Bishop’s Itchington, Westley Waterless: there is plenty to smile or snigger at on a map of the UK. But in fact, these names reveal a hidden – and fascinating – history. James Harbeck writes on March 9, 2016 on BBC.

Little snoring

The drive from the town of Much Wenlock to Ashby-de-la-Zouch is 60 miles east across the English Midlands. Once you have crossed the River Severn and passed the Wrekin rising to the left – the last of the Shropshire Hills – you join the M54 at the Wrekin Retail Park. At Featherstone, you have a choice: north and then east past Lichfield and Tamworth, or southeast past Walsall, Wednesbury and Birmingham, south of Sutton Coldfield, and northeast to cross the River Tame. Either way, once you’re past Appleby Magna and crossing the River Mease, you’re almost there. Be sure not to make a wrong turn and end up in Donisthorpe, Newton Burgoland or Snarestone.

And just like that, in an hour and a quarter, you will have covered the great sweep of British history: from the Celts through the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians, and Normans to modern times – all as displayed in Britain’s place names. (You can check out our map, not meant to be exhaustive, of some of Britain’s stranger names).

Pity Me
Some towns have such strange names that no one can be sure what their origins are, like the village of Pity Me outside Durham (Credit: Duncan Hale-Sutton/Alamy)

British history didn’t start with the Celtic peoples (Stonehenge didn’t build itself, after all). But the Celtic tribes that arrived during the Iron Age, which started around 800BC, were the first to give a clear linguistic contribution that has lasted to modern times. They came in groups from the continent; those in the north spoke Goidelic (the source of Gaelic), while southerners spoke Brittonic.

Even today, many hills and rivers have kept their Celtic names – especially in the north and west. The Wrekin takes its name from Celtic. So do about two-thirds of England’s rivers: Avon, Derwent, Severn, Tees, Trent, Tyne – and Itchen, which later lent its name to the town Bishop’s Itchington. (Some of these names may even have come from the people who were here before the Celts). Often the names just meant ‘river’ or ‘water’, and sometimes no one knows what they originally meant; in the Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, AD Mills calls Severn “an ancient pre-English river name of doubtful etymology”. The River Tame, which we cross on our trip to Ashby-de-la-Zouch, comes from the Celtic for ‘dark one’ or ‘river’ – as does the River Thames.

Wenlock Edge
This view from Wenlock Edge, located near Much Wenlock in the Midlands, takes in Easthope, Ape Dale, Caer Caradoc and The Long Mynd (Credit: David Lyons/Alamy)

There is less Celtic influence in the south and east largely thanks to the Anglo-Saxons. When they invaded in the 6th Century AD, they pushed the Britons to the edges and into the hills. Those who stayed in England were gradually assimilated, rather like the name of the town we start our drive in, Much Wenlock. It gets its Much is from Anglo-Saxon mycel, meaning ‘great’ or ‘much’. Wenlock comes from Celtic wininicas, ‘white area’, and the Anglo-Saxon loca, ‘place’.

Fighting words

The Romans invaded Britain too, even before the Anglo-Saxons, first trying in 55 BC but at last succeeding in AD 43. But their linguistic influence, like their culture, left less of a mark: they built towns and garrison outposts, but they never truly made Britain their home. Roman contributions to British place names come mainly through their Latinisation of pre-Roman names. A Celtic name that had been rendered by earlier Greek visitors as Pretanniké became the Roman Britannia; an ancient name of obscure meaning became Londinium. The other major Roman contribution comes from the Latin castra (‘fort’). Taken into Anglo-Saxon, it became ceaster (‘town, city’, pronounced rather like ‘che-aster’) – which has mutated to chester (Chester, Manchester), caster (Lancaster, Doncaster) and cester (Leicester, Cirencester).

Unlike the Romans, however, the Anglo-Saxons did not come to establish an outpost or colony. They came to move in. The Anglo-Saxons did build forts – the word burh (‘fortified place’) gives Britain all of its –burghs and –burys – but what they really wanted to do was farm, build towns and conduct trade. If they encountered a forest (called awald, wold, weald, holt or shaw) or a grove (graf, now –grove and –grave), they might clear it to make a leah (now –ly, –lay, –ley and –leigh). They would enclose land to make a worthig (–worth), ham (the source of ‘home’), or tun (now –ton and the source of ‘town’). Since ham was more common in the earlier years and tun later on, there are more –hams in the south, where the Anglo-Saxons first came, and more – tons in the north and west.

