What could be more fun than pottering round the back roads of England on a sight-seeing outing? Even more memorable than charming village greens, ancient market towns, and ever-changing scenery are certain English place names.
What about Affpuddle (Dorset), Barton-in-the-Beans or Burton-le Coggles (both in Lincolnshire), Dirty Gutter (Staffordshire), Dirdle Door and Gussage St. Michael (both in Dorset), Great Cockup (Cumbria), Lower Slaughter and Tomtit’s Bottom (both in Gloucestershire), Oh Me Edge (Northumberland), Ryme Intrinseca (Somerset), Sheepy Parva (Warwickshire) or Wyre Piddle (Worcestershire)? Or dozens and dozens of others.
Somehow, the names themselves give a clue about where in the country they’re situated, to those of us born and bred here. Yorkshire, for instance, often has a gritty edge to the names of its towns and villages, which are characterful, rather than pretty. Blubberhouses is where the houses by the bubbling streams were found: Grimwith was the wood haunted, once upon a time, by ghosts and goblins. And Arncliffe never used to be simply a well known landmark beloved of rock climbers and ramblers, but was instead the eagle’s cliff.
These place names should intrigue us. As elsewhere, those in Yorkshire reveal a history in which migrants from Celtic, Viking and Saxon lands, from Rome and from France populated the teritory, making homesteads and small holdings in a landscape which was not always welcoming.
Long before the Romans, the whole area was dominated by a powerful Celtic tribe, the Brigantes. They could be found in Ireland too, and even the Greek geographer Ptolemy had heard of them. They gave us place names still important round here: Pen-y-ghent – one of the Three Peaks – reminds us that to the Celts, ‘penno‘ meant ‘hill‘. They named three rivers too: the Nidd (‘brilliant‘), the Wharfe (‘winding‘) and the Ure (‘strong’, or ‘sacred‘).
The Romans had a large presence in Yorkshire – especially in York itself – and we live quite near another large and important settlement, Aldbrough. They left artefacts, buried settlements, fragments of their long straight roads, but here in Yorkshire, no place names.
When the Romans left, Eastern England was the destination of waves of invaders from Germanic peoples we now know collectively as Anglo-Saxons. They came, they conquered, they settled. They made homes – ‘hams‘ -for themselves (Clapham), and farms: ‘tun’ means farmstead (Horton). They made clearings in the woodland (‘leys’), and small towns grew up – Leyburn. They were the first to identify Yorkshire as a large geographical entity, and divided the area into Thyrdings, which we later called Ridings. Read all about it in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1065!
During the same period, Vikings also came from Scandinavia. We think of them swashbuckling their way across the land, raping and pillaging and laying waste to all in their path. But the fact that 2/3 of settlement names in Yorkshire can be traced back to Old Norse tells a different story. The Vikings too wanted land on which to settle and make a living. Their names include terms like ‘slack‘ (‘hollow‘), keld (‘spring‘), ‘gill‘ (‘ravine‘) and ‘foss‘ (‘waterfall‘). In particular, those very many settlements whose name includes ‘– thorpe‘(‘outlying farmstead‘), ‘– thwaite‘ (‘clearing‘) and ‘– dale‘ (‘valley‘) betray their Viking origins.
And then it was 1066 and All That. The Normans came and they conquered. In particular, Wiilliam conducted a campaign of ‘harrying of the north’, systematically devastating the countryside in order to isolate and destroy his enemies. Unsurprisingly, there is little French influence on Yorkshire place names – apart from that left by the monks. Several Cistercian Abbeys in Yorkshire have left their names behind: Jervaulx (that means ‘by the River Ure‘) and Rievaulx (‘the valley of the river Rye’), as well as Fountains Abbey – ‘font‘ meant ‘spring‘ in Norman French, and the area on which the abbey is built is rich in water sources.
So by this time, most settlements in Yorkshire had acquired the names by which we recognise them now. Here are a few of my favourites. Enjoy their names, enjoy their meanings, and maybe add a few more of your own favourites?
Appletreewick (pronounced ‘Aptrick‘): dairy farm by the apple tree. (OE)
Arkengarthdale: the valley where Arkil (ON personal name) had his enclosure.
Buttertubs: perhaps named after the potholes used by the farmers to cool their butter on the way to market.
Conistone Cold: the King’s farm exposed to the cold (ON &OE)
Crackpot: the crevice where crows nest (ON & ME)
Giggleswick: Gikel’s (OE personal name) dairy farm.
Gordale: the dirty valley or the valley covered in manure: (ON &ON/OE)
Hardraw: the shepherds’ row of cottages (OE)
Ingleton: the farm on the hill (OE)
Langstrothdale: the valley with a long stretch of marsh overgrown with brushwood (OE &ON)
Muker: small cultivated field (ON)
Settle: a dwelling place (ON)
Swinithwaite: a clearing made by burning (ON)
Trollers Gill: troll’s arse ravine (ON &OE)
Whernside: the hillside where querns (millstones) were found (ON)
ON – Old Norse
OE – Old English
ME – Middle English
- * Faggergill: the ravine in a sheep enclosure (ON)
- ^ Scaleber: The hill with the shieling (hut or high pasture) (ON& OE)