Willy / Bronn Wennili, 170 kb
Chris Hines and Jack Russell Maui contemplate Brown Willy / Bronn Wennili
© Andy Hughes

But this is, he stressed to us today, a 'small fun campaign. There are a million things on this planet more important, but [I] like the idea of stirring the debate, so [it] would be good to hear what your readers think.'

Inevitably of course, not everyone agrees with a change that critics suggest is both prudish and unnecessary. Many local residents will not want to let go of the Brown Willy they've loved all their lives.

The case for removing the scope for innuendo is at least coherent, but is there any historical justification for the re-name?

The Anglicised 'corruption' has been an object of puerile amusement for generations of schoolkids, but for how long exactly? The Ordnance Survey had a bit of a rummage on our behalf, and found a map from 1883 on which Brown Willy was proudly displayed. Though this is the earliest cartographic evidence they could uncover, some diligent research on Wikipedia suggests that the name Brunwenely was in use c.1200 and Bronwenely in 1280; and that by 1401 this had become Brounwenyly. This teaches us two things: a) olde worlde spellings were all over the place, and b) some degree of corruption has existed for many centuries.

A possible compromise has been mooted; the idea of a bilingual name. There's a precedent for this in the slightly mystifying 2009 renaming of Snowdonia's Garnedd Uchaf to Carnedd Gwenllian, following a campaign by the Princess Gwenllian Society. Both names now appear on the map together.

Having originally come out dead against the idea of a double name Chris Hines tells us he's now come round to the possibility. This could conceivably be done on Bodmin Moor in order to please both pro-change and anti-change sentiment. But would that be an improvement? If anything Brown Willy - Hill of Swallows seems even more fnarr-inducing than an unadorned Willy alone.

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