A ditch in time

Susan Kilby writes:

In the later medieval period, the leet court, sometimes known as the View of Frankpledge was the means through which the infrastructure of the rural village was managed by local communities. Most males over the age of twelve were expecting to join a ‘tithing’, headed by a Chief Pledge or Chief Tithingman. Those within these groups were collectively responsible for each other’s behaviour, and twice annually, the Chief Tithingmen would present relevant misdemeanours to the court. These might include the obstruction of the King’s highway – often by peasants depositing their dungheaps in the road, digging holes, or trying to add an extra few feet onto their tenement. Impeding or re-channelling a watercourse was also a serious offence, as was creating an unauthorised ditch or embankment. One of the most frequent problems, however, was the failure of local people to keep their ditches and watercourses clear from obstruction, which often resulted in localised flooding of roads, fields and meadows.

The boundaries of peasant tenements were often ditched, as were the limits of some fields and meadows – this was of course especially important in river valleys and land near floodplains. On common land, peasants shared the responsibility for maintaining the ditch network, but where they crossed individual holdings, the tenants were held accountable if their ditches were not scoured frequently enough. We know from the records that some were better at this than others, and in medieval leet court rolls throughout England there are many examples of peasants being fined for failing to maintain the ditches or watercourses for which they bore responsibility. In Stoneleigh (Warks.) in 1390, a typical fine was 4d. In the later fourteenth century, this amounted to approximately a day’s pay for skilled workers, like slaters (Fig. 1).


Although there were still problems with this system, locals could rely on the fact that resident offenders would generally be dealt with in a timely manner. It was much more difficult to deal with perpetrators from outside the jurisdiction of the local leet, whose actions might result in flooding further upstream.  In this way, at Lakenheath (Suf.) in 1331, the meadows were inundated by the failure to maintain a watercourse in the next hamlet. During this period, many local ditches bore the names of those responsible for them, providing officials with a useful reminder of who to call on when checking local infrastructure.

Today, the vestiges of medieval law remain largely in place through the Land Drainage Act 1991, although rather than village officials assessing the need for intervention, today, that role is undertaken by local councils. Where ditches and other watercourses are situated on private land, the landowner is responsible for their upkeep, just as their medieval forebears were. In cases where landowners fail to maintain their ditches and watercourses, local authorities can take remedial action, which is charged back to the landowner. The Land Drainage Act, Part 2, clause 28 gives local authorities the power to order ditch and watercourse owners to clean poorly maintained infrastructure, just as leet courts did in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.[1] Northamptonshire County Council’s Flood Toolkit includes a whole section on ditch clearance .[2]

Ditches 2

Their Ditch Clearance Guidelines posit that regular ditch maintenance will actively reduce flooding to areas of floodplain. In instances where it is deemed that landowners have not maintained their ditches sufficiently, and that this poses a risk of flooding, the Highway Authority has the power to drain, clean, and restore their banks, all at the cost of the landowner.

In 2012 and 2016, the small Northamptonshire village of Tansor (*Tān + ofer – ‘Tan’s promontory’, the promontory relating to a rounded spur in the marshes beside the river Nene) flooded.[3] On both occasions, the flooding – largely confined to a road cutting through the floodplain and the field beyond – was serious enough that unsuspecting drivers found themselves stranded and afloat, as can be seen in fig. 3.

Ditches 3

Some time after the floodwaters had receded, the ditch running alongside the road was cleaned, deepened, and re-profiled. When, in 2016, the river Nene overbanked once again, the ditch, shown on the left of fig. 4, played an important part in reducing the volume of water on the road.

Ditches 4

Today, however, the ditches are once again in need of what medieval rural communities would have called a ‘scouring’ – a good clean up. A combination of vegetation, silting and litter has, in the space of 24 months, compromised this important ditch (fig. 5).

Ditches 5

Other ditches in the parish are, perhaps in a worse condition, overgrown with brambles, and little more than a convenient place for passing motorists to discard their litter (fig. 6).

Ditches 6

Today, those living in rural riverine communities pay scant attention to the ditches that cut across the landscape. Certainly, there is frequent comment about the litter that disfigures the countryside, and in Tansor, residents spend a good proportion of the annual litter-pick down in the bowels of their ditches, armed with black bin bags and rubber gloves. And yet the ditches’ important role in minimising flood risk is collectively seen as someone else’s problem (if they are considered at all) – something best left to the local authority, but certainly at the bottom of the council’s checklist – to be attended to after potholes and roadside cleaning. The medieval system was far from perfect, but for the most part, it worked. Communities understood their responsibilities, and they knew who was answerable for every part of the drainage system. Naturally, on occasion, some individuals required prompting to fulfil their obligations, but nevertheless, the centrality of ditches in alleviating flood risk was implicit. In the twenty-first century, we expect nothing less than the total mastery of nature, although of course, we are happy to leave the practicalities of this to the government and their agencies. As global temperatures rise, the corresponding increase in water levels shows us that a return to a more medieval attitude might pay dividends. Living with water successfully, as medieval people did right across the country, requires us to re-engage with the natural world and work with it at the local level. Parish councils still encourage local residents to report problems with the road network – is it time for them to reinstate checks by local people on their ditch infrastructure as the first line of defence against flooding in villages at risk from flooding?

[1] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1991/59/section/28

[2] https://www.floodtoolkit.com/pdfs/2%20Ditch%20Clearance/2.Flooding-Ditch-clearance.pdf

[3] V. Watts, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (Cambridge, 2004), p. 599


Richard Jones writes:

The word ‘waterstrife’ clings precariously to life in the English language.  Indeed, were you to scour the dictionaries, any claims to its past or present existence might be doubted altogether.  But it can be found, just once, in a poem penned by the nineteenth-century peasant poet of Northamptonshire, John Clare:

From bank to bank the waterstrife is spread

Strange birds like snow spots oer the huzzing sea

Hang where the wild duck hurried past and fled

—On roars the flood—all restless to be free

Like trouble wandering to eternity.

It is as though, at the very moment of its birthing, the word ‘waterstrife’ was caught up in the frenzied flow of what it sought to describe. It was washed immediately downstream on the flood, out to sea, out of mind, out of our language.

