Place-names provide a rich means of 'seeing' a region, providing detailed clues about its unique cultural history and the focal priorities of early settlers.
Names are typically formed from two distinct elements – called specifics and generics - that modern forms of the name often merge them into a single entity. These elements can paint a very vivid picture of what the land once looked like. Many of these elements won’t hold any direct meaning for modern audiences, but to those versed in the original languages (Old Norse, Middle English, Cumbric, to name but a few contributing tongues), these elements provided literal descriptors of the landscape.
Presented below are a few examples from the Ullswater Valley to illustrate the creativity and sense of what made these places noteworthy.
Ullswater – either 'the lake belonging to Ulfr' or 'the lake of the wolves' (possibly where packs gathered)
Glenridding – 'the clearing in the valley which has been filled with bracken'
Pooley Bridge – 'the hamlet with a bridge over a pool that has opened in the river that flows underneath the prominent hill'
River Eamont – 'the river fed by two major watercourses meeting'
Aira Force – 'the powerful waterfall in the river that runs through the gravelly spit of land'
Dacre – 'the trickling one' (from the Cumbric word meaning 'tear-drop')
Askham – 'the place at the ash tree grove'
Swarthbeck – 'the black stream' (mostly hidden in shade and not hit by sunlight)
Mell Fell – 'the bare tract of high unenclosed land' (with very little vegetation)
Thackthwaite – 'the clearing where thatch grows in abundance'
Dockray – 'the nook where a lot of sorrel grows'
Loadpot Hill – 'the hill which contains a hollow filled with visible ore'
Grisedale Beck – 'the stream that runs through the valley where young pigs graze'
This is just a tiny sampling of names from the region, but as you can see all place-names have a (sometimes well-hidden!) meaning. Every single one contributes to the story of the region.
If you are interested in learning about some of the other places in the area (and learning more about onomastic work), Diana Whaley's A Dictionary of Lake-District Place-Names is a fantastic resource. It’s the source from which some of the entries above have been adapted.
By Dr. James O. Butler