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Derek Coleman: Britain has quite the collection of oddly named towns, places

Jan. 20, 2013 @ 08:18 PM

With three growing stepchildren and three jobs, I don't get a lot of leisure time. But when I do have a few minutes to do as I want, one of my favorite pastimes is browsing the Internet.

I am an avid devourer of information, most of which will never be of any real use to me but which I collect because it's nice to know these things. The other day I had a little spare time and I was looking at our beautiful county's website. I browsed through some of the towns in this county and one or two of the names struck me as unusual, so I thought I'd introduce you to some of Britain's stranger named places.

Let's start in the southwest of England with the village and fishing port of Mousehole. Some might think this is a fairly modern name but a fair was held in Mousehole 200 years before Columbus sailed from Spain, and the village was burned by the Spaniards in 1595. The name is thought to derive from a huge natural cave in the rocks nearby.

Mousehole is in the English county of Cornwall, which in ancient times was a separate kingdom with its own language. The last speaker of Cornish came from Mousehole and the language gives rise to the strangely named village of Praze an Beeble, which translates as "a meadow on the River Beeble."

Moving northeast from Cornwall we come to the English county of Dorset and the quaintly named Toller Porcorum. Again this is a very ancient name. Toller was once the name of the local river but it is now the Hooke, and "Pocorum" is Latin for pigs. Whether the name goes back to Roman times and whether there were once wild pigs in the river is now lost in the mists of time.

Let's turn east to the big city. London has a history going back 2000 years and many peculiar names to prove it. Tooting Bec is one of these. Situated in the borough of Wandsworth, Tooting derives from the ancient British Totinges tribe and Bec from the name of a French abbey, which owned the land in the year 1066.

Ludgate, Cripplegate and Aldgate all signify places where access to ancient London could be gained through the wall that once surrounded the city. A little more modern is the south London district called Elephant and Castle. This comes from a picture of an Indian elephant which had a castle-like construction on its back for hunters to sit in. There used to be a pub here called the Elephant and Castle, which was built around 1760 but it stood on the site owned by the Cutlers' Company, who made knives and, scissors etc and whose sign as far back as the 13th century was also the Elephant and Castle.

Moving northwest we come to the English Midlands and places such as Nether Wallop, whose name comes from the old British words "waella" meaning a stream and "hop," a valley. The Nether part means it was the smaller of three villages with the same name. Going north we come to the Slaughters, upper and Lower Slaughter and again we owe the name to the old English language and the word "Slohtr," which means "Muddy place," a gross misnomer for two beautifully preserved old villages.

Nearby we have Wyre Piddle, a favorite summer fishing haunt of mine when I was a teenager. Here the name derives from two languages, "gweyr" the Celtic word for winding and the Old English "pidele" meaning a marshy area.

We'll move up to the northwest for our next odd name. Bessies o' the Barn is more modern, although still 200 or 300 years old. It comes from a pub that was either built in a converted barn or which looked like a barn and which was run by a lady called Bess.

Ruyton XI Towns is certainly one of the odder names and one of the older ones. It comes from the building of a castle at Ruyton in the 1100s. The village stood on the border between England and Wales and 11 of the local villages relied on the fortress for protection against Welsh raiders. The name has lasted even though some of the villages have long since vanished.

Moving on into Wales we find our last, longest and most unpronounceable name. Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is a village on the Welsh island of Anglesey. It is the longest place name in Britain, one of the longest in the world and the most modern of those we have discussed in this article. It means St. Mary's Church in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool and the church of St. Tysilio with a red cave. The village was originally just Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogery but in 1860, the railroad came and in an effort to attract tourists, the local people adopted the longer name.

This has just been a brief look at the stranger names of British places, most of them derive from a distant age and the meanings of many are now lost. Perhaps one day, in a thousand years or so, people will be pondering the meaning of Hurricane, Winfield and even Putnam.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.