What Does ‘Up the Wooden Hill’ Mean?

4 min read

Last Modified 19 October 2021 First Added 10 October 2021

By Liam Porter

Meaning:

The phrase ‘up the wooden hill’ is a playful term for climbing the stairs and is often combined with ‘to Bedfordshire’ to mean ‘going to bed’.

Examples of use

  • It’s getting late, I should be off up the wooden hill.
  • Come on children, if you want a story then it’s up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire!

Origins:

While commonly dated to the early part of the 20th century, the phrase ‘up the wooden hill’ can be traced back at least 100 years further. It first appears in the work of John Frederick Bryant titled: Verses by John Frederick Bryant, Late Tobacco-pipe Maker at Bristol. Together with His Life, Written by Himself which was self-published and sold at his shop around 1787. It’s worth noting this example of usage is simply as a reference to stairs rather than as we’d now know it.

The specific piece, titled The Affrighted Bricklayer tells the tale of a bricklayer that goes a little too far when criticising his hodmen (labourers that deliver bricks for laying) and is put in his place. The phrase ‘up the wooden hill’ occurs just as the bricklayer is about to get his comeuppance:

up the wooden hill example

While Bryant’s collection of verses was selling in Bristol, you’d need to travel a couple of hundred miles and 25 years to find the next mention of the wooden hill – this time in an anonymously written manuscript titled It Was Me and credited to ‘Me Pseud’.

up the wooden hill etymology

It’s another 80 years before the phrase is used and described as we would now recognise it, this time in a volume of collected phrases of colloquial English from the region of Surrey by Granville Leveson Gower who, in 1893, describes the volume like this:

I do not pretend to say that these words are peculiar to Surrey and are not in use in the adjoining counties of Kent and Sussex, or elsewhere; all I say is that they are the vernacular idiom of this part of Surrey, and are to be heard in the conversation of every-day life.

up the wooden hill etymology

From its mention of ‘the vernacular idiom’ – and the various uses of the phrase with similar meaning in earlier documents – we can say that the phrase predates its 1893 use and, as a colloquial term for going to bed, likely dates from the early to mid-19th century at the latest.

Notable appearances in popular culture:

Due to its common association with childhood, in the 20th century the phrase ‘up the wooden hill’ which, by then, had become ‘up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire’, made many appearances in popular culture, to evoke a feeling of nostalgia. The following, for example, from renowned World War chanteuse Vera Lynn, recalls her childhood (from her eponymous 1936 recording):

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.

As a counterpoint, there’s the song Up the Wooden Hill by Ian McLagan of The Small Faces which subverts that nostalgia in a song ostensibly about drug use:

The day is night, the night is day
So please out the light as I slip away
Up the wooden hills to Bedfordshire
Up the wooden hills to Bedfordshire

Beyond these examples, in the majority of instances where the phrase forms part of a title or lyric, it’s of children’s stories or lullabies. This means the phrase – still popular, though having reached peak use in around 2012 – will retain its charm and nostalgic properties for generations to come.

For other well-known sleep idioms check out what ‘catch some Z’s‘, ‘sleep like a log‘, ‘hit the hay‘ or what ‘sleep tight‘ means.

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