Shitterton
The name of this Dorset hamlet has Anglo-Saxon (and unfortunate) roots: it stems from the town’s stream, which once was used as an open sewer (Credit: Dorset Media Service/Alamy)

The Anglo-Saxons also liked to name things after themselves. The suffix –ingas (now shortened to –ing(s)) referred to the family and followers of some personage: for instance, Hæsta’s folk settled at Hastings. Many a ham and tun was also named for a person, such as Birmingham, the ham of Beorma’s people (Beormingas). They also named geographical features for themselves, like valleys (denu) such as Rottingdean (the valley of Rota’s clan). And, before converting to Christianity, they named some places after their gods – Wednesbury is named after Woden.

Then the Scandinavians arrived. They started in the 8th Century with raids: Danes from the east and Norsemen, coming around Scotland by sea, from the northwest. In the mid-9th Century, they staged a full-scale invasion and began to settle in the areas they controlled. At the height of Scandinavian power in Britain, they controlled an area known as the Danelaw that covered most of England north and east of a line from Liverpool to the Thames – a line you cross at Watling Street (an ancient road) as you drive northeast toward Ashby-de-la-Zouch.

Whip-ma
As well as oddly-named towns, Britain has streets like York’s Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, which may come from Norse for ‘Neither one thing nor the other’ (Credit: Paul Rushton/Alamy)

Ashby, like Appleby, bears the quintessential mark of a Danish place name: –by, meaning ‘farmhouse’ or ‘village’. Both, however, also bear the marks of the Anglo-Saxons who where there first: the apple and ash trees. Also from the Danes came both (now booth), meaning ‘cattle shelter’; thorp, meaning ‘satellite farm’, now mostly with an excrescent e as in Donisthorpe; toft, meaning ‘homestead’; and thwait, meaning ‘clearing, meadow, or paddock’ – now also with that unnecessary e.

In 1066, the Normans came: Frenchmen, many of whom were descended from assimilated Viking invaders of France. William took over the government and gave ownership of many places to knights who had supported him. Ashby was given to the de la Zuche family; Newton (‘new town or enclosed settlement’) was given to the Burgilons (now Newton Burgoland). The invasion also led to French versions of English originals, such as Rievaulx, translated from Ryedale. There are pure French names that later were shaped by English influence, such as Beamish from beau mes (‘beautiful mansion’), Bewdley from beau lieu (‘beautiful place’) and Ridgemont from rouge mont (‘red hill’). The Normans’ scribes, educated in Latin, also gave Latin additions such as Appleby Magna and Lyme Regis – and even the occasional full name, such as Pontefract (pons fractus, ‘broken bridge’).

But the Norman French did not settle in with the same comfort as the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians, and certainly not in the same numbers. The commoners – made up of Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians and remaining Celts – kept speaking English, which was still evolving and came to add many French words.

Ashby-de-la-Zouch
Ashby-de-la-Zouch may once have been the ‘ash tree farmhouse belonging to the Norman de la Zuche family’, but it is as English as market towns come (Credit: Ian Dagnall/Alamy)

In time, English again became the language of rule. The court, which had increasingly intermarried with English speakers, resumed speaking English in the 14th Century; parliament returned to it in the 15th Century. Ultimately, the stubbornness of the Anglo-Saxon language conquered in the end. How else could a ‘south-town coalfield’ become Sutton Coldfield? Wet clearings (water leas) at the west clearing (west leah) become Westley Waterless? A muddy place (slohtre) turn to Slaughter (Upper and Lower)?

And so it is that you can, in 60 miles, go from the Celtic hills, through the Anglo-Saxon and old Celtic towns, across the pre-Celtic, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon rivers, past faint traces of the Romans, cross into Danish territory, and find the French nobility.

All in one language: English.

This story is a part of BBC Britain – a series focused on exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time. Readers outside of the UK can see every BBC Britain story by heading to theBritain homepage

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