Tag Archives: place-names

Sundered Land, New Castle, Goat’s Head : What’s in a North East Place Name?

North East place-names and their origins. DAVID SIMPSON explores the sometimes surprising meanings of place-names in the North East region.

Wearmouth Bridge
Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland : Photo © David Simpson.

Sunderland was the sundered or separated land, Newcastle was simply a ‘New’ Castle and Gateshead was, quite strangely, the ‘head of the she-goat’. We take place-names for granted but all have an origin and meaning that is often long forgotten or sometimes lost in time.  No one actually knows how London got its name, for example.

I’ve always been fascinated by place-name origins. It’s an unusual hobby perhaps, though I find it rather strange that few people share my curiosity for such everyday features of our world. Peculiar place-names like Pity Me arouse much interest – and are often rather plainly explained as ‘poor farmland’ although there’s a wealth of more popular if rather dubious theories. In truth I think that everyday names can be just as interesting.

Some place-names give clues to the origins of the early settlers who founded the place. For example in the south of our region around Middlesbrough there are many place-names ending in the element ‘by’: Thornaby, Ormesby, Tollesby, Normanby, Danby, Lackenby, Lazenby, Maltby and so on. These are all Viking – and usually Danish in origin (though Normanby points to Norwegian ‘northmen’). Such names are numerous just south of the Tees in the once intensively Viking settled area of North Yorkshire. They are quite rare north of the Tees – Aislaby near Yarm and Raby (Castle) near Darlington are exceptions not  that far north of the river.

Transporter Bridge from Port Clarence looking towards Middlesbrough
The Transporter Bridge, Middlesbrough. Viking place-names are numerous in the Middlesbrough area.. Photo © David Simpson 2018

These ‘by’ ending names can also be found in Viking settled Cumbria particularly along the Eden valley all the way up towards Carlisle and there are a fair few in the Merseyside area in the North West of England. In Old Danish a ‘by’ was a Viking farm or village and even today a quick scan of a map of Denmark and you’ll find dozens and dozens of little villages with names like Norby, Kaerby, Staby, Balleby, Foldby, Karlby, Draby, Voldby, Rakkeby and Mejby. Many of these wouldn’t seem at all out of place in North Yorkshire.

Most place-names in England, including the North East England usually of Anglo-Saxon origin. The Angles and Saxons were a Germanic people closely related to the later Vikings. The original Anglo-Saxon coastal homelands stretched from Frisia and the Netherlands up to the present day border of Germany and Denmark.

The Angles, for example, who gave their name to England (the Angle Land) settled extensively in Northumbria and originated from Angeln near the border of those two countries and settled in our islands as invading warriors some three centuries before the Vikings arrived on our shores. Just about anything ending in ‘ton’ or ‘ham’ is Anglo-Saxon including most of those ‘ingtons’ and ‘inghams: Darlington, Bedlington, Billingham, Bellingham and so on. A ‘ham’ was a homestead and a ‘ton’ an enclosed settlement. Ton or ‘tun’ to give the old spelling was, incidentally originally pronounced ‘toon’ and is at the root of our modern word ‘town’. Sound familiar?

Nathaniel Buck's view of Newcastle 1745
Newcastle – an historic view of the ‘toon’ or should that be ‘tun’? Pictured in 1745..

I’m really into place-names for fun but with a quest for true knowledge about the place-names as part of our region’s history. I’m an amateur enthusiast when it comes to place-names to be honest. It is in fact a serious scholarly study and often a complicated one at that.

You can’t simply look at a place-name and guess what it might mean. You have to go back to the earliest known recorded spelling from perhaps a thousand years ago or more and work back from there.

Most place-name experts are skilled linguists with knowledge of several languages that are no longer spoken today like Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons), or the Old Norse of the Vikings as well as old Celtic languages like Brythonic. The experts will have knowledge of how these languages evolved and changed over time and in the case of Old English and Old Norse, how they fused together along with the later Norman French to form the basis of the English language as we know it today.

A good knowledge of local dialect, local history and local topography is also very useful to the scholar of place-names. In fact its essential right down to a knowledge of local soil types, drainage (at that time) and the suitability of land for early farming and settlement.

So, what about familiar names like Sunderland, Newcastle and Gateshead? Well the ‘separateness’ of Sunderland dates to Anglo-Saxon times and refers to land detached or ‘sundered’ from an estate by the King of Northumbria for the use of the Wearmouth monastery.

