Uncovering the Fascinating Origins of Rural Place Names

When travelling around the British countryside, it’s highly likely that observant adventurers will come across place names that seem to point to historic uses.

In many parts of Britain, the names of places were derived from what the area was known for or used for, the names represented the people that lived there, or what was important to the community.

Place Names

For some of these names, such as Gallows Hill or Potter’s Field, understanding some of the activities that the site has been used for throughout history is easy to recognise. For other places, it may take a little more decoding to understand the significance behind a place’s name. 

Celts, Romans and Anglo-Saxons reenactors
So many cultures have left their mark on Britain and we can see this also in place names

From Celtic tribes to Anglo-Saxon communities to invading Normans and Vikings, the names of places across Britain carry the history of an area. They have been influenced by significant events, incorporated elements of the local landscape and reflect the values of people that have lived there.

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Many names include similar naming elements, making it possible to find the hidden meanings in some of the names of places across the British countryside.

Even place names that today may seem bizarre or nonsensical can offer a glimpse into the lives of people across the ages of British history. From the generic to the gruesome, the regal to the religious, the towns, villages and places of Britain reflect a varied and changing historical landscape. 


Celts, Romans and Anglo-Saxons

Some British place names have their origins as far back as the Celtic period. Although it is likely that generations of mispronunciation have somewhat altered the original sound of these names. However, when travelling Britain, there are still places that can be found pointing to Celtic settlements, practices and areas of importance.

In many cases the Celtic linguistic elements of place names have become just one part of the name of an area, for example, the Pen in the names of places including Penrith and Pendleton, is thought to have originated from the Celtic word for hill or headland.

Similarly, Combe, found in place names such as Ilfracombe, Salcombe and Crowcombe, very likely once incorporated the Celtic word cym, which means valley

Saxon Reenactor in chain mail

When it comes to rivers, Celtic naming traditions are even more prominent with many of Britain’s famous rivers taking their names from Celtic times. Major UK rivers including the Derwent, Avon, Tame and even the Thames retain their Celtic names, with Tame and Thames with a Celtic origin meaning river or dark one.


As the Romans marched across Britain, they brought with them new naming conventions that, in some cases, have endured the test of time. London became a corruption of Londominium, the name of the city was known by in Ancient Roman times.

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The word castra, meaning fort was also a Roman contribution to British linguistics. in Anglo-Saxon times, castra morphed into caestra, with its meaning being corrupted to mean town or city. This then eventually became chester, cester, or caster which can be recognised in cities and towns of today such as Manchester, Doncaster and Leicester. 

Many places have also been known by various names throughout the centuries, depending on who was occupying the area, significant events that were occuring, and simple corruptions of the name – a good example of this is the city of York.

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To the seventh century Anglo-Saxons, York was known as Eoforwic, an anglicised version of its previous name Eboracum.

However, to the Vikings York was Jórvík, while after the Norman Conquest the city’s name in Old French and Norman communities was Everwic. Eventually, the name Jórvík started to stick, and this was then corrupted and shortened into the moniker York that the city is known by today. 

Princes, Pig Villages and Fortified Burhs 

The Anglo-Saxons also had a penchant for naming places after animals and people. The town of Dudley is thought to have gained its name as a reference to an Anglo-Saxon named Dudda, while Edith Weston is very likely a historic estate owned by the Saxon Queen Edith.

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This trend continued throughout history, and can often be seen in the names of places that once would have been owned by those with societal titles. King’s Lynn and Prince’s Risborough are both examples of this naming custom.

Oxford University

When it comes to including references to animals in town names, there are many examples still in use today. Swinton can roughly translate to quite literally mean pig village, while Oxford translates to oxen’s ford

However, perhaps the most prominent remnant from the Anglo-Saxon era is the use of burgh in place names. Burhs were originally fortified settlements built to offer protection from warring groups and Viking invaders, these often adapted into various municipal settlements and administrative areas. 

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The term was corrupted throughout history into variations such as Borough, burgh and bury. As such, an Anglo-Saxon warrior may well recognise many of the place names still in use today, such as towns like Bamburgh and Alburgh.