For the thousands whose homes have been damaged or destroyed by floods over the last few decades, Clare’s evocation of the River Welland in spate, and the term ‘waterstrife’ he coined to describe its seething and all-consuming progress, will resonate strongly.  Few natural events bring such devastation to so many as flooding; few bring such immediate turmoil and such long-lasting misery.  Lives rooted in place can be turned to flotsam in an instance, literally in a flash.  Waterstrife, it might be submitted, encapsulates all too well the human experience of, and emotions associated with, flooding.  It may be an archaic coinage, but really it is a word of and for our own times; and one that now demands rescuing from obscurity.

Making up ‘waterstrife’ are two words with longer pedigrees.  It is to the Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons that English owes the term ‘water’.  And ultimately (although in this instance borrowed later through Old French), the origins of the word ‘strife’ are also to be found in the Old German verb *strīđan ‘to fight’.  But it is surely telling that our early medieval forebears saw no need to unite these two themes.  This is not to say that they did not find water troublesome or that they were ignorant of its power.  The Old Testament flood played heavily on god-fearing Anglo-Saxon minds as the literature they left us reveals.   But in their everyday, they were drawn to water.  They chose to live at the water’s edge.  And they were able to do so because they both respected this natural element and developed an erudite understanding of its dynamics.  This knowledge enabled them to live in union with water, not in opposition to it, something achieved because they did not conflate knowledge with mastery.  Such idiocy only belongs to the modern age and is the root cause of many of the problems we now face.

Apocryphal for sure, and certainly late recorded, the story of Cnut and the waves (or perhaps more correctly how this didactic tale has come to be interpreted) stands as evidence of the gulf that has come to exist between the early medieval world and our own when it comes to attitudes to water.  As commonly recounted Cnut is a figure of derision, a man so vainglorious that he believed he could command the tide.  Attentive reading of Henry of Huntingdon’s twelfth-century account, where the story has its historical origins, makes it plain, however, that Cnut sought to prove the reverse: that even the most authoritative of men was powerless in the face of a natural world that has been set in motion by God.  As originally intended, then, Cnut emerges as a humble sage not egotistical fool.

And yet, modern society appears quite inexplicably to be intent on following Cnut the imprudent not Cnut the wise.  For the last three hundred years we have turned increasingly to science, technology and engineering to reshape our rivers and tides in the belief that they can be tamed and trained, mastered and dictated to.  The project has predictably failed.  Our feet continue to get wet, indeed at times we find ourselves standing waist-deep in water.  Tides continue to surge; rivers continue to overbank oblivious to every human effort to control their reach.  If only we had listened to Cnut’s true message. If only we had paid more attention to the traditional wisdom of the people who communicated the mercurial nature of rivers with such precision through the names they gave a thousand years or more ago to the places we still call home–Alrewas ‘land that floods and drains rapidly abounding with alders’; Averham ‘[settlement] at the floods’. Had we done so, had we continued to structure our lives around the natural rhythms of the river and tide rather than try to negotiate alternative terms, then just perhaps we would have had no need for a word like ‘waterstrife’.  The sorry fact, however, is that we now appear to need it more than ever before.

The river flows through its names



Lugg, Hiz.


Leach and Wring and Ouse

into Ebble.


The Cunkel of Ock and Unk

Of Penk and Prill and Grivel,

Become Blithe

to Flitt and Lark and Eye.


Yeo Coquet!

Excited Chater.


Yarty Ribble, Keer, and Goyt

guiting Swepel, Hamble and Yare,

give way to meandering

Wensum (and Wantsum and Wandle;

Worf, Weaver and Wearne).


A moment of…



Then Sprint and Dart and Pipe,

Swift Wiske and Irk.

Test and Tern and Tees;

Itchen to Wreake and Dent and Smite.


And so in its Whipling

The river fleet foot to Gwash.

A place-name perspective on the recently announced DEFRA Community NFM Projects

Richard Jones writes:

This week DEFRA announced the 34 Community NFM Projects that have been awarded grants for schemes designed to help evaluate the effectiveness of natural flood management. This is brilliant news for the communities concerned who will work with the Environment Agency to deliver their plans. (For more information see https://www.catchmentbasedapproach.org/images/PDFS/NFM/NFMMap.pdf and https://www.catchmentbasedapproach.org/images/PDFS/NFM/CommunityProjectsV1.pdf)

The names of benefiting communities make interesting reading for anyone interested in English place-names and what they tell us about the local environment.  What follows are the etymologies of those places whose names tell us about water and wider landuse in these areas a thousand years ago.  Some, however, are still very relevant today as you will see.

Among these names, those describing water in a variety of states, and those identifying areas of former woodland, may be of particular interest to those seeking to design NFM schemes in these places.

Further examination of the names of fields and other minor landscape features will throw up much more information and would help to build up a detailed picture of where water lay and woodland stood within these project areas.  We would be delighted to help any community group gather and analyse this information.  Do get in touch!

Names are arranged by Community NFM project.  OE = Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons); ON = Old Norse (the language of Scandinavian settlers).

  1. Bishop’s Wood NFM.

Bishop’s Wood, Rickmansworth: a transparent woodland name likely to be sixteenth century in date or earlier.

  1. Bourne Rivulet Restoration & Flood Management –groundwater.

St Mary Bourne: OE burna ‘stream’.

  1. Collingham Beck NFM.

East Keswick: OE cēse + wīc ‘specialised cheese farm’ implying extensive pasture; Bardsey Scarcroft: OE ēg ‘dry ground in marsh’.

  1. Derwent Villages NFM Demonstration Project.

Thornton le Dale: OE þorn + tūn ‘hawthorn or thorn estate’ indicating rough uncultivated land; Sinnington: the first element is the name for the River Seven; Hovingham: although this name provides no environmental or topographical detail of value (unless the generic is hamm ‘land hemmed in by water’) there is much to be gleaned from its constituent township names: pasture at Airyholme whose original forms indicate a meaning ‘summer pasture’; Howthorpe ‘hamlet in the hollow’; Stocking ‘land cleared of wood’; South Holme ‘raised ground in marsh’; East Ness ‘headland between rivers’; Waterholmes ‘watery raised ground in marsh’; Scackleton originally a ‘valley’ name; and Wath ‘river-crossing’.  Note that the Derwent itself means ‘oak river’.

  1. Dunston Flooplain Reconnection

No useful environmental evidence in the place-name.  It is made up from an OE personal name + tūn ‘farm, village, estate’.