The ‘New’ Castle of Newcastle dates to Norman times, the first castle being built by William the Conqueror’s eldest son Robert Curthose in 1080 on the site of a Roman fort. At that time the long-since ruined and redundant Roman fort and its associated surviving settlement was called Monkchester, and although this might be considered the ‘old castle’, it seems the rebuilding of the Norman castle by Henry II in the twelfth century was the origin of the true ‘New Castle’.

Church of St Mary, Gateshead and Tyne Bridge
Gateshead – ‘Head of the She Goat’ : Photo © David Simpson

Just as intriguing, Gateshead across the Tyne lies at the head of the road or way dating back to Roman times and perhaps earlier. Roads were sometimes called ‘gates’ in times past but this term was more commonly used for old streets in towns. ‘Head of the gate’ seems a plausible explanation for Gateshead, however, the Venerable Bede, writing in the seventh century describes Gateshead in Latin as ‘Ad Caprae Caput’ – meaning ‘the head of the she goat’ so perhaps there was some form of totem or symbol of a goat’s head overlooking the ancient bridge across the Tyne.

 

More place-names explained

Ashington: ‘Ing’ usually means a kinship or tribal group and ‘ton’ usually means an enclosed settlement. On the surface Ashington looks like ‘the place belonging to the people of a person called Ash’ or something similar. However the earliest spelling in old records is  Aescen-denu’ and this is an Anglo-Saxon place-name that means ‘valley (dene) overgrown with ash trees’. It shows how important it is to find the oldest spellings.

Bamburgh: From Bebba’s Burgh, a burgh or fortified place named from a Northumbrian queen called Bebba who was the wife of King Æthelfrith. Before Æthelfrith’s time it was known by the Celtic name Din Guayroi.

Beautiful Bamburgh.
Beautiful Bamburgh. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Bishop Auckland: A complicated one this. The old name was Alcuith – a Celtic name referring to a river. Later it became the home of a castle and palace belonging to the Bishops of Durham hence the ‘Bishop’ part of the name. The old name came to be changed to Auckland (perhaps meaning ‘oakland’).

Chester-le-Street: Places containing the word ‘Chester’ are usually Anglo-Saxon in origin even though they refer to the earlier site of a Roman fort. ‘Street’ usually refers to a Roman road. ‘Le’ was added by the Normans as part of a suffix to distinguish places with similar names Le-Street distinguishes it from other places called Chester. Other ‘le’ places with potentially confusing similar names are Houghton-le-Spring, Houghton-le-Side, Haughton-le-Skerne, Hetton-le-Hill, Hetton-le-Hole and in North Yorkshire we have  Hutton-le-Hole.

Darlington : Originally something like Deornoth’s People’s enclosure. You’d never guess this unless you could see early spellings.

Durham : Originally Dun Holm, ‘the hill island’. In Norman French it was Duresme and in Latin it was Dunelm.

Hartlepool : Means ‘Stag Island Pool’. Le-Pool was added by the Normans to distinguish it from the nearby village of Hart. Unlike other ‘le’ place-names it doesn’t use hyphens but it could have become Hart-le-Pool.

Middlesbrough: Means middle manor or perhaps middle fortified place. One theory is that it is named from its middle location between the historic Christian centres of Whitby and Durham.

Stanhope: Means ‘stony side valley’. Hope meaning land in a ‘side valley’ is a common element in North Eats place names, especially in the hilly country of the west.

Warkworth: Wark comes from ‘weorc’ – an earthwork or castle and ‘worth’, an enclosed settlement. The villages of Wark on Tyne and Wark on Tweed were both the site of castles built on earthworks.

 

Whisht! lads ‘ I’ll tell ye aboot the Tangled Worm

County Durham-based Tangled Worm is a new  North East based business publishing poster prints with a bit of difference with an emphasis on Northern heritage,  fun facts and just a little frivolity.

Worm legends poster
Worm legends poster print

“We specialise in colourful poster prints with an emphasis on information, quirky facts and northern history as well as occasionally delve into other educational themes like science” says owner David Simpson, 50.

David Simpson
David Simpson

Based near Durham City Tangled Worm was set up in November  by David, a former writer with The Northern Echo best known as the author of a number of books about the North East.

“I want to produce prints that are colourful, fun and informative” says David  “and I’m especially keen to focus on Britain and particularly the North of England but also want to produce prints that are just for fun”.

A colourful print featuring 150 jokey 'batty book titles'
A colourful print featuring 150 jokey ‘batty book titles’

One of David’s most popular prints is a map featuring over 1,000 rude and curious place-names in North East England which includes such wonders as Common Slap, Old Man’s Bottom, Comical Corner, Goodwife Hot, Make Me Rich, Crackpot and Stinking Goat. It also includes explanations for some of the more familiar unusual names like Pity me and Unthank as well as a wide range of place-names with an international flavour like Moscow, California, Boc Chica, Philadephia and Toronto that pop up throughout  the region.

