What’s in a Name? Exploring the History of Charnwood Forest through its Place Names

Speaker: Julie Attard

17 September 2019

Julie Attard is an old friend of the Society and in September she returned with a talk entitled "What's in a name? Exploring the history of Charnwood Forest through its place-names." It was based on research carried out through the Victoria County History's "Charnwood Roots" project, which Julie managed.

English place-names have absorbed a mixture of elements from the languages of successive waves of invaders. Different languages are often combined, for example, the first part of "Charnwood" is from the Celtic word for a cairn, while "wood" comes from Old English. Sometimes it is clear that new arrivals did not understand the meaning of the existing name — a classic example being Breedon on the Hill, which means "Hill Hill on the Hill" in various languages!

Analysing place-names can tell us about patterns of settlement and the way the inhabitants saw the landscape. "Thurcaston" is derived from a Viking forename Thorketil, combined with the Old English 'tun', meaning a settlement. This suggests a period when a new Viking lord took charge of an existing Saxon village. "Cropston" follows the same pattern, although it is not clear whether the forename in question is the Saxon Cropp or the Viking Kropp.

Some elements of Anglo-Saxon names could be very specific, e.g. "Stocking Close", which means an enclosure cleared of tree stumps, or "Swithland", which means land cleared by burning. After 1066 the Normans gave French names to a few local places, such as Beaumanor and Grace Dieu.

There are more than 2,000 surviving medieval documents that relate to Charnwood and they are both a valuable and rich source of old place-names. Julie showed us several examples, including a "perambulation" of an estate boundary from about 1300, in which roughly half of the names that appear can still be identified on a modern Ordnance Survey map. In the 18th and 19th centuries much of the countryside was enclosed and the associated maps and enclosure awards tell us the names of the old open fields and furlongs. Thurcaston and Cropston each had a Bybrook Field, which is straightforward to understand but it is less apparent that the name of Alitha Field in Thurcaston came from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "detached". Subsequent documents record the name as "Hallythawe", "Hollythorn" and "Albethough", which just goes to show how place-names can evolve as later generations try to make sense of these names in their own way.