  1. Fillongley and River Bourne NFM.

Fillongley: OE lēah ‘forest, wood, glade, clearing; (later) a pasture, meadow’; Nether Whitacre, Over Whitacre, Whitacre Heath: OE æcer ‘cultivated field’ + heathland in WH.

  1. Havergate & Orford.

Havergate Island is transparent but no early spellings; Orford: OE ford ‘river-crossing’ with implications for channel shallowing.

  1. Hawden Stream.

Hildenborough: OE hyll ‘hill’ + denn ‘wood-pasture for pigs’ giving ‘woodland-pasture on or by a hill’

  1. High Rogerscale Floodplain Reconnection.

Lorton: Brit. river-name *Hlōra ‘the roaring one’, suggestive of a dangerous, flooding river; Cockermouth: OE mūða ‘mouth of the River Cocker’.

  1. Kenwith Valley NFM.

Bideford: OE ford ‘river-crossing’ with implications of channel shallowing.  The whole name possibly means ‘ford at the stream called Byd’. Alternatively the first element may be ‘vessel, tub’ used topographically for one of the side valleys to mean ‘deep valley’

  1. Lowdham NFM.

Lambley: OE lamb + lēah ‘lambs’ pasture’;  Lowdham: in Nottinghamshire names it is often impossible to distinguish between OE hām ‘settlement’ and hamm ‘land hemmed in by water, water-meadow’. Given recent flooding one might be inclined to the latter.

  1. Lower River Crane Improvements.

Twickenham: OE hamm ‘land hemmed in my water.

  1. Management of A33 Surface Water Run-off and Mitigation of Flood Risk in Neighbouring Communities.

Riseley: OE hrīs + lēah ‘brushwood clearing’; Swallowfield: lost river-name Swalewe + OE feld ‘open-land by the River Swalewe’.  What is particularly interesting here is that the river-name, which is also found in the River Swale indicates ‘swelling, whirling, rushing’, in short a watercourse prone to flooding.  More minor places in Swallowfield include—Farley ‘fern clearing; and Stanford End ‘stone ford’.

  1. Northey Island Saltmarsh Regeneration.

Northey Island: OE ēg ‘island; dry land in marsh’.

  1. Ottery St. Mary NFM Project.

Ottery St. Mary: river-name ‘otter river’.

  1. Pang Valley NFM Project.

Stanford Dingley: OE ford ‘river-crossing’ with implications for channel shallowing and floodplain narrowing; Bradfield: OE feld ‘open-land’; Tidmarsh: OE mersc ‘marshland’; Pangbourne: OE burna ‘stream’.

  1. Papermill Dyke NFM.

Doncaster: river-name Don from root simply meaning ‘flowing’.

  1. Pymmes Brook Deculverting.

Oak Hill Woods: transparent woodland name, but note ‘oak’; East Barnet: OE bærnet ‘place cleared by burning’ implying former woodland; Arnos Grove: OE grafa ‘managed woodland’.

  1. Rise Park Stream London.

Havering: no useful environmental evidence in the place-name, it refers to an early ‘tribal’ or folk-grouping.

  1. River Leck Catchment NFM.

Leckhampstead: no useful environmental evidence in the place-name, unless Leck is the original river-name rather than a back-formation from Leckhampstead.

  1. River Pinn Park Woods.

Ruislip Park Woods: OE risc + hliep ‘rush leap’ with implications to significantly wet ground where rushes flourish

  1. Salmons Brook Natural Flood Management.

Enfield: OE feld ‘open-land’

  1. Slowing the Flow – Greater Scope for Delivery Upper Dean Catchment.

Upper Dean: OE denu ‘valley’; Millbrook: OE milne + brõc ‘mill stream’; Bollington: river-name Bollin possibly from OE hlynn ‘torrent, noisy stream’, that is one that floods; Handforth: OE ford ‘river-crossing’ with implications for channel shallowing; Styal: OE halh ‘nook’ with secondary meaning ‘land liable to occasional flood’.

  1. Slowing the Flow – Greater Scope for Delivery – Upper Dane.

Gradbach College: OE bece ‘pronounced stream valley’; Bearda Mill: ON holmr ‘small island, dry ground in marsh’; Bosley:  OE lēah ‘forest, wood, glade, clearing; (later) a pasture, meadow’; North Rode: OE rod ‘clearing’ with implications of former woodland; Holmes Chapel: OE hulm ‘water-meadow’.

  1. SuDS in Sutton’s Schools Hackbridge & Carshalton, South London (River Wandle)

Hackbridge: OE haca + brycg ‘hook bridge’ referring to confluence of the headwaters of the River Wandle: Carshalton: OE ǣwell ‘river-source’ with OE cærse ‘water-cress’ later added.

  1. The Midgelden Brook Project Clough Foot, Todmorden.

Clough Foot: OE clōh ‘dell’; Gauxholme: ON holmr ‘water-meadow; dry land in marsh’; Todmorden: OE denu ‘valley’.

  1. Twyver catchment NFM Gloucester.

Abbeydale: OE dæl ‘dale’; Saintbridge: OE brycg ‘bridge’.

  1. Upper Piddle Headwaters Piddle Valley.

Piddletrenthide: river-name; Piddlehinton: river-name; Plush: OE plysc ‘pool’; and Alton Pancras: OE ǣwell ‘river-source’.

  1. Upper Thames Catchment NFM.

Andoversford: OE ford ‘river-crossing’ with implications for channel shallowing

  1. Wallington Catchment Management Scheme.

Fareham: OE fearn + hām or hamm ‘ferny homestead/village’ or ‘ferny hemmed-in land’.

  1. Woodland and river management in two headwater streams Harrow.

No environmental evidence in place-name: Harrow from OE hærg ‘heathen temple’.

  1. Wyre NFM.

Woodplumpton: OE wudu + plūme ‘plum-tree settlement in a wood’.

  1. Yarrow Meadows.

Chorley: : OE lēah ‘forest, wood, glade, clearing; (later) a pasture, meadow’

  1. Yazor Brook flood alleviation.

Hereford: OE ford ‘river-crossing’ with implications for channel shallowing and floodplain narrowing.

