Names that spell out Britain’s gloriously eccentric history
One of the greatest things about Britain is our collection of bizarre and amusing place names. They’re so good you can read a map for entertainment rather than navigation.
Hardington Mandeville, Bradford Peverell, Carlton Scroop — they sound like characters in a novel. In fact, P.G. Wodehouse often raided the atlas when looking for names of characters: Lord emsworth of Blandings Castle is named after a town in Hampshire, while a village in the same county gave another Wodehouse character her surname: Lady Millicent Shipton-Bellinger (daughter of the fifth earl of Brangbolton).
There’s plenty of silliness out there — Great Snoring in norfolk, Matching Tye in essex, Fryup in Yorkshire.
Surely it says something about this nation’s sense of humour that we let these names persist, and indeed rejoice in them? You can visit Wrangle in Lincolnshire or Sixpenny Handley in Dorset. In Staffordshire, you can literally find yourself at Loggerheads, while Leicestershire offers Barton in the Beans.
There are unusual names north of the border, too. You might want to avoid the Scottish village of Dull (it’s twinned with Boring, Ohio), but Maggieknockater sounds fun (it means ‘plain of the hilly ridge’). Meanwhile, Wales has a Splott (an area of Cardiff where broadcaster John Humphrys was brought up) and northern Ireland a Stranagalwilly.
As that example shows, some names appeal to ‘end of the pier’ humour. There are places called Lusty Glaze, Pant and Thong. Once you throw in Tarty, Feltwell Bully Hole Bottom and Scratchy Bottom, the map becomes a risqué seaside postcard.
BUT it’s not all sniggers. Our place names can be educational, telling the history of who lived where, when. ‘ Pen’ (as in Penzance) denotes a Celtic settlement: it means ‘hill’ (as does Old english ‘- dle’, so Pendle Hill in Lancashire means ‘Hill Hill Hill’). When the Romans built military camps or ‘castra’, we got Colchester, Leicester, Doncaster.
Any name ending ‘ton’ or ‘ham’ is probably Anglo- Saxon: the former meant ‘farm’, the latter ‘ homestead’. Birmingham, for instance, was originally the homestead of someone called Beorma.
There’s also a village called Ham near Sandwich in Kent. The road sign pointing to them both reads ‘Ham Sandwich’, and is constantly being stolen. When the Vikings turned up, they used their own word for homestead: ‘by’. Hence we got Whitby, Derby, Ashby.
Then William the Conqueror gave land to his French supporters, who added their own names to the places in question. The Ashby in Leicestershire became Ashby-de- la- Zouche. When Theobald de Busar arrived in Bedfordshire, Leighton became Leighton Buzzard — nothing to do with birds of prey.
A ‘-ley’ ending signifies a meadow or clearing. The one settled by someone called Wemba became Wembley, so football fans are right to chant three syllables. In essex a clearing settled by ugga became ugley: you can understand why its WI branch changed their name from the ugley Women’s Institute to the Women’s Institute of ugley.
‘Chipping’ — as in Chipping norton and Chipping Sodbury — indicates a market town. It derives from the old word for market, ‘chepe’. This is also the origin of Cheapside, a street in the City of London. The streets that lead off it are where different products were sold: Milk Street, Bread Street, Honey Lane and so on.
Pronunciations are notoriously tricky. Mousehole in Cornwall is ‘Mowzel’, Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway is ‘Kirkoobree’ and Tintwistle, Derbyshire, is ‘Tinsel’ — birthplace of designer Vivienne Westwood. Americans are famous for saying ‘edinburrow’, but we shouldn’t forget the Canadian who pronounced Loughborough as ‘Looga-barooga.’
There’s also confusion when several places share the same name. This is usually because the meaning is so common — Ashby simply denotes a farm near some ash trees. While the La Zouche family added a twist to their Ashby, other places round the country became Ashby Magna, Ashby Parva, West Ashby, Castle Ashby and so on. The one in northamptonshire became Cold Ashby for the very simple reason that it was cold there.
Two places called Mansfield have ended up united in a way so ridiculous it could only be the work of the english aristocracy. The one in nottinghamshire had an earldom, as did that in Middlesex, but in 1843 the titles were united. The current holder is therefore the 9th earl of Mansfield and the 8th earl of Mansfield.
More upper class lunacy at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, which for centuries has been the home of the Duke of Devonshire. This is simply because the clerk writing out the original deeds wrote the wrong name: the title was supposed to be ‘ Duke of Derbyshire’. In much the same way, the central London area known as Covent Garden started life as the garden of a convent, but someone missed out the ‘n’.
It’s no surprise our nation of crossword lovers and Scrabble addicts enjoys a verbal analysis of place names.
Westward Ho! in Devon is the only one with an exclamation mark. The village developed after Charles Kingsley’s 1855 novel of the same name (set in nearby Bideford) became a bestseller, bringing tourists to the area. In Shropshire, there’s Ruyton-XI-Towns, the only name containing a capital X — it’s pronounced ‘eleven’, because Ruyton was the biggest town in a group of 11.
Ae, a village near Dumfries, holds the title of shortest name. Bricklehampton in Worcestershire is the longest name not to repeat any letters (14 — more than half the alphabet). But of course the very longest is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. The Welsh village cheated slightly, choosing the name in the 1860s as a publicity stunt. That didn’t stop Channel 4 weatherman Liam Dutton including it in a 2015 forecast. His successful pronunciation has been viewed more than 15 million times on YouTube. Some places have tidied up their names to avoid laughs. nottingham used to be Snottingham — in Saxon times ‘snot’ meant ‘wise’, so the chieftain who ruled the area called himself that.
But in other areas humour still reigns. There are places called Curry Mallet, uploders, nether Wallop and Droop. There’s a Puddletown, a new Invention, a Thrumpton, a north Piddle and a Wetwang.
You can visit Queen Camel and Sandy Balls (the two are not connected). You can have a laugh in Giggleswick, go crazy in Crackpot or bounce around in Jump. In Lincolnshire, on the sign at a turning for two tiny villages reading ‘To Mavis enderby and Old Bolingbroke’, someone has added ‘. . . the gift of a son’.
It’s even possible to play games with them. I once gave a friend a list of five names, four genuine, the other a spoof. The list was north Piddle, Catbrain, Mudford Sock, West Stuttering and Ogle. My friend had to spot the fake — and failed.
Can you do better? The answer is actually West Stuttering.
Chuckles all the way: A few of our funniest signposts