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Derek Coleman: Similarities in W.Va., England shown in monikers of towns

Mar. 10, 2013 @ 09:25 PM

Not so long ago I wrote about some of the weird place names we have in England. Some of you were kind enough to email me to comment on this and also on the fact that many of the place names in this state reflect places in Britain.

The closest of these I would guess would be Culloden, on the border between Putnam and Cabell counties. Here in West Virginia it is a small town with about 3,000 people living in it; back in Britain it is pronounced Cull-odd-un, and is a stretch of bleak, marshy moorland just outside the city of Inverness in northeast Scotland. It would be unknown outside the local area except for the fact that in the year 1746, it was the site of the last pitched battle to be fought on British soil. Here the Hanoverian kings defeated the Stewart pretenders to the throne. As a result of this battle, some 3,000 Scots were transported as prisoners to the American colonies, many of them settling in what was then western Virginia.

I guess you all know St. Albans, but did you know it has had several names during its short history and is now named for Saint Albans in Vermont? That place is, in its turn, named for St. Albans in Hertfordshire in England. Some 40 miles north of London, St. Albans is a market town with a very long history. It gets its name because Saint Alban, an early British Christian, was beheaded there by the Romans for refusing to give up his faith.

Approaching Charleston, we find Dunbar. Again, this is a town with a Scottish name, a name deriving from the ancient Brythonic language and meaning a fort on top of a hill. Dunbar in Scotland is a few miles southeast of Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, and has a history going back more than 2,000 years. Nearby Montrose is now part of South Charleston, but its namesake in Scotland is a seaport where people have lived since prehistoric times.

Traffic news on the radio frequently mentions the road between London and Glasgow, maybe a four- or five-mile stretch of rural U.S. 60, between two tiny communities. This usually makes me smile. In Britain, the road between these two places is more than 400 miles long, they are at opposite ends of the country and London has a population in excess of 8 million while Glasgow has approaching 1.5 million.

Up in Randolph County in the northeast part of the state, we have the small town of Beverly, population a little more than 700. Its namesake is a market town in Yorkshire, England, with a population 40 times bigger and a tradition of horse racing that is older than its race course, one of the most famous in England, which was started in 1690.

A little closer to home, Sutton, in Braxton County has a similar sized population to Beverly. Its counterpart in England is south of central London but is now being absorbed by the city. It is a commuter town for Britain’s capital and archeological finds here have been dated from more than 10,000 years ago.

Weston, in Lewis County, is a fair-sized West Virginia town near what was once Stonewall Jackson’s home. In England, Weston is a coastal resort on the River Severn estuary in the southwest of the country. Its full name is Weston-super-Mare, which does not mean a female horse with fantastic powers but is from medieval Latin and simply means “on the sea,” thus it is Weston-on-the-sea and is called such to distinguish it from the several other villages called Weston in this part of the country. Weston is from the Saxon and means west settlement. This was the nearest coastal resort to my boyhood home in Birmingham and we spent many summer weekends there despite the fact it has far more mud flats than beaches.

The official name of the town we call Berkely Springs up in the eastern panhandle is Bath. It was surveyed by George Washington long before the Revolutionary War and he visited it many times, taking his sick half-brother Lawrence there for the warm mineral springs in the area. It was named for Bath in Somerset, Engl and, which is famous for the same reason; it, too, has warm natural mineral springs but the English version was known well before the Romans came to Britain 2000 years ago and today it still contains the ruins of many of the baths that they built.

It is obvious I could go on and on with this list, just for West Virginia alone. There are so many place names we have in common and if we were to go outside the state I could write a book, probably beginning with Washington, a small town in northeast England whose Anglo-Saxon name means “Home of the descendants of Hwaesa.” Among those descendants was one George Washington, first President of the United States of America.

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.