What is a 'county'?

Map showing the counties of England

The history of counties stretches back over 1,000 years. They were first called ‘shires’. Shires were administrative areas created across England by the Anglo-Saxons, a group of people who arrived during the 5th century CE. After the Norman invasion in 1066, the word ‘county’ was used instead (from the French word ‘conte’, meaning ‘land ruled by a count’).

Over time, the whole of Britain was split into counties. Each has a capital, called a county town. In the 1880s, each county was given a ‘county council’ to deal with local issues like schools, social care and public services like the police and fire services. This system continues today, although some big counties have been split into smaller areas.

Sometimes, people still talk about ‘the shires’. Usually they mean the counties with lots of farmland, especially in the Midlands (the centre of England) and south west. The word ‘shire’ also lives on in many county names, such as Lancashire, Lincolnshire and Hampshire.

The Home counties

You might hear people talk about the ‘Home Counties’. This is the name given to the counties around London (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey). They have this name because many middle-class people who work in London have their homes there. The prices are often cheaper than London and the houses are usually bigger. Some of the wealthier parts are called the ‘stockbroker belt’.

Shortened names

County names can be long and difficult to say quickly. As a result, it is common for many county names to be shortened. This can be confusing because the short version isn’t always the same as the longer version. Here is a list of some counties with their short versions:

  • Beds: Bedfordshire
  • Bucks: Buckinghamshire
  • Berks: Berkshire
  • Cambs: Cambridgeshire
  • Gloucs: Gloucestershire
  • Hants: Hampshire
  • Herts: Hertfordshire
  • Lancs: Lancashire
  • Lincs: Lincolnshire
  • Northants: Northamptonshire
  • Notts: Nottinghamshire
  • Salop: Shropshire
  • Staffs: Staffordshire
  • Warks: Warwickshire
  • Wilts: Wiltshire
  • Worcs: Worcestershire
  • Yorks: Yorkshire

Image: Micka/Dreamstime

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