Patrick O'Brian, in his novel The Far Side of the World, uses the phrase, "...hey for Saffron Walden." What does he mean?

'This is capital,' he said to Pullings and Mowett. 'I do not think we shall have to cruise here for so long as a week, even if Norfolk has had very indifferent breezes. If we stand well off, keeping the double-headed hill on our beam, she should pass inshore, which gives us the advantage of the current and the weather-gage, and then hey for Saffron Walden. Not that I think that she would decline an engagement, even if she were to windward of us.'


5 Answers 5


This is a literary allusion to a pamphlet by the Elizabethan satirist Thomas Nashe, Have with You to Saffron-Walden, Or, Gabriel Harvey's Hunt is Up, in which Nash resumed a bitter and long-standing literary dispute with the physician Gabriel Harvey.

Have with you has the same sense as "have at you", announcing an attack, and the hunt is up is obviously in the same semantic domain. Aubrey is using Hey for in a similar sense; that expression ordinarily means something like Let's be off to (compare hey to ho in the same sense in Westward Ho!), and Aubrey is announcing that when Surprise encounters Norfolk under favourable circumstances in which Surprise is unable to avoid an engagement he will immediately attack.

So and then hey for Saffron Walden can be understood as "and then we're off to battle".

There is some violation of decorum here: it's difficult to imagine how Jack Aubrey, whose artistic interests are mostly musical, might have become familiar with the ephemeral works of Thomas Nashe, who even in the early 19th century was little known beyond the narrow circle of students of Elizabethan literature. Perhaps Aubrey was attracted by Nashe's reputation as a pornographic writer.

The suggestion turned up by AllNOne that there was a folk song with the refrain "Tis Hey for Saffron Walden" would be a more appropriate source from which Aubrey might have garnered the phrase, but I find no such song on Google. I'm afraid this is Patrick O'Brien being just a shade too cute in his literary allusions.

  • It would make even more sense if Aubrey was referring to a resumption of battle with the Norfolk, but I don't remember the story that well. Gabriel Harvey didn't responded to this ridicule of Nashe's. In effect, this was the final engagement between the two.
    – Phil Sweet
    Sep 9, 2016 at 2:13

Saffron Walden is a market town in England. It's in the County of Essex, 18 miles from Cambridge, 43 miles from London (Google)

In the context of "...hey for Saffron Walden, as per the text, I believe that the character is exclaiming his delight at the prospect of an imminent arrival in the aforementioned town. It might be expressed today as something like, "Look out Paris, here we come!" I have substituted Paris for the less salubrious attractions of Saffron Walden in the hope and expectation that anyone bound for Paris will be enthralled at the prospect of enjoying all that this beautiful City of Lights has to offer its visitors.

  • Just to double-check, the town you identify is on the sea right? Sep 8, 2016 at 20:11
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    @BladorthinTheGrey Saffron Walden is not on the sea; it's some distance inland. Sep 8, 2016 at 20:34
  • Then how can they 'cruise', it seems to me that the passage is about sailing to this place. Sep 8, 2016 at 21:41
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    I think this has to be considered less likely than StoneyB's answer for the simple reason that, at the point these lines are spoken, the ship is off the coast of Brazil and not within a week of Essex.
    – hobbs
    Sep 8, 2016 at 21:58

I think OP's cited usage is something of a "malapropism" - it should have been...

hie - Go quickly
I hied down to New Orleans
I hied me to a winehouse

...but as noted in that OxfordDictionaries link, it's archaic.

You could modernize the sample text by replacing hey with full speed ahead, which is still a current nautical usage. But people with a literary background will probably recognize the usage anyway - I still remember it from Olivia's Hie thee, Malvolio. in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

EDIT: The full OED contains no relevant definition for hey, but I did find Herman Melville's...

Hey for London, Wellingborough!” he cried. “Off tomorrow! first train —be there the same night—come!”

