I’ve written several times about the importance of place in my novels and how much I admire writers who can evoke a specific place (whether real or fictional) and imbue it with its own particular character and atmosphere. Fictional places that I love include Margaret Mitchell’s Tara, Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead and Gerald Durrell’s Corfu (the last perhaps not strictly speaking fictional, but still, I’m certain, an embroidered and selective portrayal of the island as it existed when he moved there with his family).
Towns, villages and hamlets in the area of South Lincolnshire where I grew up have some wonderful names: Spalding itself (named after a sixth century Anglian tribe called the Spaldingas), Whaplode, Quadring Eaudyke, Gosberton Risegate, and, perhaps the one I like best, Pode Hole (which, apparently, is Anglo-Saxon for ‘the place of the toad’). Today Pode Hole is a very small village, best known for the pumping station which was opened in 1965 and is already a Grade II listed building. It connects two waterways to Vernatt’s Drain, an astonishing feat of late seventeenth century engineering which began the long, slow process of draining the Fens. (I’ve read that Vernatt’s real name was Baron Philibert Vernatti, and that he was ‘an adventurer’. I’d certainly like to have met him!)
Place names in South Yorkshire are also evocative. There is Silkstone (which sounds beautiful, but was once quite a grim mining village); Hoylandswaine, which reads like the name of a bucolic lover but more prosaically means ‘a spur of land jutting out from a hill’; Durkar (which means ‘grit marsh’, but to me has always sounded Asian: a rather exotic cross between ‘durbar’ and ‘gurkha’) and Goldthorpe and Grimethorpe (the Danish ‘thorp’ referring to a small new settlement next to a larger village).
Many of these Yorkshire place-names are Norse or Danish in origin. There is an even greater concentration of such Scandinavian names on the East coast, particularly in the Scarborough – Robin Hood’s Bay area and its hinterland. My all-time favourite is Ugglebarnby.
As a family, we’ve passed through Ugglebarnby many times on our way to a day out at the coast. Knowing that ‘-by’ is the Norse suffix for ‘the place of’, we’ve always assumed that Ugglebarnby meant ‘the place of Uggle’s barn’. We’ve had fun speculating about Uggle: we’ve discussed how he probably came storming inland, straight off his dragon-prowed longboat, saw a likely-looking Saxon barn and laid claim to it and the adjoining village, thereafter fighting off all challengers and making it quite clear to whom the barn belonged by emphatically slapping his name on it. My husband and son, both tall and red-haired, and with ancestors in the female line whose surname was definitely of Norse origins, like to imagine themselves as modern incarnations of fierce manly Vikings – sailing the oceans, whirling sharp battleaxes and certainly getting their own way (the desire to do this is still a pronounced family trait) in claiming new territories. They’ve therefore always felt a strong affinity with Uggle. Perhaps because of my own Saxon origins, I’ve imagined him as quite a sinister character, probably reclusive, a hulking, brooding giant emerging like a Rottweiler from his homestead (plus barn) to defend it against all comers.
Today I’ve disappointed myself a little, therefore, by looking up Ugglebarnby in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, only to discover that its meaning is ‘the owl at Bardi’s place’. Now Bardi might have been just as bloodthirsty and truculent as Uggle, but somehow I doubt it: he was obviously nice to owls, and whether or not he had a barn is not recorded. A bit of a let-down!
We could have looked up the name years ago – The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names was left to my husband by his first boss, who died at some point in the 1980s – but I’m glad that we didn’t. If we had, all those fantastical conversations on the way to the coast would never have happened. But one crucial thing hasn’t changed: Ugglebarnby is still a peerless place-name!
[Click on photographs to enlarge them.]
Perhaps you have your own favourite place names; if so, I should very much like to hear of them.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
Yesterday I mentioned that I have recently bought several books about South Lincolnshire to aid my research. One of these is Aspects of Spalding Villages, by Michael J. Elsden. It is a book of photographs with quite an extensive accompanying text drawn from contemporary newspapers and other documents, such as old trade directories.
Among the many fascinating sections is one on Pode Hole, a hamlet between Pinchbeck and Spalding, which became important when a pumping station was set up there in the late eighteenth century to reduce the threat of flooding. It was a place to which I often headed when out on bike rides. Its system of sluices represents a complex and quite awe-inspiring feat of engineering. However, of more interest to me were the rather quaint by-laws relating to the pumping station, which were posted in full on a board in front of the main building. When I visited Spalding shortly before last Christmas, I was intrigued to see that the by-laws notice is still there. It’s a sturdy production, set in stone like a fenlands version of the Ten Commandments.
The section in Michael Elsden’s book that is headed ‘Trades and Business People in Pode Hole in 1937’ includes the entry ‘Sherrard, Rd. Albert, haulage contractor, Pode Hole’. It leapt out at me because Richard Sherrard (whose middle name was also his father’s – I had not previously known that he also bore it) was my Great-Uncle Dick. When I knew him, he led a fairly down-and-out existence. He scraped a living by farming a small-holding at Spalding Common and lived in one of the short streets of council houses there. I don’t recollect having had any meaningful conversations with him as a child; the Sherrard men were not particularly interested in girls. However, my brother, the only boy of our generation, was regaled with all sorts of treats and confidences. When we were both adults, he told me some of the family history that he had gleaned from Uncle Dick and his two surviving brothers (the eldest brother, John, had been gassed in the Great War and died in the 1920s). He said that Uncle Dick had told him that he was once the owner of a thriving haulage business, with a fleet of lorries that carried vegetables and livestock across the Fens. More roguishly, he admitted that he had plied a flourishing black market side-line during the Second World War.
I only half-believed this tale, because the Uncle Dick that I knew was anything but a prosperous businessman. I therefore rather assumed that it had been invented to satisfy a small child’s curiosity and also to imbue his old uncle with a touch of glamour. (‘What did you do in the war, Uncle Dick?’ ‘Oh – ha, ha, ha – I was a bit of a scoundrel; I sold stuff on the black market. It didn’t harm anyone; I just helped people to get the things that they needed.’) Now, however, I have found proof that at least some of Uncle Dick’s story was true: he was indeed a haulage contractor. The question is, did he really own a fleet of lorries, or just one antiquated, clapped-out lorry that was pressed into service for the war effort? And, if the former, what happened to them all? Might they have been confiscated because his nefarious activities were found out? Might the haulage business even have gone downhill because he was disgraced, or sent to prison? I don’t suppose that I shall ever find out and, since my own version of events is probably more colourful than the truth, I’m not sure that I really want to!