Curious place-names of North East England
Curious place-names of North East England

Northern history themed maps include the troublesome Border reiver surnames: Robson, Charlton, Milburn, Elliot, Armstrong and many others whose murderous raiding and livestock rustling culture dominated Northumberland and neighbouring border counties in Tudor times. The map includes a few tales associated with some of the most notorious reiving families.

Representing a more distant period is a map showing the Iron Age tribes of the North and the routes and events of the subsequent Roman invasion. Another map features the principal Roman features of the North and two very detailed poster print maps depict the Kingdom of Northumbria in the Viking age and in the pre-Viking era complete with details of raids, invasions, murders, settlements and lists of the all the Kings and Earls based at Bamburgh and York.

The Iron Age North
The Iron Age North

It’s not just about history though, Northern culture is well represented. Products include a Geordie Dictionary poster featuring explanations and origins for over 500 North East words and a unique map showing the names of 1,400 notable northerners ranging from scientists, celebrities, singers, comedians, inventors and notable industrialists from Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Hull in the south all the way up to Berwick. All the northern counties from Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire up to Northumberland are featured.

There’s even a map depicting the North East ‘worm’ legends which provided the inspiration for the business name.  In case you’re wondering, worms are wyverns, legendary serpents that feature in ancient stories that are entwined and entangled with the mythology of invading Vikings, Angles and Saxons.

David says he loves unravelling such tales and history in general to reveal strange roots and sees the world as a place of entangled mysteries and puzzles waiting to be solved, untwisted and enjoyed with wonder. This goes for science too – his colourful Periodic table is one of his latest additions which explains how the elements combine in ways to make up our universe.

Periodic Table
Periodic Table

“In the same way as the knights of old defeated the by slicing up those worms I like to break up knowledge into morsels for entertainment and enlightenment. It hopefully whets the appetite to learn much more.”

Visit Tangled Worm Poster Prints at

https://tangledworm.com

Tangled Worm

 

Rivers, becks, burns and linns : What’s in a (North East) Place-Name?

DAVID SIMPSON examines the ancient names of our rivers, streams and waterfalls and plots the great beck/burn divide

The River Tees at High Force waterfall. Photo: David Simpson
The River Tees at High Force waterfall. Photo: David Simpson

Alright please don’t ‘Pity Me’, but ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by place-names and especially those of the North East. I don’t know why precisely, but it’s certainly linked to my interest in history.

Across the region our place-names offer unique insights into our distant past and I find it fun to discover that a familiar place we take for granted is often not quite what it seems. Then of course we have all those strange and peculiar names: Pity Me, Witherwack, Wallish Walls, Snods Edge and Foggy Furze. How about Shiney Row, Seldom Seen, Success, Once Brewed or even No Place? These are the places that arouse much curiosity in our region  but even seemingly mundane place-names also hold unexpected secrets.

The first thing to know when studying place-names is that for a period of a little over a thousand years  – and that’s how old most of our place-names are – our language has changed an awful lot. This means spellings in old records can be notoriously inconsistent. So you can’t just look at a place-name today and guess what it means; you have to go back in time.

The North East has many fascinating and curious place-names
The North East has many fascinating and curious place-names

Place-name experts look for the earliest spellings, scouring ancient documents and interpreting the names according to the language of times past.

The experts are skilled linguists and historians, with an exceptional knowledge of how language evolved. They come with a good grasp of old languages like Latin, Old Welsh, Indo-European, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Middle English and a knowledge of local dialect too. They also need a good understanding of local history and know about the local topography by familiarising themselves with the landscape. It might also help to know a few folk tales connected with the place-names they study. The experts are prepared to do much detective work to reach their final conclusions and even then they may not always be sure. In the end the fruits of their labour are often nothing more than a passing curiosity for most of us.

The fun part for me is exploring and interpreting this work and looking for patterns. I enjoy puzzling over baffling contradictions and being surprised that seemingly obvious explanations are not what I had expected. I also believe, well I’m certain of it in fact, that place-names and their local features have close links to local dialect. You see, place-names and dialect are living history and often a very old part of our heritage that we can easily overlook.

