Near Kenilworth Castle, just off Castle Hill, is a charming group of thatched cottages called ‘Little Virginia’. The name is said to derive from Sir Walter Raleigh’s introduction of potatoes from America in the 16th century. These were planted in various places, but the crop failed except in Kenilworth where they flourished. Thus the first crop of potatoes harvested in England was grown on this spot. It was assumed that the soil had similar properties to that in Virginia, and thus the area was re-named.
True or false – you decide!
On the face of it this is a plausible explanation: Raleigh would have known Lord Leycester, owner of Kenilworth Castle nearby, and could have asked him to trial a new import. However, the well-established notion that Raleigh introduced both the potato and tobacco to England has now been challenged. Apparently it is likely that the Spanish were the first to bring both these plants back to Europe (the potatoes probably coming from Columbia). Potatoes originated in various parts of South America and were not grown in North America at that time. Raleigh himself never visited what was then called Virginia (now North Carolina) although he attempted (unsuccessfully) to set up colonies there so would have been in touch with ships sailing to and from that area. He did visit South America in search of El Dorado: in Venezuela around the Orinoco river. So it seems possible that the name for this area of Kenilworth may be based on myths rather than facts.
Does anyone have an alternative explanation for the name?
This series of articles is inspired by the publication ‘Little Known Warwickshire’ based on talks given by A.W. Winterburn of Leamington Spa.