Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:32 am
I have recently wondered if there is a particular lesson for us in the old place names of North West England. Now, the interpretation of place names can be a complicated, uncertain, business and it should be stressed that I am no toponymist. That said, a lack of knowledge doesn’t deter anyone these days, and it’s certainly never stopped me. Anyway, place names can be fascinating. They can tell us so much about ourselves and there are stories, sadly most of them unknown, behind each one. In Britain – and I guess in most places – place names fall into three main categories: personal or people names (such as Norfolk – ‘territory of the northern people’; Hastings – ‘Haesta’s people’), habitative names denoting the function or a feature of a place (for example ‘farm’, ‘stronghold’, fort) and topographical names describing a physical feature – like a hill, valley or forest clearing. Often these elements are combined – Tarquin’s Farm, farm in the valley, Tarquin’s farm in the valley – and so on. Place names are dynamic and highly dependent upon locally predominant cultures and languages, but can also survive a surprisingly long time. As long they’re used. There is a very convincing argument that history is lost when place names change. Most of Britain’s place names are at least a thousand years old and bear the linguistic signatures of the peoples that have occupied, and whose descendents still occupy, this island.
As a consequence of the waves of immigrants that have journeyed here since time out of mind, Britain is – of course – a gloriously diverse place. When the Romans turned up to vanquish Britain in the 1st century AD, they found various Celtic tribes in residence, speaking various Celtic dialects. We sometimes call these Celts Ancient Britons, but they were not true natives, having settled here themselves from continental Europe centuries before. The Romans stayed in Britain for the best part of 400 years, conquering most, but not all, of it. The first millennium AD (or CE) was a time of enormous migrations of peoples right across the European continent (indeed, beyond that), which laid the foundations for future nation states. The most noteworthy manifestation of this in Britain, from the 5th century onward, was the arrival of Germanic Angles, Saxons and Jutes, landing in the east and moving west, ultimately settling most of what we now call England, except for Cornwall. Then, leaping on the bandwagon from the 9th century, came invasions from Scandinavia – the Vikings. Danes principally settled East Anglia, the East Midlands and large parts of Yorkshire; Norsemen – and women – (from Norway), settled parts of north and western Scotland, North West England and Wales, sometimes via Ireland and the Isle of Man. The next significant invasion came in the 11th century, after William of Normandy defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. There have been migrants arriving in Britain since then, of course – including from France, Holland, Ireland and, more recently, from the Caribbean, Africa, India, Pakistan, China and Eastern Europe. But we will stop with those that managed to get here by the 11th century-ish, because these groups of peoples, particularly the Anglo-Saxons, are the ones that mostly determined England’s place names: and thus the scene is set.
So, what did all this mean for Britain’s place names? There are probably place names in Britain that are pre-Celtic, linguistic relics of our land’s early inhabitants. Examples seem to include London, the county of Kent and several river names – the Humber and Severn, for instance. Celtic place names have survived, mainly in the west, especially in Cornwall, Wales, and in Scotland; but there are relatively few Celtic place names in east and south-east England. Examples of Celtic place name components include aber (river mouth, estuary), coombe (short valley) and glen (long valley). The Romans made little impact on modern British place names, probably because Latin was not widely spoken beyond Romanised urban areas. However, elements of some names date from this period – Lincoln being one example – a combination of Lindo (Celtic for pool) with colonia (Roman colony). Place names with variations of ‘chester’, or ‘caster’, in them are reminders that these were once Roman forts (from Latin castrum or castra), but they were not called such by their Roman builders. Anglo-Saxon place names can be found extensively all over Britain, but predominantly in England and south east Scotland. The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic people and their Anglo-Saxon language, which is also known as Old English, came to dominate the Celtic languages spoken in England, and lowland Scotland. Typical components of Anglo-Saxon place names include dun (down, hill), eg/ieg/ey (island), feld (open area cleared of trees), ford (river crossing), ham (homestead), ingas (people of, followers of), and leah/ley (woodland clearing), ton (enclosure, farmstead). The Danes and Norse also spoke Germanic languages, collectively often referred to now as Old Scandinavian though the two did differ. Place names with Old Scandinavian origins are rare south of Watling Street, the ancient Roman road that ran between Viroconium (Wroxeter) and the Kent coast, because that formed the southern boundary of the Danelaw, the 9th century zone of Danish Law. North of that and you’ll find an abundance of Scandinavian inspired place names ending in –by (farm), -dalr (dale, valley), –holmr/holm (island or raised ground in a marshy area), -thorpe (secondary settlement), -toft (house, homestead) and –thwaite/thveit (clearing, meadow). Of course, just to make things easy for us, some place names contain two or more linguistic elements – and further confusion can be caused by similarities between the languages. All is often not what it seems.
What’s all this about North West England, then? Well, I come from South East England where even I can tell that Saxon place names predominate. But if you look at a map of North West England – that is the modern counties of Cumbria, Lancashire, Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside (and, geographically, the western bit of North Yorkshire too) – there seems to be infinitely more variety, including some names that, to a southern lad, seem to have stepped out of the pages of a fantasy book:
Crosthwaite (Old Scandinavian – ‘clearing with a cross), Garstang (Old Scandinavian ‘spear post’ – probably a meeting place); Underbarrow (Old English – place under the hill) Langstrothdale (possibly Old English and Scandinavian – long marshy valley), Oswaldtwistle (Old English – Oswald’s river junction); (Ravenstonedale (Old English and Old Scandinavian – valley of the raven stone).
