Lost in ancient world of place names

GOLDEN: Climbing the 199 steps to Whitby Abbey – or Streanaeshalch Abbey – as the Venerable Bede would have called it

GOLDEN: Climbing the 199 steps to Whitby Abbey – or Streanaeshalch Abbey – as the Venerable Bede would have called it

First published in Countryman's Diary by

SOME years ago, my wife and I were visiting Holland and we stayed in a modern town called Nieuwegein. I made a pig’s ear of that name when trying to pronounce it to a Dutch shopkeeper because it is not pronounced in English in the way it would appear from that spelling.

The English phonetic spelling would be something akin to Newer-hine.

This reminded me of attempts by visitors, whether from other parts of Britain or overseas, to pronounce some local town or village names.

One popular example is baurgh, barugh or bargh which appears in several parts of this region in names like Langbaurgh, once the name of a Dales wapentake and later a petty sessions district.

The three spellings above are all pronounced the same way.

Not far from where I live is a village called Great Barugh and the pronunciation in all cases is barf, that is Langbarf and Great Barf. I’ve often heard Great Barugh referred to as Great Baroogie by visitors who have been lost in the maze of surrounding lanes.

Another puzzler is the old name for Whitby. This is Streoneshalh, from an AngloSaxon name Streoneshale, which was written by the Venerable Bede as Streanaeshalch.

Pronunciation of such names, and their subsequent spelling, was generally based on the sounds of the local language that differed from place to place. It is often claimed that Streoneshalh is nowadays pronounced as Strensall which has given its name to a large village near York and another called Strenshall in Staffordshire, although those claims are in doubt. There seems to be no direct link between Strensall, Strenshall and Whitby.

Another habit of Yorkshire folk is to mispronounce local names. For example, the suffix dale is often shortened to dle and so, for Bedale, the name often emerges as Beadle. Indeed, many local people happily refer to the town as Beadle and in recent times, an elderly lady of my acquaintance insisted that Beadle was its rightful name.

However, there are many other village names ending in dale which are invariably pronounced in that shortened manner. My own birthplace is Glaisdale deep in the North York Moors, and we always referred to it as Glaisdle. Similarly, Westerdale higher in the Esk Valley became Westerdle and Rosedale across the hills was Rossdle. More names in the Esk Valley have regularly caused confusion – Sleights is locally pronounced as Slites but incomers and visitors often refer to it as Slates while calling Grosmont Grossmont and not Growmont which is the local pronunciation. This might be of French origin, springing from the French for big mound or great hill, a former Frenchbased priory on the site being known as Grandimont.

Ruswarp always causes consternation and I recall the station porter loudly announcing its name to approaching trains as RussWarp, spoken slowly in two syllables with strong emphasis on the second. We locals have always referred to it as Ruzzup just as the locals at Stanhope in County Durham refer to it as Stan-up. As individual words, warp and hope seem poles apart, except where the local pronunciation of up is involved.

When stone appears in a Yorkshire or Durham name, the dialect method of pronunciation will often turn it to stean or perhaps stain.

Staindrop might be derived from Stone Thorpe which means a stone village, steean being a widely used dialect word for stone. As we often refer to streams as becks, then beck-steeans is an old word for stepping stones and brig-steeans are large flat and wide stones that form foot-bridges over narrow streams.

Another puzzle for offcummed-uns (folks not from Yorkshire) is the word bank.

Some time ago, I was topping up my car in a local garage when a motorist arrived and asked “Where’s the nearest bank, please?” The attendant pointed to a steep hill at the end of the village and said, “That’s it.” Off went the motorist, only to return a few moments later to say “I can’t see a bank up here.” Of course, he was seeking somewhere to withdraw money during his holiday but the local lad thought he was referring to a hill. On the North York Moors, the word bank is widely used to indicate a small hill with banks referring to a range of small hills.

Near my home are Egton Banks and Kirkdale Banks, these hills not being so high as the surrounding moors but higher than the plains below.

Holm or holme is another problem to strangers because it sounds like home.

Newholm is a village name but it does not indicate either a new village or a new house.

Holm or holme is a word for a flat area of land, often a meadow, which is near a river or stream. This has given rise to lots of village or farm names such as Lealholm, Moorsholm, Keldholm, Penny Holme, North Holme and South Holme, with holm or holme usually pronounced as um, eg New-um, Lealum and so on. And Slough is not a town in the south of England. It is either the outer skin of a berry or it means to sluff gooseberries, that is, pick off their tops or tails.

ON the topic of misunderstood names, I have received a letter from a correspondent living in Bainbridge, Wensleydale. She refers to my notes about Leyburn Shawl (D&S Times, Oct 26) and tells me about some friends who decided to go for a walk on Leyburn Scarf.

That reminds me of another local word – scarth. This refers to an escarpment or a rock face, and might also refer to cliffs or rocky terraces. The word sometimes appears as scar, scaur or even scart – so perhaps Leyburn Scarf may not be entirely wrong!

Nonetheless, it does bear similarities to a shawl – I wonder if the fleeing Queen Mary actually dropped a scarf and not a shawl? From such details is history made.

Once or twice in recent months, I have heard members of the finch family of birds referred to as spinks. I think this comes from their warning calls which often sound like ‘spink’. In our local dialect, finches are often given suitable names ending with spink, for example gowdspink for a goldfinch (or sometimes thistle-spink due to its love of thistle seeds); cherry spink for the hawfinch, bullspink for the chaffinch (not the bullfinch) while the greenfinch is called a green-linney due to its family links with linnets. In fact, a chaffinch is sometimes known as the white linney, the red linney is a redpoll while linnets are brown linneys and bramblings are French linneys.

Finally on the subject of birds’ names in dialect, I think one of the most interesting names is the teeafit, sometimes spelt as teufit and widely known as the peewit.

All these names come from the highly distinctive call of this handsome bird which is more formally known as the lapwing or its alternative name of green plover. It is one bird with many names.


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