Medieval Welsh fish weirs

Kelly Kilpatrick writes:

One ancient method of fishing that I have always found fascinating is the use of weirs and traps, and this article will take a brief look at the place-name evidence for medieval fish weirs in Wales. By examining the evidence for fish weirs, we can learn a lot about water-management of rivers and estuarine tidal flows in the Middle Ages. Fishing was a vital part of the medieval diet and economy, and in the words of Terry Moore-Scott (2009: 31), ‘It is not always appreciated how important a food-source fish was in medieval times.’ The use of weirs was a widespread method of trapping fish in the Middle Ages, and evidence of their use often survives in the place-name, archaeological and historical record. The place-name evidence in particular can sometimes provide additional information about the type of weir (and therefore its method of construction), ownership, species of fish caught, amongst other things. In Wales, it has been noted (Geraint Jenkins 1974: 5) that the widespread use of place-name elements denoting weirs and the ‘artificial damming of the flow of water, give some indication of the importance of weirs in the economic history of rural Wales’.

Welsh weir

Fig. 1 The remains of a medieval fish weir at Lligwy Beach, Anglesey. © Wikimedia Commons.

There were various types of weirs used to catch fish in the Middle Ages, all of which are found in the archaeological and documentary record throughout Wales. A fish weir is essentially a barrier placed in tidal water or across a river to divert the path of fish, leading them to an area (often a contained area) from which they cannot escape. Weirs require flowing water, and can be constructed in tidal races and across rivers or streams. Weirs can be made from rocks, stones and timbers, usually in combination with withy-plaited fences or brushwood (see Fig. 1), though in many cases weirs were built entirely of stakes and plaited withies or wattle fencing, constructed to form a v-shaped trap (see Fig. 2). Both stone weirs and wattle weirs used the ebb or flow of water to trap fish, as described by Heather and Terrance James (2003):

In river mouths and estuarine channels the point of ‘v’ shaped traps faced down stream. Fish are guided on the ebb by the stake and wattle walls, or ‘leader hedges’ (which could be of great length) towards the apex of the ‘v’ where they were finally trapped in a woven basket or a net. The stone-walled weirs had lines of stakes set along them, supporting nets. The fish would be trapped in the large pool formed by the weir’s walls on the falling tide. The ebbing water would guide them towards the mouth of the weir towards a cage … where the fish would be gathered up at low water.

Irish weir

Fig. 2 A medieval fishing weir in the Fergus Estuary, Co. Clare, Ireland. Image from         University College Dublin News 2011, and © UCD School of Archaeology.

Many weirs used a type of conical woven basket for a trap known in English as a putt (Moore-Scott 2009: 32). Weirs were also built in mill races and leats, and these could be used to catch eels as well as fish in some areas (see Fig. 3), though these types of weirs were abolished after the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Acts of the 1860s (Geraint Jenkins: 5-6).


Fig. 3 Luttrell Psalter (c.1325-1335), f.181  British Library Add MS 42130. Image ©        Wikimedia Commons. Notice the fish and eel trap in the mill race.

Some weirs, especially tidal weirs, were indiscriminatory in their catch and could trap a variety of species depending on the season (see, for example, descriptions by Mr David Phillips in James 2003). Other weirs were designed specifically for the capture of migratory fish, especially salmon.

The survival of medieval weirs varies. Weirs could be adversely effected by inland and maritime hydrological changes, including silting and shifting sands. Fish weirs, often lurking just beneath the water’s surface at high tide, were also dangerous for shipping and navigation, and in some areas ‘viewed by the authorities as an intolerable nuisance’ (Moore-Scott 2009: 34). Furthermore, the maintenance and upkeep of a weir could be a demanding business. Though weirs were strong enough to cope with tidal and river currents, they could be damaged by flooding, boats, floating debris, gales and other natural disasters (ibid: 33). Nevertheless, the benefits of fishing weirs ensured their survival throughout the Middle Ages, and in many areas they operated as late as the twentieth century.

Fish weirs are frequently recorded in medieval ecclesiastical and manorial records, because fish formed a significant part of the medieval diet and economy. Many of the great medieval religious houses of Wales owned fish weirs. For example, Tintern Abbey held weirs on the Wye, Severn and Usk; Margam Abbey held weirs on the Afan and Neath; Neath Abbey held weirs on the Tawe, Neath and in Gower; Strata Florida had weirs in Ystwyth and Aberarth; Valle Crucis held a weir at Overton (Geraint Jenkins 1974: 6); and Carmarthen Priory and Whitland Abbey held fish weirs in the Tâf, Towy and Gwendraeth estuaries (James 2003). The lords of Llanstephan, Laugharne and Kidwelly also possessed weirs on the Rivers Tâf, Towy and Gwendraeth (for a detailed discussion see James 2003). The famous weir at Cilgerran (discussed below) belonged to the manor of Cilgerran, and was endowed with a grant from Edward II to the lord of Cilgerran (Geraint Jenkins 1974: 6).

The two main terms for a fish weir in Welsh are argae and cored (see Richards 1974 for a full list of Welsh fishing elements), though in the place-names of Wales we also find terms for weirs in Old English (wer), Middle English (haking), and well as Old Norse (ver and fiski-garðr). The earliest references to fishing weirs in Wales are found in a charter dated to c. 693 (Coe 2001: 709; Davies 1979: 99, 150a) preserved in the twelfth-century Book of Llandaff, which discusses a grant at ager Porthcassec (modern Porthcaseg, Monmouthshire) with duobus coretibus ‘two fishing weirs’ (Evans 1893: 150). This must refer to fishing weirs on the River Wye, as the farm of Porthcasseg is only a short distance to the west. This charter perhaps refers to one of the old weirs on the Wye, as there are many along this stretch of the river that were later in the possession of the nearby Cistercian house of Tintern Abbey, including Plum Weir, Stowe Weir, Wall Weir, and others (for which see Morgan 2005: 176-7 s.v. Plum Weir; Geraint Jenkins 1974: 6). Charter 234 of the Book of Llandaff, another early document dated to c. 895 (Davies 1979: 123), refers to weirs on the Mouric (identified with Mounton Brook by Coe 2001: 612) and Yscuit Cyst (probably located near the mouth of Mounton Brook, Ibid: 902), both in Monmouthshire.

