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