The Norse influence is obvious and ubiquitous – there’s loads of ‘thwaites’, ‘bys’, ‘riggs’ (ridges), fosses (waterfalls), becks (small streams), fells (hills/mountains) – and so on. But the other noticeable thing about North West English place names is that their origins seem to be quite jumbled-up. Just down the A6 from old Scandinavian Garstang is Old English Preston (farmstead of the priests). It happens all over the area. In the Lune valley, which I know quite well, on the borders of Lancashire, Cumbria and North Yorkshire, there are good Old English place names like Wennington, Gressingham and Melling, rubbing shoulders with Old Scandinavian Hornby, Wray and Kirkby Lonsdale. Even more exciting, one of the Yorkshire peaks, Pen-y-Ghent, is obviously Celtic – look at any map of Wales. Pen usually means ‘hill’ (or ‘head/chief’) and y is the definite article, but no one is sure what Ghent means – some sources say it means ‘boundary’ or ‘border’ (so – ‘hill on the boundary’) and others say it’s a corruption of the Celtic gwynt – ‘wind’ – so possibly ‘windy summit’. Then you realise there are other examples: Penrith (hill ford or chief ford); Carlisle begins with the same Celtic caer (fort) found in Caernarfon, Carmarthen – and just across the Scottish border at Caerlaverock. The River Lune (from which we get the name Lancaster – as well as ‘lonsdale’ – ‘in the valley of the River Lune’) is, apparently Celtic in origin.
The early history of this part of Britain is even more shadowy than others. The aftermath of the end of Roman rule saw the emergence of two Celtic kingdoms in the region: Strathclyde in southern Scotland/northern England and Rheged in north west England. The language spoken by these people was Cumbric, closely related to old Welsh and the languages once spoken throughout Britain. Strathclyde eventually became part of the Kingdom of the Scots in the 11th century. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Saxon invaders had established themselves in northern England by sometime in the 7th century. Mersey literally means ‘boundary river’ and the River Mersey marked the boundary between two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms – Mercia to the south and Northumbria stretching across the Pennines from the east. The Northumbrians were originally Angles, whose name gave us England – land of the Angles. Rheged was absorbed by the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria, sometime in the 7th or 8th century. The Scandinavian influence then arrived in this part of the world via Danes from the east and Norse, in particular, from the west. Just to mix things up even more, there’s evidence of Irish influence in place names too, though this may have arrived alongside Norse invaders coming from Ireland. The Lancashire village of Goosnargh means ‘the hill-pasture of a man called Gussa’, which is thought to be an Irish name and Ireby, found in both Cumbria and Lancashire (as well as Lincolnshire, far to the east) is thought to mean ‘the farm of the Irish’. Morecambe, incidentally, is one of the oldest names in the region, Morecambe Bay, ‘the curved inlet’ being first recorded as Morikambe by the Greek writer Ptolemy in around 150 AD.
Anyway, that’s where the place names came from – though of course many Norse place name elements (like beck, fell and tarn) are still used in everyday language, so spotting one on a map does not mean you’ve found a name used by early Norse settlers. A further difficulty is that North West England was a relative backwater for centuries and sparsely populated in parts. Moreover, one excellent source for the study and history of English place names, the Domesday Survey of 1086, did not cover much of the modern county of Cumbria (previously Westmorland and Cumberland) – because this was not part of England at the time.
By now, I guess you’re either wondering about the lesson mentioned at the very start of this article, or what it must have been like living in this region during the early medieval period. I’d take an educated guess at the answer to the second question and say, “basic and lawless”. Imagine you’re Norse, arriving here in the 10th century, say, and looking for somewhere to put down roots. You come across a few people you know, and many more you can understand, just like being at home. Wandering down the road, there’s a bunch of folk whose speech you can’t fully understand; turns out their ancestors trekked over the fells from the east centuries before, called themselves Angles and their ancestors had sailed across the German Sea. Ah well. One of the daughters might do for young Ulf when they’re both a little older. In the next valley is a friendly bunch of Danes. You can understand them pretty well. They point out the boundary of their land, and would be happy to trade once you’re settled, but suggest you could try further along the river with the odd-sounding name. Apparently, it was called that by the Old People who lived in these parts even before the legendary giants who built in stone, who some call Roman. In fact, there’s a village in the fells not far away where some of the people speak a very odd tongue, which is said to be the language of the Old People, though others – particularly the younger ones – speak a kind of hybrid dialect.
It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? Whimsical, probably. But we might draw an interesting conclusion from the confluence of place names in North West England, which is that people got along with one another – or at least learned to cope. Why? – because in order to last a reasonable amount of time, place names have to be used. And there has to be a reason for a place name to continue to be used, for as long as the reason for the name is still applicable, or still in folk-memory, or the language it is in is still spoken – until such time that the name is simply what it is, and someone writes it down. We can speculate, perhaps, that North West England witnessed fewer power struggles; that, unlike the Saxons in South East England, no one group came to dominate. For whatever reason, is it too fanciful to imagine that these different peoples, a thousand or so years ago, were able to forget any differences in origin, race, culture or language and simply managed to get on? And if that isn’t a lesson for us today, I don’t know what is.
I await the destruction of this theory by some anthropologist or historian with much better knowledge than I have. Ironically, of course, all of these communities eventually came to regard themselves as English. The fact is, as we should know anyway, we are all children of immigrants; it’s simply a matter of how far back in time you go. On that basis, there is no such thing as a pure-bred English, Scots or Welsh person. We Brits are mongrels, it is ridiculous to pretend otherwise and we should be proud of it. I appreciate this might be bad news for any petty nationalist or anyone obsessed with ethnicity. The labels that we use to describe ourselves don’t need to be worn like badges that divide us.
There’s a far more detailed and scholarly approach to the place names of North West England in a paper available on line by the late Professor Geoffrey Leech of Lancaster University, called (surprisingly) ‘The unique heritage of place-names in North West England’.
The Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names is available from Amazon and all good bookstores.
Check out Key English Place Names to look up the meanings of some English place names on line