The usual Latin equivalents of cored are piscina and piscarium ‘fishery’, but Welsh cored is Latinised in the Book of Llandaff as coretis (Padel 1985: 65 s.v. *cores). Other Latin terms for a fish weir found in medieval Welsh documents and place-names include gurges (literally ‘whirlpool’) found, for example, in Gurgitem apud Kilgaran 1314 (Wmffre 2004: vol. 1, 60), an early attestation of the famous Cored Cilgerran on the River Teifi. This fish weir is even described by Gerald of Wales (c.1146-c.1223):

Nearby flows a noble river called the Teifi. It is better stocked with the finest salmon than any other stream in Wales. Near Cilgerran, at a spot called Cenarth Mawr, on the topmost point of a rock which Saint Llawddog hollowed out with his own hands, there is a flourishing fish-station (piscariam copiosam). (Dimock 1868: vol. 6, liber II, ch. III, p. 114; trans. Thorpe 1978).

Cored is the most widely attested term for a fish weir in Wales. The term is derived from côr ‘plaiting, binding’ + the suffix –ed, and refers to a weir constructed of plaited withies (Richards 1974: 10). Cored, plural coredau (lenited as gored following the definite article) is related to Old Breton coret and Old Irish corae (Ibid: 10; see also Kelly 2000: 287-290 on fish weirs and fishing methods in early medieval Ireland). It is found in a number of medieval and early modern place-names throughout Wales. Richards (1974: 10-15) lists 73 place-names in Wales containing this element, the earliest attested being Cored Roth (Gored Rothe 1411) in Llan-gain, Llangynog in Carmarthenshire. We have two cored place-names in our database. Coredydd in Cardiganshire is first attested as Coredau in 1184. This refers to fish weirs on the Afon Arth, and a weir is still marked on the Arth at SN482634. A second cored place-name from our database is the now lost Pwll-y-gored, also in Cardiganshire, which is first attested in 1542 as Gwernekored. This cored, according to Wmffre (2004: 155) ‘fed the leat to Melin Bhrithdir’ (a mill); the name is unusual as argae is the general term used to denote this type of weir.

Argae, plural argaeau, is another term for a fishing weir (cf. Old Irish aire ‘woven fence, act of making a dam; fence (on a stream); weir’, see eDIL 4 aire and Kelly 2000: 287). This term does not always refer to a fishing weir, and can also mean ‘dam, floodgate, sluice, lock; embankment, barrier, obstruction’ (Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru). Geraint Jenkins (1974: 5) notes that sometimes argae refers to weirs ‘built in association with a mill’. Richards (1974: 10) has 10 place-name examples with argae in his list. One example from our database is Rhydargaeau in Carmarthenshire, first attested in 1747. The name means ‘ford at the weirs’, and is located on Nant Brechfa.

Another term for weir which is infrequently attested in place-names is Welsh cryw ‘weir, fish-trap, creel’. This element is found in the Montgomeryshire name Crew Green, first attested as Crew in 1265 (Morgan 2005: 64). This is located just south of the confluence of the Afon Efyrnwy and the Severn.

As previously mentioned, terms for fish weirs in Old and Middle English and Old Norse are also attested in Welsh place-names. Old Norse fiski-garðr ‘fish-trap; fish-pond’ is found in Fishguard in Pembrokeshire, first attested as Fissigart c. 1200 (Charles 1992: vol. 1, 50). Two stone weirs have been identified on the north and south side of Fishguard Harbour.  The dates of their construction is unknown, though it can be speculated, thanks to current sea-levels, that the south trap may be medieval or earlier in date (see Coflein, NPRN 407699  ‘Fishguard Harbour North-West Fish Trap’ for description and images).

Old Norse ver ‘weir’ is possibly found in the local place-name Earwear in Amroth, Pembrokeshire. This is first attested as Eyreweyre in 1446 and Charles (1992: vol. 2, 466) suggests it is derived from Old Norse eyrr ‘sand-bank, gravel-bank’ + ver. Old Norse ver is cognate with Old English wer ‘weir’, and it is possible that Old English wer has influenced this place-name. Charles (ibid.) notes that ‘There is a reference to a toll of fish here’ and that Earwear was located by Amroth Castle, on the flat ground near the sea on a stream. This possibly suggests that the weir was constructed in a tidal stream.

Old English wer ‘a weir, a river-dam; a fishing-enclosure in a river’ is more commonly found in areas close to the border where English was traditionally spoken, or where English place-names of medieval origin are greater in number. As previously mentioned, many place-names in wer are attested along the River Wye, and these weirs crossed the flow of the river. Those recorded on the Ordnance Survey maps include: Walter’s Weir, Liveoaks Troughs Weir, Wall Weir (Walwere post 1148), Stowe Weir (Staweir 11th century), Plum Weir (Plumwere c. 1160), Ash Weir (Ashweir 1326), Brockweir (Brockewere c. 1328), Coed-Ithel Weir (possibly Ishelsweir 1326), Ridingstream Weir and Bigs Weir (Bykeswere 1295, Brithekeswere 1326). Other weirs on this stretch of the Wye that have not survived in modern place-names include Alfiard’s Weir, Halfwere and Badingsweir (Geraint Jenkins 1974: 6). Another example of Old English wer in our database is Burfa near Offa’s Dyke in Radnorshire. Burfa, first attested as Borewere 1383-4, is possibly derived from Old English bor ‘hill, eminence’ + wer meaning ‘upper weir’ or ‘weir by a hill’ (Morgan 1998: 36). The bor of the name perhaps refers to Burfa Bank just north of Hindwell Brook. The weir was perhaps located on Hindwell Brook, or its tributary Knobley Brook.

The etymology of the Middle English place-name element *haking is obscure, though according to the Oxford English Dictionary it refers to ‘a kind of net, or apparatus with net attached, used for taking sea-fish’. This element is infrequently attested. It is found in Hacking in Lancashire and Hackney in Devon, and in Wales it is found in Hakin in Pembrokeshire. Though Hakin is first attested in 1729, the etymology is certainly correct, and here *haking refers to a fishery (Charles 1992: vol. 2, 592).

