The Poetry of Naming

The old place names contain the spirit of the place. They are its history and carry the stories of people who lived here hundreds, even thousands, of years ago.

Ancient field names, the names of farmsteads and old houses, hamlets and villages, and landscape features are all cracks in the wall of the past, through which time seeps.

Here, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the language is rich and gritty, with its origins in the language of the northern Celts and the Scandinavian tongues of the Norsemen, inevitably combined with the grit of the hills and rocks of the Pennines.

These are the words of upland farmers, working and surviving on the edge of the impossible wilderness. The stones that mark their ruined farmhouses, litter the high moors, where survival proved to be too much to ask.

Looking down the Marsden valley from Lower Green Owlers

Looking down the Marsden valley from Lower Green Owlers

So, let me start with the river valleys that form the structure of this high ground. In the West Riding of Yorkshire, the valleys are called Den, or Dean. Thus we have Wessenden (valley of the Wessen River) and Scammonden, and, where I live, Marsden, which derives from March Den, or boundary valley (as in the Welsh Marches).

March, then, was the boundary, the limit, the end. Up on Marsden Moor, near the watershed that marks (another version of March, by the way) the vague line that separates those streams that fall to the west, through Lancashire to the Irish Sea, and those that flow east, through Yorkshire to the North Sea, there is an area of upland wildness called March Haigh.

Hey Green in Autumn

Hey Green in Autumn

The Haigh bit of March Haigh is probably derived from the same root as Hey, which was land enclosed by a wall or hedge (originally heag in Old English, and it is a common element in place names throughout England. In my regular walks we pass Hey Green, The Hey, Little Hey, Garside Hey, and Shaw Hey.

Cloughs are everywhere, and they describe little valleys cut by mountain streams . . . Head Clough, Haigh Clough, Purl Clough, and my favourite, Willykey Clough. Does anyone know what a willykey was?

In the valley bottom below us is Clough Lee. The local authorities prefer to spell it Lea, but here this common term for a wet meadow pasture is always historically spelled Lee. There is Rough Lee, Blake Lee, Bilberry Lee, and White Lee.

Row Greaves

Row Greaves

A greave was a slash or crack in the land. I like to think it is where we get grief, although other authorities say it comes from the Old English word for brushwood. Up by Green Owlers, there is Row Greave (does Row come from Rough?), and, nearer home is Berry Greave.

Owlers is scattered round the landscape here. Lower Green Owlers is a remote farm that I went to last week (see previous blog post), Owlers and Far Owlers are on the flanks of Pule Hill, and there is Owlers Clough. Owler is the old word for alder tree, and wherever there is flooded land here you will find thickets of alder.

These old names tell a story of hard subsistence farming on the high moors.

They tell of wet weather and wild wind, and a hard existence. The words themselves are hunched below the skyline, like black and white, taciturn photos.


About stevehobsonauthor

I am blind, and I hate it. It stinks. But life is still sweet. I have multiple sclerosis, and that stinks too, but life is still sweet. These are my musings.
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