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Placenames and the landscape



Did you know that many of the names of our villages and towns have a meaning, and many names describe the landscape, vegetation and animals to be found in that place. Sometimes they tell you about the soil of the area and what grows there.

Most village names date back to Saxon times. In those days the countryside was very different. You couldn't describe how to get to a place by saying "Turn right by the telephone box, then left at the roundabout", because such things did not exist then. Instead you might say "Turn left by the very old oak tree and then go past a steep hill and on until you reach a bend in the river." So the villages built near these features were often named after them.

It is often said that the Inuit have lots of different names for snow. Well, the Saxons had lots of different names for hills, valleys, woods, clearings, ponds, fields etc. Because there were lots of hills and lots of valleys etc, they needed to be able to tell them apart, so needed special words to describe the slight variations in shape, size and so on. It's not very different from the way that we, today, have lots of different words to describe rain - anything from a torrential downpour to a light drizzle!

Here are a few examples:-

Hills - a 'beorg' was a rounded hill; a 'dun' was a low hill in open countryside; a 'hlith' was a hill with a hollow at its foot; a 'hoh' was a hill rising gently on one side, then falling sharply at the other; a 'ridge' is a word we still use.

Valleys - a 'bottom' was a flat, marshy area near a river; a 'corf' was a gap through hills; a 'combe' was a short, broad valley with 3 fairly steep sides; a 'dean' was a main valley.

Rivers - a 'brook' was a small stream; an 'ea' was a major river; 'font' or 'well' meant a spring; a 'mere' was a pool and also wet land; a 'pill' was a tidal creek.

Marshes and Heathland (and there was much more marshland before people learned how to drain it) - an 'ey' was a raised island in an area of marsh; one meaning of 'ham' was land hemmed in by water or marsh; 'marsh ' still means the same today; 'moor' was barren upland; 'sol' was a muddy place where animals wallowed.

Roads - 'ford' was a crossing place with no bridge; 'bridge' was a name used when a bridge was built, often replacing a ford; a 'hythe' was a landing place on a river or inland port.

Woodland and Open Land - 'weald' was forest; 'with' was a wood; a 'lea' originally meant woodland, but came later tomean a clearing or pastureland in woodland; a 'hurst' was a wooded hill; 'wood' was a large area of woodland; 'forest, on the other hand, did not necessarily imply uninterrupted woodland.

People used words like these to describe places, but also they often added extra information, such as the name of the person who owned the land or who lived there, the crops grown there, the types of trees found there, the soil, the animals being farmed or living wild there. And so on . . . .

See if you can work out what these names mean:

Oxford 
Fonthill 
Fernhurst 
Broomhill 
Blackpool 
Nettlecombe 
Ashridge 
East Dean 
Heathfield 
Bulbridge 
Claydon 
Sedgebrook 
Hazelmere 
Swallowcliffe 
Clayhithe