In addition to archaeological and historical evidence, the place-name evidence for fishing weirs can provide a wealth of information about the construction of the weir, ownership of the weir, its location, and the type of fish caught to name but a few examples. This information can often be gleaned from the specific or qualifying element in a compound place-name containing an element for ‘weir’ as the generic. As previously noted, place-names in Welsh cored refer to the specific type of weir construction (i.e. a weir of plated withies). Plum Weir on the Wye is named from Old English plume ‘a plum, plume-tree’ + wer. This perhaps refers to a weir constructed of plum branches. Likewise, nearby Ash Weir (from Old English æsc ‘ash’ + wer) likely refers to a weir woven from ash withies. Some place-names in ‘weir’ suggest personal or familiar ownership. For example, Cored Faelgwn in Llanrhos, Carmarthenshire is ‘Maelgwn’s weir’ (Richards 1974: 12). Bigsweir on the Wye is possibly from an Old English personal name Biccel or a Welsh personal name Buddig + wer. Brockweir (located on the Wye in Gloucestershire) is first attested in an annotation on the now lost place-name Pull Brochuail (Welsh pwll ‘pool, lake, pit’ + Welsh personal name Brochfael) in the Book of Llandaff, in a charter dated by Davies (1979: 97) to c. 620. All later spellings of Brockweir, however, suggest the present place-name is derived from Old English brōc ‘brook’ + wer.  Brockweir is located where a small brook meets the Wye; however, there remains the possibility that the first element might be a shortened form of the personal name Brochfael. Some ‘weir’ place-names also contain references to the type of fish caught, such as Cored Sili in Pen-bre, Carmarthenshire, from cored + sili ‘salmon-fry’ (Richards 1974: 13).

Though this article has only briefly touched upon this subject, place-names related to medieval fishing are clearly an important resource through which to study the human exploitation of natural food stocks found in estuaries and rivers. Additionally, they provide evidence of historic industry, local economies and the water-management practices of the Middle Ages, the latter of which is particularly important for aiding our understanding of the medieval environment.


Charles, B. G. 1992, The Place-Names of Pembrokeshire, 2 vols. Aberystwyth: National   Library of Wales.

Coe, Jonathon Baron 2001, ‘The Place-Names of the Book of Llandaf’. Unpublished PhD            Thesis, University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Available on: cadair.aber.ac.uk/dspace/

Davies, Wendy 1979, The Llandaff Charters. Aberystwyth: The National Library of Wales.

Dimock, J. F. (ed). 1868, Itinerarium Kambriae et Descriptio Kambriae, vol. 6 of Giraldi Cambrensis opera, 8 vols. London: Longman, Green, Longman & Roberts. Available      online: https://archive.org/details/giraldicambrensi06gira

Evans, J. Gwenogvryn & Rhŷs, John (eds.), 1893, The Text of the Book of Llan Dâv          Reproduced from the Gwynsaney Manuscript. Oxford: Imprinted at Gloucester by           John Bellows.

Geraint Jenkins, J. 1974, ‘Fish Weirs and Traps’, Folk Life 12:1, pp. 5-9.

James, Heather & Terrance 2003, ‘Fish weirs on the Tâf, Towy and Gwendraeth estuaries,             Carmarthenshire’, The Carmarthenshire Antiquary 39, pp. 22-48. Reproduced on:


Kelly, Fergus 2000, Early Irish Farming. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Moore-Scott, Terry 2009, ‘Medieval Fish Weirs on the Mid-Tidal Reaches of the Severn   River (Ashleworth-Arlingham)’, Glevensis 42, pp. 31-44. Available online at:


Morgan, Richard 2005, Place-Names of Gwent. Llanrwst: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch.

Padel, O. J. 1985, repr. 1991, Cornish Place-Name Elements. Nottingham: English Place- Name Society.

Richards, Melville 1974, ‘Some Fishing Terms in Welsh Place-Names’, Folk Life 12:1, pp. 9-        19.

Thorpe, Lewis (trans.) 1978, Gerald of Wales: the Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales. London: Penguin.

Wmffre, Iwan 2004, The Place-Names of Cardiganshire, 3 vols. Oxford: British    Archaeological Reports 379 (I).

It’s English, Jim, but not as we know it…

Susan Kilby writes…

Hidden within the Latin texts that capture medieval rural life—the court and account rolls, surveys, terriers and charters of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries—can be found some of the earliest English descriptions of local landscape. Despite Latin being the language of officialdom, field-names, which were created by local people, were generally written in English. Concisely configured, these beautiful names conjure up the medieval landscape for us in vivid detail. Some of them are instantly recognisable, even though the spelling might be initially off-putting: stonyforde (the stony ford), horsmerssh (the horse marsh), westclif (the west cliff), depmor (the deep moor), mulnepol (the mill pool), wodefen (the wood fen), le brok (the brook).

Others, we might think we recognise, but are in fact a little trickier to identify. At Alrewas in Staffordshire, there are nine names that appear to contain the English word ‘lake’. You could be forgiven for thinking that within Alrewas parish were a multitude of large bodies of water, but a glance at the map might prove confusing. Where is the boylake (Fig. 1), the holowelake, and most especially, the rudelak? These names are in fact all derived from the English word lacu, which means ‘a small, slow-moving stream, a side-channel’. If we return to our map of Alrewas armed with this knowledge, it is possible to see a veritable tangle of side-channels formed from the River Trent. Incidentally, the rudelak isn’t rude either, but most probably a reference to an adjacent clearing. Oh, and by the way, to add to the confusion, the origins of our modern word ‘lake’ are French.


Fig. 1: boylake

Our medieval forebears named their environment with precision. This was vitally important to them, helping them to identify specific elements of the landscape. Today, we might recognize that burns and brooks are both streams, but would probably give the matter little further thought. Ann Cole identified that a burna was more likely to have clear water and a sandy or stony bed, whilst a brōc had a clayey bed, and a generally muddier appearance. These are factors that would have been readily apparent to medieval observers, and they were very important differences to note. Not least because these closely observed features helped people to navigate through the landscape, at a time when place-names were the only detailed ‘maps’ of local landscape available.

For all the recognisable names, there are many that have sadly fallen into disuse. An Alrewas peasant would have been able to direct us to le muythen (Fig. 2) with ease.  Today, instead, we’d use the Latin-derived ‘confluence’ to describe the point where the Rivers Trent and Tame meet. The word galle, which means ‘barren, unfertile, wet land’ can no longer be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, but was well understood in medieval Flintham in Nottinghamshire, which sits surrounded by the waters of the Trent and the Car Dyke.  Words that indicate different types of water-channel are frequently entirely puzzling to modern ears—grepal ‘small ditch or drain’, flothscherd ‘flood-channel’, wilwlade ‘dyked water-course by the willows’, crakeri ‘small stream associated with crows’.

