We live our lives surrounded by place-names. In Britain, most of these names are over a thousand years old and the names of many of our rivers much older still. But how many of us know what these place-names mean? And how might these names be helpful when thinking about flooding and water management?
Our ancestors, the people who founded the places in which we still live and who coined their names, knew their environment intimately—much better than us in actual fact. Their local knowledge of the presence, characteristics and behaviour of water was especially profound. It needed to be, because Anglo-Saxon England and its contemporary neighbours was wet. From around 400AD, average temperatures dropped and Britain entered a cold, damp phase. But, beginning around 700AD and continuing through to the turn of the first millennium, temperatures rose rapidly leading to climatic instability and greater frequencies of extreme weather events (Fig. 1). It may have been warmer, but these climatic changes added ever greater quantities of water to Britain’s river systems. Rivers overbanked and surface run-off from valley sides deposited silts on expanding floodplains. If this sounds familiar, then it should. The period 700-1000AD was the last major episode on record of rapid global warming before the present day. If we look for historical parallels for our own times, then it is to the early medieval period that we should look.
Written sources for this period are scant and of limited use in reconstructing climate, weather or flooding history. But by happy coincidence place-names fill this gap, for the greater majority of them were first devised during these turbulent centuries. Since they described ground conditions with such precision, these place-names provide undoubtedly the richest and most trustworthy witness to the environment a thousand years ago and especially to the water within it. But their value does not stop there. As Britain now enters a new warmer, wetter phase, it seems as though these place-names are again accurately describing the presence and movement of water in our world too. They may have been rendered largely redundant by the so-called medieval warm period (c. 1000-1350AD) and later Little Ice Age (c. 1350-1850), during which first warmer then colder, drier conditions prevailed and the river valleys and floodplains of Britain dried out. But now they seem to have been given a new lease of life and want to speak directly to us once more.
Some place-names are easily interpreted because their meaning remains transparent in their modern spellings. No-one would be surprised that Oxford and Cambridge are located on rivers, or that watercourses will be found in the near vicinity of place-names that end in –beck, -brook, or –bourne. For other watery names, however, their meaning is less obvious. Eton, for example, contains the Old English element ēa ‘river’, the whole name meaning ‘river estate’. Then there are island-names, commonly built around the Old Norse word holmr and Old English term ēg producing names such as Haverholme (Lincs.) and, of course, Muchelney on the Somerset Levels, the scene of such devastation in 2013 when extensive flooding returned it once again to its literal sense of ‘big island’.
Some place-names specifically warn against flooding particularly those in –wæsse, an Old English element that is now interpreted as ‘land that floods and drains quickly’ and which can be found in names such as Buildwas (Salop.) on the River Severn, Alrewas (Staffs.) on the River Trent, and Broadwas (Worcs.) on the River Teme. And there is the unique Nottinghamshire example of Averham, ‘[settlement] at the floods’ from Old English ēagor.
To these names can be added others where water can be inferred. Stroud (Gloucs.), for example, stems from Old English strōd ‘marshy land overgrown with brushwood’; Aldershot (Hants.) signals the presence of water-loving alder trees; and Tadcaster (Yorks.) may include the word tāde ‘toad’. Sometimes, name changes have inconveniently removed the environment messages of their original names. St Ives (Cambs.) was first recorded as Slepe, from Old English slǣp ‘slippery place, portage’.
In total, there are over two hundred different water-related terms that can be found in several hundred English place-names (and many more if Wales and Scotland are included), covering a wide range of water-loving flora and fauna; ‘wet’ geologies from mud to gravel; associated structures such as landing-places, bridges, and fords; and references to flowing water, bodies of water, standing water, wetlands, marsh, moor and fen. When combined and mapped, these names describe the hydrology of individual river catchments, identifying how the state, value, nuisance, and threat of water altered from headwaters to mouth or confluence.
These place-names allowed the Anglo-Saxons not only to describe individual sections of rivers but to communicate this information to those who encountered them. Nor did they miss the opportunity to indicate the general characteristics of the rivers themselves through their names. Riparian communities situated along the River Swale (Yorks.) would have been constantly reminded of its propensity to flood. It is based on Old English *swalwe ‘gush of water’. Likewise those who lived near the River Erewash (Notts./Derbys.), which might be read as ‘angry river prone to flood and drain quickly’, cannot have been ignorant of its mercurial nature.
People living beside the River Idle (Notts.), a name that requires no further explanation, would have had fewer concerns,; so too those close to the River Tove (Northants.) meaning ‘laggardly, dilatory’. But this slow-moving water caused other issues, revealed by the river-side place-names Slapton ‘slippery place’, Alderton ‘alder settlement’, Hanslope, possibly ‘slippery water meadow’ and Shutlanger, ‘muddy wood on a slope’. Like us, however, Anglo-Saxons may have been unaware of the meaning of earlier river-names formed in unfamiliar and largely lost languages: for example, the River Trent ‘the trespasser’, so apt for a river prone to flooding and the River Teign (Dev.), ‘sweeper, scatterer, flooder’.
Exploring place- and river-names, then, provides a useful way of learning about water your neighbourhood. For England, at least, this information is easily accessed (a searchable database of major place-names can be found at http://kepn.nottingham.ac. uk/). Of course, if you discover that you live in a place whose name does not indicate anything watery this is no guarantee that your property is safe; or that if you do, your property is necessarily at risk. But place-names will allow you to get to know your area better and might just help you to get better flood prepared.