A Religious Influence 

The church has always held strong influence throughout the history of Britain, so it may come as no surprise that many place names also directly reference the church. Places such as Leominster, Axminster and Westminster, all contain the word minster. This word originally denoted a designated community for the clergy. 

Kirk, particularly prominent in Scottish place names, such as in Falkirk, Kirkcudbright and Kirkhill, originates from both Scots Gaelic words meaning church, and simply the English word kirk, also referencing the church or government.

The medieval Wimborne Minster church
The medieval Wimborne Minster church

Other towns and villages point to reported historical events or associations with the use of the word Saint in their names. St. Ives in Cornwall supposedly gained its name from the arrival of Saint Ia of Cornwall in the 400s, while St Andrews in Scotland claims its name as it is the supposed resting place of the apostle Andrew. 

Monkton is another good example of a place name depicting a religious past. There are Monktons across Britain, including in Devon, Kent, Pembroke and South Ayrshire. The name likely originates from Anglo-Saxon times, and quite simply means a farm or settlement where monks resided. 

Hangings, Shepherds and Early Metal Workers 

One place name that is relatively common around Britain is Gallows Hill. In fact, there are Gallows Hills in Warwickshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Ross-shire, and as morbid as it may seem, places with the name Gallows Hill were often the sites of public execution.

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Some of these places only saw a small number of executions, while others witnessed the final moments of hundreds of lives. 

Gallows Hill in Ripon in North Yorkshire was the site of 300 hangings in the late sixteenth century, while Gallows Hill in Ross-Shire had its last hanging as late as 1762 when a young mother was said to be executed on murder charges.

Venturing to Lancashire, Gallows Hill in Lancaster was where the Pendle witches were hanged. Naming an area after the gallows also took hold in America with Gallows Hill in Massachusetts the site where Bridget Bishop was hung during the Salem Witch Trials.

And Gallows Hill in New York the place where Major John Andre, the head of the British Secret Service in America during the American Revolutionary War, was supposedly executed. 

Image Credit: Photographed By Mike Wintermantel

However, some places depicting the historic activities of an area are far less gruesome than the country’s Gallows Hills. Shepherd Bush, now a well-known suburb of London, is thought to have gained its name as it was once used as a stop-over point for shepherds on their way to London’s Smithfield Market. 

The town of Cinderford in Gloucestershire also references the town’s occupational past. As early as the thirteenth century the town was known as Cinderford, this was due to large cinder deposits found at the town as a by-product of a thriving ironmaking industry.

Giggling, Blubbering, Long and Dull

Some towns in the UK have names that seem somewhat bizarre, however many of these when viewed in historical context, can make good sense, even if they don’t seem to today.

Blubberhouses in North Yorkshire dates back to the Anglo-Saxon period and means houses by a bubbling spring. Giggleswick, also found in Yorkshire, was once just a farm (the word wic or wich once referred to a farm) owned by a man named Gigel, or a similar variation of such a name. 

West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village reconstruction

The town of Dull in Perthshire also has rather commonplace origins, simply deriving from an old word for field or meadow. Embracing its interesting moniker, in 2012, Dull twinned with the town of Boring in Oregon, USA. 

Tucked away on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales is a town that is the proud owner of the longest town name in Britain, and one of the longest in the world.

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, a name consisting of a staggering fifty-eight letters, is thought to have not been in use until the nineteenth century and was originally created as a part of publicity stunt to bring attention to the area.

The name translates to mean The Llan of Saint Mary in a hollow of white hazel near the rapid whirlpool of the church of Saint Tysilio with a red cave.

From Gallows Hill to Giggleswick

The names of towns, villages, hamlets and cities across Britain offer a unique glimpse into the historic fabric of the country. These names give a perspective on what was important in the everyday life of British people throughout the ages and depict the natural landscape, political, religious and social structure of the UK.

With names referencing gruesome sites of execution to denoting a place of rest for weary shepherds to quite simply explaining the location of a village within its environment, understanding the meaning behind place names can give modern day travellers a unique glimpse into the history of an area. 

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