Le Muythen

Fig. 2: le muythen

Medieval observers were also unsurprisingly adept at assessing places that were liable to flooding. bradeflot in Hamfallow, Gloucestershire, pinpoints land that flooded.  arnewas (Elton, Huntingdonshire), redewas (Alrewas) and wahsford (Stoneleigh, Warwickshire) all indicate specific places in each respective local landscape that flooded and drained away quickly. In Alrewas — the settlement name itself references flooding: ‘alder land that floods and drains quickly’—redewater may have been an alternative form of redewas, and the evocatively-named atte turnyngofthewater again possibly indicated an area prone to flash-flooding. flitker in Flintham might also reference flooding events, as one possible reading of the word flēot is ‘shallow water coming and going rapidly’.

It seems to me that as we pass from one extreme weather event to another in the modern age, the closely observed world of the medieval peasant has never been more relevant. When these names were first conceived, locals inherently understood their great importance, conveying them orally from generation to generation, precious environmental data designed to map the environment, and in so doing, to warn of its peculiarities and hazards.  Perhaps it’s time to uncover and reclaim the once familiar but now long lost English language of our ancestors, packed as it is with information that arguably might be quite useful to us in the new water-world of the twenty-first century.

The Great British Laboratory Bake Off

Ben Pears writes:

The process of laboratory analysis requires the planning of a military general, the patience of Job, alongside the kind of motherly care reserved for the young in an apiary. And my how those infants multiply: in any one metre of sample there could be as many as 200 samples for a single proxy and that’s before one has conducted the requisite percentage of re-analysis to account for reproducibility.

But stick with it and the rewards can be remarkably rewarding, if not confusing and occasional contradictory…. So much so it can make your brain hurt. The art to the science of it all is keeping it simple. Know what your key questions are, what techniques and analyses to use, and how long they take to conduct. In other words, be like Mary Berry. For laboratory games are much like baking, and following a process, 5g of this, 2 drops of that… sorry 3 drops, back to the start you go… three days wasted.

Recently I have felt like a contestant on the Great British Bake Off, as work began on the week long process of the determination of organic content of 64 samples from a two-metre sediment sequence from Wasperton, Warwickshire. This apparently meagre figure, increased three-fold to account for the different stages required to achieve the final detritus which marked the end of the tedium.

The process of ‘cooking’ small samples of soil is not as daft as it sounds, and yet I fear that whilst Mary Berry maybe a whizz at the initial determination of percentage water content (by heating to 1050), she would be simply unable to comprehend ‘burning’ anything at 550o­­ or 9500. Instead 64 beautifully baked and decorated cup-cakes in their little ceramic pots would be produced.

Bake off

Where Mary would excel though, would be in the accuracy and precision of the recording of the results. If I could tear her away from the aesthetics for a moment. I know it looks like a chocolate crumb Mezza. Her weighing skills would prove to be vital in gaining the best results possible, and prove to be the icing on this particular cake. That said I would love to see a cake baked with the ingredients measured to 4 significant figures on scientific scales (the ones with the glass doors, to keep the air out…). Mary might conclude, however, by saying that it lacked a human touch.

Needless to say Mary wasn’t with me in the laboratory, but the results of this preliminary work have provided some very interesting results, if not culinary delights. Organic material decreased with depth as expected with much lower levels in the alluvium compared to the topsoil, as a result of the cycle of plant growth and decomposition. More distinct variations in results were determined from the more resistant forms of carbon removed during firing at the higher temperature. These results suggest imput from a different source and may have been deposited as a result of seasonal flooding.

I bet Mary has never got that kind of information out of a cake…. But then my chocolate crumb doesn’t taste that good.

Up Shit Creek

The earliest description we have of Upton near Southwell, Nottinghamshire, dates from 956AD. It was in that year that King Eadwig granted part of his royal estate centred on Southwell to Osketyl, archbishop of York. As was conventional, the Latin charter legalising this land transfer also carried a description of the boundaries of the estate written in Old English.  Upton’s mid-tenth century boundary, it would seem, follows the current parish boundary.

Some of the names of features encountered on Upton’s boundary remain the same after more than a thousand years. miclan beorh, for example, ‘the great barrow-shaped hill’ is still known today as Micklebarrow and is one of the most prominent local landmarks.  And we find reference to hocer ƿuda ‘the hillock wood’ which gives us Hockerwood Farm and ultimately the name of the neighbouring village, Hockerton.  Other named features, however have long gone including the dreng haga ‘the warrior’s/servant’s enclosure/hedge’ that once stood to the north of Upton and a lone, but clearly once prominent, aeppel treou ‘apple tree’ close by.

To my mind, however, the most interesting of all the lost features named is fule fleot located somewhere on the low-lying floodplain of the River Trent and its tributary, the River Greet, to the south of Upton. fleot is a complicated term. It can mean an ‘estuary, inlet, arm of the sea’ but this cannot be its meaning here since the maximum tidal reach of the Trent is Newark, a few miles downsteam of Upton.  So it is far more likely to have been used at Upton in its second sense of ‘creek, tributary of an inland river flowing through flat land’. It is thus interesting to note the qualifying term ful used to describe this water feature. This is the Old English word which gives us modern ‘foul’ and originally covered a wide range of physical characteristics including dirty, filthy, muddy, and even shitty.

Upton, then, would seem to have its very own Shit Creek. Which prompts the observation, of course, that if we do not deal with the modern threat of flooding along the Trent and its tributaries, still a significant problem, then we might find ourselves once more in the position, as our Anglo-Saxon forebears might have said, of being:

Andlang fulan flotan forutan ar

Lest anyone be struggling with their Old English, or dusting off their Beowulf from school days, ar is the word that gives us modern ‘oar’, a paddle in any language.