The Tyne at Newcastle Photo: David Simpson
The Tyne at Newcastle Photo: David Simpson

Since most place-names have evolved over long periods of time, it’s best to start at the beginning. If we glance at the map we find the  most ancient names are those of the rivers and larger streams. Names like Tyne, Tees, Team, Wear, Aln, Allen, Don, Derwent and Deerness go back thousands of years to the pre-Roman Celtic times or sometimes to the era when the inter-related Indo-European languages across Europe and parts of Asia were beginning to evolve.

The Tyne, for example has one such ancient name. Tyne derives from a root word ‘ti’ meaning ‘to flow’ and could simply be interpreted to mean ‘water’. One of its tributaries, the River Team, now partly culverted through Gateshead’s Team Valley has a similar root, related to river-names like the Thames in London or the Taff in Cardiff. Further east, the Don that joins the Tyne downstream at Jarrow comes from an Indo-European word ‘danu’ simply meaning ‘river’. The Don of Jarrow shares its roots with the Don at Doncaster and the Don in Russia, as well as the Danube of Austrian river fame.

The River Don entering the Tyne at Jarrow. Photo: David Simpson
The River Don entering the Tyne at Jarrow. It shares its name with a river in Russia Photo: David Simpson

The River Tees is thought to have a Celtic river-name though its roots may be earlier. It’s related to an Old Welsh word for ‘heat’ and means ‘boiling, surging river’ perhaps alluding to the waterfalls of upper Teesdale like High Force.

The name of the River Wear is thought to derive from ‘uis’, another Indo-European word for ‘flow’ but Uisiria and Uedra were later forms of the name. This was interpreted by Welsh speaking Celts (the Britons) to ‘Gweir’ which means ‘bending’. Look at a map and compare the whole course of the Wear from source to sea with the course of the Tyne or the Tees and you will see that ‘bending river’ is an apt description.

The River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
The River Wear at Sunderland – ‘the bending river’. Photo: David Simpson

Other river-names with ancient origins include the Derwent which forms part of the border between Northumberland and Durham. One of a number of rivers called Derwent in England, the name comes from Old Welsh and means the ‘oak tree river’. Further south, a smaller County Durham river, the Deerness combines the Welsh element ‘dwfr’ meaning river with an Indo-European element ‘nesta’ meaning , ‘roar, rush’ that is found in names such as Loch Ness and Inverness.

Some river-names came much later in Anglo-Saxon or Viking times, suggesting their earlier names were forgotten or replaced. In County Durham, for example, the little river called the Browney (occasionally called ‘the brune’) has a name dating to Anglo-Saxon times that comes from ‘brun-ea’ meaning ‘brown river’

Two little-known North Eas rivers, the Deerness and Browney merge at Langley Moor near Durham City. Photo: David Simpson
Two little-known North East rivers, the Deerness and Browney merge at Langley Moor near Durham City. Photo: David Simpson

In Northumberland the River Wansbeck at Morpeth and Ashington has a name from the same era and is thought to derive from ‘waegens-spic’, a bridge made from logs (a spic) that was crossed by wagons. The Wansbeck is not a ‘beck’ in the usual sense of the word though. The word ‘beck’ is usually from a Viking word meaning stream but that is not the case here.

For the Germanic Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria who arrived in Britain between 500 and 600 AD from southern Scandinavia and neighbouring areas of what is now the German coast ‘burn’ was one of the terms they used for a stream. As their territory extended north beyond Edinburgh into what is now Scotland the word was introduced there and has had a lasting legacy. Its roots however are Northumbrian rather than Scottish.

North East England or more particularly County Durham is the battleground between the ‘burns’ and their later Viking counterparts the ‘becks’. The Vikings arrived from across Scandinavia from around 866AD and in areas more intensely settled or shared out by the Norsemen the Viking word ‘beck’ replaced the older Anglo-Saxon word ‘burn’ in the names of streams although ‘burn’ often survives in the names of local places associated with those streams.

So we find places like Saltburn (salty stream) on the Cleveland coast and Sherburn (shiny stream) near Durham but the local streams from which they are named are now called becks on the map as well as by the locals too. The Bowburn Beck at Bowburn near Durham, for example, flows in the shape of a bow (as in bow and arrow) and was originally simply called ‘the Bow Burn’.

Many other places in the region include the word ‘Burn’ and the names of the streams from which they derive can often be self-explanatory. Take Fishburn and Seaburn for example, one would have been noted for its plentiful supply of fish, the other simply flowed into the sea.

