Before the new system for allocating register marks to new road vehicles was introduced in 2001, many localities had their own exclusive registrations. Thus, Southampton had CR, OW and TR. Dad's first new car, a white Hillman Imp with red upholstery, and bought from a Southampton dealer, had 433 FCR as its registration. The CR told you it was first registered in Southampton.
Apparently all Police officers had to memorise by heart a very long list of registration marks, presumably in order to identify cars from far away, perhaps in connection with wanted men on the run. ('Ee up, Fancy, isn't that a Widnes registration? It must be the two lads we want. Z Victor One to Control, we're following suspects past Exchange station, heading for the docks') Certainly many children - especially small boys - got a thrill out of spotting a registration from an 'exotic' location. Way down south in Hampshire it was highly unusual to see a car from Ayrshire in Scotland - Ayrshire had SD - and in fact when a child I never did see a car with my own initials on it, which were JSD at that time. I had to wait till 2002, when aged fifty, if you want to know (secretly I expect you did). But had I spotted that registration, it would have made my day. This was in an era of innocent, unsophisticated pleasures, you understand, when little things like this meant much in a youngster's otherwise humdrum life. Kids have other fish to fry nowadays, like turning themselves into hyped-up mobile phone game zombies and social media victims. Clearly progress.
It was so difficult to remember all the registrations of the UK and Ireland that you could buy booklets to consult that listed them in various orders. I had one, called Where's that car from? It was for general use, and not just for curious children. The Old System had developed piecemeal from 1901 or thereabouts and had very little logic to it. It seemed that most Kent registrations contained a K. And nearly all Scottish registrations had an S. But beyond that there was no consistent plan, cities and counties ending up with a random mixture of letters. Thus Cornwall could be AF, CV or RL. Sussex could be AP, CD, FG or UF. And so on for every city or county. What a memory load for every bobby on the beat!
The Isle of Wight, floating offshore from Hampshire, was proud to have DL exclusively for itself. If you went there on a day trip, you'd see ADL, BDL, CDL and so on everywhere - and probably nowhere else in the country.
And on Anglesey it was EY. That was Anglesey's very own registration. When I was last here in 1976, it was wall-to-wall EY. Apart from the tourists, of course, who (unlike the Isle of Wight) could easily drive onto the island via the Menai Road Bridge. I was interested to know whether seeing EY everywhere was still a local feature of life on Anglesey. After all, you could buy a car here with an EY registration as recently as August 2001. But it has disappeared. I have now taken Fiona to most parts of the island, but have not seen a single EY registration. I dare say that there are old tractors and delivery vans lingering out of sight here and there, but they haven't made a showing on the highway. All vehicles bear New System plates, and there is nothing special to Anglesey any more.
This is rather a pity. A badge of local individuality has vanished. Anglesey cars now simply have registrations containing C for Cymru (i.e. Wales), in the same way that cars from London now all contain L, or cars from anywhere in the West Country now all contain W. It's a much simpler and easier to comprehend arrangement, but it has diminished the distinctive character of many a place. Amazingly, the Isle of Wight has somehow got HW for itself, but this is exceptional. I wonder how on earth they managed to wring such a system-bucking concession from the Powers That Be? A stirring victory for Localism, anyway.
But not on Anglesey. Oddly enough, it seems that Localism is gradually gathering force again. It started some years ago. Every region, every tucked-away corner of every county, is now emphasising its uniqueness. You see it with food, the drive to protect and promote such things as Arbroath Smokies and Melton Mowbray Pork Pies. You see it with anything that a local area 'owns' and sees as distinctive: scenery, wildlife, history. There's money in it, of course. But also freedom and independence (real and symbolic) from central control and central ways of thinking. I dare say that a lot of the gut appeal of the Scottish Independence Campaign is this notion that local people should run their own affairs, and not suffer the plans and policies and schemes and systems dreamed up by remote ministries in Westminster.
Within minutes of publishing this, from a wind shelter in Beaumaris, I saw three EY registrations, one of them on the car I'd parked next to! Duh.