Core Issues

Ben Pears writes:

Please don’t rain, please don’t rain… is the quintessential prayer of the geoarchaeologist prior to the commencement of a session of fieldwork. It is not that we fear water, but given the analogue form of recording still used by most researchers, we find that the old ‘pen and paper’ work better in the dry. Neither do we fear dirt, and where it might go; indeed in parts of our recording geophagy* is strongly encouraged to really distinguish between the coarseness of deposits. As an archivist may keep a historic document within an environment, which protects the delicate form and content, so due care and attention should be made not to disturb any more of the landscape than absolutely required.

The culmination in the mixture of scientific and historic landscape research is the marrying of horizontal and vertical processes. The first provides the subtle hints and clues as to the landscape and processes of the past; the concentrations of lumps and bumps associated with former settlements, tree-filled sinuous ditches synonymous of former river channels, and the delicate bend or sharp jolt of a field boundary. Indeed, there is no proxy by which surface indicators should reveal the wealth of history beneath. Some of the greatest archaeological sites have been found just inches below the most boring, featureless fields. Nevertheless, reading even the smallest of clues from maps and aerial photos helps and drives the careful location and positioning of work, which focusses upon the entirely invisible vertical dimension.

The mapping and recording of sediments and soils across specific landscape areas allow the specialist to understand the depositionary processes and prior landuses. This can be done easily and noisily with a mechanical excavator, or indeed by hand but both leave behind the tell-tale signs of imposition, be it by deep tyre ruts or the mound of spoil in the backfilled trench. Sampling using a series of cores across a transect provides a far tidier and sympathetic method of data collection. Once one has got their head around which head to use, be it a ‘Dutch’, ‘Gouge’, ‘Russian’ or ‘Percussion’ the results are fantastic, and there really is a sense of bated breath waiting to see what comes out.


Take some recent work conducted in the River Trent Valley, near Alrewas, Staffordshire. The landscape is scarred by the effects of years of sand and gravel extraction and although much of the archaeology has been identified, excavated and recorded, most has subsequently been lost. In contrast to this, the use of coring has been used to map and understand a former river channel without the need for major disturbance to the wider landscape. The feature was identified on historic maps following the line of the parish boundary and on the ground in parts by a twisting willow-filled trough. Further confirmation was made using the latest brilliance of geophysics and Lidar. A series of cores were taken along the width of the feature to determine the profile and sedimentary history of the feature. The transects revealed an asymmetrical channel between 12-15m wide and between 1.5-2m deep. It was filled with coarse grained, high energy  sands at its base, representing the last vestiges of life with moving water and thick, laminated deposits of fine grained silts demonstrating frequent, possibly seasonal flooding and inundation. The channel fill also contained laminations of dark peat horizons showing the presence of vegetation, which had taken occupancy. The coring also picked up subtle flood depositionary deposits on the inner edge of the former channel, coarser material which formed the remnant of a levee and fine overbank alluvium deposited across a wide area of the floodplain. Best of all however, these sediments were carefully captured in there plastic capsules ready to be wrapped and transported to various laboratories for further analytical work.

All of this was conducted on a beautiful crisp sunny February day with only a few clouds in the sky, and not hampered by unwanted precipitation. Two days of sampling was conducted in an eight hour period, but more importantly the site was returned to the farmer in a condition it was originally found. So hence the old adage… Please don’t rain, please don’t rain.

*Geophagia ‘the practice of eating earth or soil-like substrates’.

The lesser spotted documentary historian

You can usually spot an archival researcher a mile off, if you know what to look for. We’re the really pale, wan-looking ones, borne of hours spent poring over parchment rolls in dimly-lit archives and muniment rooms. You’d be forgiven for thinking that, from time-to-time, we look a little forbidding, as we frown in concentration over a tricky word or sentence (and whilst on the subject, what on earth are four iron hoppis?*). This is serious stuff. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that we’re not having fun. Because we are. We most definitely are. It just doesn’t always look like it. I can tell you, though, that it is a rare day in any archive when I don’t want to leap up from my seat and punch the air, or run round all the desks in a lap of honour because I’ve just found something incredible.


For me, there’s always a keen sense of anticipation whenever I visit any archive: the thrill of being handed parchment rolls that might date back to the thirteenth century never diminishes. But will I be able to read them? Sometimes, time (or beetles) may not have been kind, and on occasion I can find myself sadly unfurling fragments with a sinking heart. The ink on some documents might be faded to the point where it becomes necessary to sit in an even darker room, wielding an ultra-violet light to try and reveal the now hidden text. Even if the documents are perfectly preserved, there’s no accounting for the state of the scribe’s handwriting. In fairness, most medieval scribes’ calligraphy is way neater than mine, but nevertheless some can be pretty illegible. There might be extra lines stuffed into the tiniest of spaces, whole passages crossed out, or, more often than not, words that are so contracted that you must sharpen your sleuthing skills in order to figure them out. It’s by no means unusual for a scribe to offer just one letter to represent an entire word. As I said, it’s fun.

Even when these initial tests have been passed, and I am faced with a document that promises much, there is just no way to know whether I will find what I’ve travelled so far to look for. But every tiny trace of evidence is recorded, to be pondered at great length, until, if I’m lucky, the past begins to emerge a little at a time. Today, in the beautiful Westminster Abbey library, I looked at fourteenth-century manorial account rolls from Worcestershire. These particular rolls record the agrarian operation of the Abbey of Pershore, and they contain many gems. Over the winter of 1346-7, for instance, I read that Pershore and the surrounding villages suffered six weeks of ice and snow. Field-names such as stockynge and brekforlong revealed that local people were increasing their arable farming capacity by clearing trees and breaking up land for cultivation. Residents were frequently called upon to mow meadows and scour ditches. An amusing reference to the name pidelee turned out to refer to the nearby parish of North Piddle. And yes, I did get my moment of exultation. There it was, nestled in tidily amongst the expenses and apparatus of the mill, between new millstones and sailcloth: the elusive fflodgate, recorded because it needed new hoppis that year. Naturally. You will be, I think, a little disappointed to learn that I remained in my seat, rather than give my fellow readers any cause for alarm.

So, the next time you encounter one of this strange breed in an archive, come and talk to us for a minute or two. We’re not as unapproachable as we might seem – we’re almost certainly just concentrating. And if we look a little startled as we emerge from the peace and quiet of the reading room into the light and noise of a bustling street, do forgive us. We’ve been in another world all day.

*hoppis –  circular bands of wood or metal, used for barrels, wheels and such like.

Susan Kilby