Whitburn near Sunderland, named from a barn rather than a burn. Photo: David Simpson
Whitburn near Sunderland, named from a barn rather than a burn. Photo: David Simpson

It’s easy to be fooled though, as we find at Whitburn near Sunderland. Not a burn at all, this was originally the ‘white barn’, a white-painted barn or one built with white stone. Then we have Sockburn near Darlington  which was actually Socca’s burgh rather than a burn. It was the ‘burgh’ (a fortified place) belonging to someone called Socca. Even here further doubt is thrown on the explanation because the River Tees hereabouts quite clearly flows in a massive meander that forms the  very obvious shape of a sock offering a more popular ‘folk explanation’. The fact that Sockburn was for centuries the southernmost point of County Durham and thus at the limit of the ‘soke’ of the BIshops of Durham adds further to the confusion. Both Whitburn and Sockburn by the way have fascinating links to Lewis Carroll and his Jabberwocky poem and you can read about those links here.

So enough of the burns, what about the becks? Well, the word  ‘beck’ comes from the Old Norse ‘bekkr’ – ‘a stream’. It is the usual term for a stream in Viking settled Cumbria and Yorkshire but is missing from Northumberland where burn is used. In County Durham we get both becks and burns with burns in the north and becks in the south and the boundary between the two lies somewhere around Durham City and mid Weardale.

Durham City lies on the dividing line between becks and burns in the naming of streams across England. Photo: David Simpson
Durham City lies on the dividing line between becks and burns in the naming of streams across England. Photo: David Simpson

Streams north of Durham City are called burns all the way up to John O’ Groats in the far north of Scotland while south of the city they’re called becks all the way down to the Viking settled areas of the Norfolk coast. Meanwhile in much of southern England and even in Lancashire they prefer the later Dutch word ‘brook’ though burn in the form ‘bourne’ often occurs in place-names across the whole of England.

In Hamsterley Forest in Weardale we find a stream named from an Anglo-Saxon man called Bede (though probably not the famous Venerable Bede of Jarrow). It is called the Bedburn Beck. It seems superfluous when surely the name Bed Burn would suffice? It’s as if they couldn’t quite make up their mind whether to call it a beck or a burn.

To the south it’s remarkable to discover that every single stream that joins the River Tees directly is called a ‘beck’ while to the north every stream that joins the Tyne directly is a ‘burn’. Along the Wear it varies between beck and burn. In upper Weardale as far east as Wolsingham the word ‘burn’ is the choice but in the mid Wear valley around Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor where the river briefly sways towards the south, the preferred word is ‘beck’.

aucklandcastlebishopa
Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland lies on the stretch of the River Wear where streams are called ‘becks’ rather than ‘burns’. Photo: David Simpson

In Durham City it changes again with the Mill Burn beneath the city’s shopping centre on the north side of the town marking the beginning of those burns again and it is the burns that continue to feed the river from Chester-le-Street all the way to the river’s end at Sunderland, or at least they do on the map. Over in East Durham locals use the term ‘beck’ and this may be the choice of word for some people in Sunderland too. It would be interesting to know.

River-names of Viking origin in the North East are not so common but include the River Skerne (it flows from Trimdon to the Tees at Darlington) but its earlier Anglo-Saxon name was something like ‘Sherne’ (the shining river). It became Skerne under Norse influence.

Historic view of Darlington and the River Skerne
Historic view of Darlington and the River Skerne

Other river names that are pure Viking include the River Greta (griota – its name means stony) that joins the Tees at Greta Bridge downstream from Barnard Castle. Upstream from ‘Barney’ the Tees is joined by the River Balder – Balder is the name of a Norse God.

At Bishop Auckland the Wear is joined by the River Gaunless, yet another Viking name. Gaunless (like gormless) means useless, but why is uncertain. Perhaps it was too short of fish to feed the hungry Vikings or too sluggish to power the workings of a mill.

Waterfalls are a bit like burns and becks in that they change their names according to where in the region you look for them. High Force and Low Force in Teesdale derive from a Viking word ‘foss’ that literally means waterfall. Forces also occur in Cumbria and Yorkshire too.

In Weardale though waterfalls are called ‘Linns’ and they go by this name in Northumberland too where there are many impressive waterfalls to see. Linn was seemingly a word used by the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria but has Celtic roots deriving from ‘Hlynn’ a word for a pool – probably from the plunge pools found at the foot of a fall.

The River Tees, High Force Waterfall
The River Tees, High Force Waterfall

So we can see that ancient people of long ago and sometimes the slightly more recent settlers like the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings from Northern Europe have played an important part in the naming of our rivers and water features. Rivers and streams are unusual though for their ancient names. When it comes to the names  of our towns, villages, cities and topographical features, it is more often than not the Anglo-Saxon who named them.

Northern River Names, Meaning and Origin. Poster Print.