In 1982, when I was a mere sixteen years of age, I read a book that really did change my life.
It wasn’t a classic like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, it didn’t keep me up all night and day and night again like War and Peace, it didn’t have me dreaming of grandeur like The Great Gatsby or feeling awkward like Lolita, or harking back like Middlemarch or Wuthering Heights.
No, this was a book that had me staring out of the car window every time my parents drove me and my brother anywhere, walking through fields with an eye to contour not cow pats, and endlessly searching the places we passed to see if I could glean ancestral and cultural etymological meaning from their names.
I was a fun teenager to be around, I can tell you.
The book was titled Lost Villages of Britain and was written by the enigmatic, debonair, adventurous, and fearless history detective Richard Ernest Muir.
Of course, I really knew nothing whatsoever about Muir, which is why to me, and maybe the three or four other people that also read his book, he could be a superhero.
Every chapter was a treasure, listing long-lost names of abandoned settlements, deserted medieval villages, disappeared boroughs, lost counties, lonesome churches, ancient remains and recently departed towns. The fact that the majority of these were down to a lack of antibiotics and sheep took nothing away from the mystery.
And at the very end, when Muir had taken me on his ghost train of phantasmagoric Britain, he told me exactly how to read the landscape. But he didn’t stop there, because he actually wrote a book called Reading the Landscape as a companion to the Lost Villages, and off I went, never to look back.
Well, actually that’s in chapter 11 I think, ‘always look back as you're walking’, because you get a sense of movement along a hollow-way or around an earthwork you couldn’t see earlier.
But you get the point.
My first find was the lost village of Gobions, of which remained just a single arch at the end of a cul-de-sac in suburban England. Aerial photographs showed clearly the parch marks in the fields around it, and so I proudly wrote about this, all the history I could find, and described its location.
And, when I had the chance I decided to study this, and in particular, landscape archeology, just like Richard Muir, and like, it turned out in 1994, Stewart Ainsworth, who soon became the resident Muiresque figure on the British archaeology show Time Team, striding long-legged over hills and summits, along medieval lanes and Roman roads, and traipsing through the fields that once housed long, lost villages, as he made sense of a shadow world visible only by the means given to us by pioneers like Muir.
Along with the exploration of the landscape, came the study of place names, just as I’d done in the back of an Austin Princess as my father, nicknamed the ‘automatic pilot’ for his sparkling conversation during these silent sojourns, drove us to our destination, and my mother, whose utter hatred of in-vehicle music left only I-Spy to keep us from swallowing the ashtray, pointed out the fascinating sights, like a weather vane or a pregnant horse.
Where I live now, many lifetimes later it seems, are villages that have grown and shrunk, shifted and disappeared, but the names often remain, and in particular ones ending in by, meaning farm or settlement, or the place of, like Grimsby (Grims farm), or Rigsby (place of Odin, of whom Rig is a nickname) or Calceby.
That last one, by the way, is one of the best preserved lost villages I’ve seen, with earthworks that clearly define the old village and its buildings and thoroughfares. My son and I search these out when he stays, much to the chagrin of farmers who always seem to be terribly frightened of two nerds in walking boots looking at bumps in the ground.
Places though, as well as being named for early settlers, like these Vikings, can also be named for the topographical features they encompass or are built on or near.
If you ever been to North West London, or studied a road map of said city you may have come across a three-kilometre road that is the A1 carriageway through the borough of Islington in the heart of the capital. It’s called the Holloway Road, because it was, at one time, though most of the people tracking up and down it to buy lottery tickets or attend church or eat bad pies (in which sentence I feel I've captured an entire nation) are unaware, a hollow-way. A shallow ditch that was a road, and a river, and often a receptacle of effluent and deceased animals, of garbage and offal.
So, not much has changed there, then.
However, the name at least creates a veil across this historical fact, and leaves the oblivious shopper without the need to reflect, and they can happily stuff that Greggs sausage thing down their gullets without fear of thought.
But, and you knew this was coming, let me take you north-west from London, directly toward the city of Liverpool, once the centre of the British slave trade, and originally known as Liuerpul, which is formed from two words, lifer and pōl, meaning a thick pool, which seems astonishingly appropriate.
We’re not going all the way to Liuerpul though, we’re going to stop around the place where the Roman provinces of Caesariensis and Flavia met Britannia Secunda, now Wales, which they named after they'd accomplished their program of ethnic cleansing of the Cornovii, Dobunni, and Silures civilizations that had lived on this tiny island for hundreds of years previously.
The place we’re going to stop in is now a town, but may have been a Roman-era British Christian settlement, existing through subsequent Angle and Saxon invasions, to become home to an abbey, founded by Merewalh in 680, and led by his sister Milburga, both of whom were children of a mighty Mercian king.
In the Liber de Wintonia, or Book of Winchester, often referred to as the Domesday Book, a colloquial phrase coined soon after its publication, the town is called Wenloch, from the original Celtic wininicas, or white area, for the limestone it sat upon, and loca, old English for enclosure.
In the records it had seventy-three households, one of which later housed the Earl of Mercia and his wife, Godiva, or Godgifu, remembered for her naked horse ride through Coventry in protest of the unfair taxation of her husband's estates. Whether the tax law was changed or a concession made is, not surprisingly, recalled less well.
Now, if we read the landscape, we can trace the course of the stream that used to run down through Wenloch, or Much Wenlock, as it’s known today, even though we can’t actually see it. That’s because it was culverted in the fourteenth century and later paved over to make a lane that people used to walk to church.
Today it runs hidden under Victoria Road, High Street, Back Lane, and Bull Ring, but in medieval Wenloch it provided a number of uses, mainly as an open sewer, into which the fecal waste of the town was unceremoniously dumped.
While other streams and rivulets, rivers and brooks, seem to have acquired names that speak of their form, like the Thames, from the Brittonic Tamesas and probably meaning dark, or the River Avon, from the Welsch afon, which means river, and thus it was named twice, as River River, the small stream in Much Wenlock was simply named for its purpose.
And so, while today I understand fully how its use determined its name, how it is less toponymic, and how the etymology of the stream’s name works, I didn’t when my father drove us quickly and silently past it in the 1980s, and I got a glimpse of a trace of the path of the former course of Shit Brook, and stifled a teenage laugh for fear of revealing my passion for the landscape and it’s secrets.
photo by nr