Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Why it might just pay to know your place-names

Richard Jones

Getting up this morning, I was struck by a story on the local news.  It concerned the plight of a dairy farmer.  His lush pasture had turned to quagmire as his cattle had trampled over sodden ground resulting from the recent unseasonal downpours.  He suggested that the lack of fodder was having a deleterious effect on the quantity of milk being produced, and that we might expect imminent hikes in milk-prices as a direct consequence of this shortfall.  All very interesting (I am a voracious milk drinker), and made all the more so since the national news which followed reported that dairy farmers were marching on Westminster to protest against the price of milk they were receiving from retailers. 

In a sense this is by-the-by, but upon reflection it is actually the ‘by’ in the story that is most interesting.  Because the dairy farm in question was located in Somerby, Leicestershire.  Now there is some debate among place-name scholars regarding the derivation of this name.  Three alternatives are offered: either ‘Sumarlithi’s village’ or ‘village of the summer travellers’, or ‘village of the concave hill-slopes used in the summer’.    Somerby stands above the 180m OD contour in High Leicestershire.  The rather uncomfortable shape of the parish appears to suggest that it is squeezed between older more established land units which may once have enjoyed access to, and use of, what would be formalized as a separate entity Somerby. A seasonal farm, that is a sheiling, seems to be the most likely explanation, where the pasture was grazed in the summer perhaps because under other conditions the ground was no good.  And this is certainly how Somerby in Lincolnshire is interpreted, where the radial pattern of the surrounding parishes, together with its elevated position on the Wolds, reinforces the case that this was once communal pasture. 

Given, then, the problems faced by our Somerby farmer today, when in the absence of a summer sun, his ground has become inundated and unworkable, does this strengthen the case for interpreting the place-name as a warning to early farmers that this land was only suitable for grazing in clement weather?  And might, therefore, this farmer have been able to predict the fate of his cattle had he considered what his village name was telling him, that when the weather turned inclement or unseasonal, then problems would follow?  Which makes you think, or at least it makes me think.  Is the modern world missing a trick by paying scant regard to the information contained within place-names?  Many names might be over a thousand years old, of course, but as this example demonstrates, at times they still continue to convey information that, were we to take careful note of it, might help us to navigate through busy lives. 
Nor is Somerby an isolated example.  Take this from the This is Devon website published on 14 January, 2010 appearing under the headline ‘Police defend Haldon Hill snow response’   
‘Police insist they “could not have done more” to  respond to the  heavy snowfall which left hundreds of  motorists stranded in   frightening conditions  near Exeter. Drivers who were stuck  on Haldon Hill and Telegraph Hill, where  the M5  branches into two dual carriageways just past Exeter,  have  criticised the lack of  information flowing  through to them, and  questioned why ploughs and  diggers were not at the  scene  earlier.’ 
Haldon Hill is a notorious black spot, and, when it comes to strandings, a repeat offender; only eleven months earlier the same thing had happened, hundreds of motorists again marooned as they attempted to climb the hill and who were forced to spend the night in their cars.  Now it is not my place to assess whether the police could not have done more on these occasions, but had motorists been aware of the fact that the name derives from OE hagol meaning ‘hail’, thus giving us Hail Hill, then they might just have been aware of their folly in attempting to continue their journey south of Exeter.  For this hill, it would seem, has attracted hail, which we might take as shorthand for snow and ice for centuries.  The lesson of Haldon Hill must be that if our lives were informed by the meaning of the place-names through which we pass, we might just avoid considerable personal hardship and inconvenience when our journeys go wrong; and that moreover, society as a whole might have saved on these occasions the thousands of pounds from the public purse required to rescue those stranded in their vehicles.

Or what about this?  Three days ago (9.7.12) the Shropshire Star reported that the Environment Agency had issued Flood Alerts for two locations in the county—Buildwas and Eaton-on-Tern.  Well surprise, surprise!  As Margaret Gelling observed in her discussion of Buildwas, and in particular its second element OE w├Žsse ‘[t]he flood-plain can be a lake one day and a stretch of firm grazing ground on the next…This behaviour on the part of a river does not create swamp so, although the semantic reference is certainly to wetness, ‘alluvial land liable to sudden floods’, or the like should replace the earlier definition [‘land by a meandering river which floods and drains quickly’].’    And Eaton?  OE ea ‘river’!   All of which leads to the  conclusion that if you want to avoid costly insurance claims for flood damage, when choosing your new home, perhaps consider the meaning of the name of the town or village to which you intend to move.  I might even suggest that this should become a required element of any survey undertaken by your surveyor or solicitor before purchase. 

Whether or not these examples are representative, there are good grounds to suggest that the observations of our forebears, relayed through the names that they coined for the places in which we still chose to live, continue to hold relevance into the twenty-first century. Which leads me to one final remark.  For the good of society and for the economy of this country the study of place-names should be made an essential part of the National Curriculum.  The meaning of place-names should be accessible to all.  Because if everyone possessed the ability to interpret these names, how much better informed they would be when it came to taking life’s decisions, both great and small.  Should I stall my cattle? Is it wise to travel?  Should I buy a house here?  For the sake of your family, then, together with your home, your business, and your purse, it might just pay to become more versed in place-names.