How the Anglo-Saxons found their way

Speaker: Bob Trubshaw

17 May 2022

At our May meeting, we welcomed back Bob Trubshaw to discuss the intriguing subject of how Anglo-Saxons found their way.  Bob is a writer and publisher on various subjects that are ancient, mystical or mysterious, as well as the instigator of Project Gargoyle to document the medieval church carvings of Leicestershire and Rutland.

Anglo-Saxon settlers began to arrive from mainland Europe not long after Roman rule here had ended.  The kingdoms that they founded eventually united to create England, and their culture and the Old English language remained dominant until the time of the Norman Conquest.  Anglo-Saxon people needed to travel for reasons including trade, pilgrimage and war but they did not have maps, so how did they find their way?

One possible answer comes from studies of English place-names, the majority of which are Anglo-Saxon in origin.  This includes names that end in -ham (related to “home”) or -ton (related to “town”).  Both those words meant a settlement, with a tendency for -ham­ places to be more pastoral and -ton places to be more arable.  Many place-names, including Cropston and Thurcaston, referred to individuals but others are descriptive of landscape features.  Research by Margaret Gelling and others has demonstrated that those descriptions can be extremely specific.  For example, there were at least 20 different words for “hill”, depending on whether the hill was round (-don), steep-sided (cliff or edge), a ridge dipping at the end (over), “heel-shaped” with a high and a low summit (ho- or hough-), wooded (hurst) or artificial (barrow or -low).  There were similar ranges of words for types of valley, woods, water features, etc.  Other names referred to the former Roman occupation so anywhere called Stretton will be near a Roman road (street), while places with names ending -chester, -cester or -xeter will be on the site of a Roman town.

In the opinion of Bob and others, these descriptions were specific enough for travellers to have found a route from one place to the next.  He has identified that you could still travel from Great Glen, south of Leicester, to Thistleton on the Lincolnshire border, passing only through villages that have descriptive Old English names.  Although we have no evidence of Anglo-Saxon journeys being planned in this way, there are surviving documents that define the boundaries of estates by reference to a series of landscape features.  The main difficulty for travellers would have been to remember the sequence of places.  It is likely that the Anglo-Saxons used stories or songs to link them together in a memorable way, similar to the “song lines” of Aboriginal Australia or the traditional stories of Traveller communities.  There is more detail about these ideas in a written version of Bob’s talk, which is online at