...where it seems pretty clear the same Hurry! sense is what's meant. So maybe it's not so much a malapropism as just non-standard orthography.


Thanks to @Spagirl's comment below, I now totally disown all the above! Although I can't find this definition in Chambers online, my paper copy has...

hey for - now for, off we go for

...under their entry for hey interjection expressing joy, irritation or interrogation. That prompted me to search the full OED more carefully, where I find...

hey (interjection)
1b hey for an utterance of applause or exultant appreciation of some person or thing (cf. hurrah for!), or of some place which one resolves to reach.

I'll leave my earlier text unchanged, since 3 people have upvoted it. But although it might have been a nice idea, I was definitely mistaken.

  • 2
    Actually O'Brian (not O'Brien, oops: I should have corrected that!) writes about Navy life in the Napoleonic Wars, so it's entirely possible that he does want to sound archaic.
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 8, 2016 at 17:57
  • @Andrew Leach: Ah, right! I didn't give it too much thought, but somehow I had the idea he was a fantasy writer. I think I'd better delete that last sentence (and fix the spellings! :) Sep 8, 2016 at 18:01
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    ...here's another instance, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle no less: Then hey for home, and no more hawking today! Given the status of writers using it, I'm a bit surprised the full OED hasn't seen fit to define the usage. Especially when they sometimes list words that have only ever occurred once (from Shakespeare or Spenser, for example). Sep 8, 2016 at 18:10
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    Chambers gives 'Now for' and 'Off we go for' as definitions of 'Hey for'. No link as I'm using a phone app Chambers.
    – Spagirl
    Sep 8, 2016 at 21:54
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    @Spagirl: Interesting! I've got the 12th edition in paper, and it's there too. I didn't realise Chambers had free online access, but I just searched, and there it is. I'm in a bit of a quandary now... Sep 8, 2016 at 22:05

I don’t know the book, but I assume from the question that Saffron Walden has no other context in the rest of the story.

In which case, reading this passage, my assumption is that he’s using Saffron Walden in the sense of synecdoche – using a part of a thing to represent the whole. The same way we might describe a car as “my wheels”, he is using “Saffron Walden” to represent “beautiful England”, his home.

Saffron Walden was – and remains – an idyllic market town in the heart of England. It became very wealthy a couple of hundred years before this story is set (1812, according to Wikipedia). I can easily believe that an English person from that period might use its name in this context – to represent all that is good and beautiful about his country.

Therefore, his words can be read as, “Home to good old Blighty” or, “Home for hot buttered crumpets”.

Of course, I’m making a lot of assumptions here. It’s also possible that the writer is picking on Saffron Walden in particular (there would have been many other towns/cities that he could have selected) in order to reference the obscure pamphlet or the obscure folk song. It’s a touch of genius if he did that – but I think it’s a bit demanding of the reader if the writer assumes they must have this esoteric knowledge in order appreciate what the character is saying at all.


One of the threads running through all of the twenty Aubrey/Maturin novels is that, though the Doctor and especially the Captain try mightily, they cannot seem to get a common everyday expression to come out properly. This proves more amusing in light of their existence on a Royal Navy warship in the age of sail, where the use of specialized naval slang and complex sailing jargon is rampant and understood by even the “squeakers” (the children on board) and the mentally deficient among the crew. Captain Aubrey is a comparatively well-educated person, so he may have heard of the publication mentioned here, and the fact that he has misunderstood it and is subsequently misusing it is part of his character’s appeal, and a source of fun for the reader. Perhaps some of the correspondents in this discussion missed this aspect of O’Brian’s stories, or had forgotten it. In demotic terms, it’s supposed to be funny, people!
And the above humorless person who described the author as “stupid” has obviously not read the books, and I urge that still-to-be-enlightened soul to give Mr. O'Brian’s words a try.

  • If this is the explanation, what common everyday expression do you think he was aiming for?
    – Rosie F
    May 4, 2020 at 7:57

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