Monday, 14 June 2010

Horses for Courses

A quick look at the origins of the names of horseracing courses around the British Isles.

Punters are always on the look-out for any crumb of information which will lead them to picking that winner. Many have their own system, one they have painstakingly devised themselves. As a keen toponymist - one who studies place names - the writer wondered if examining the origins and meaning of the name of the course itself might provide hitherto untapped information.
The place names of England are largely Old English, the language brought to our shores by the Saxons. In the north and east there have also been Scandinavian influences, while the earlier Celtic tongues can still be found particularly in the names of geographical features such as hills and streams.
Many place name are simply a description of the place preceded by a personal name, someone significant in the lives of this community. This includes Brighton which began life as 'the farmstead of a man called Beorhthelm'; Carlisle is a Celtic name 'the fortified place belonging to a man called Luguvalos'; Epsom is 'the homestead of a man called Ebbe or Ebbi'; Fakenham 'the homestead of a man called Facca'; Folkestone the 'stone of a man called Folca', the stone would almost certainly have marked the meeting place for the local hundred, a Saxon administrative region.
Huntingdon is either 'the hill of the huntsman' or possibly 'hill of a man called Hunta'; Kempton is either 'the farmstead of the warrior' or perhaps 'Cempa's farmstead'; Nottingham has lost its first letter, it began as 'the homestead of the followers or family of a man called Snot'; Sedgefield began life as 'the open land of a man called Cedd or Secg'; Uttoxeter is from 'the heathland of a man called Wuttuc', however this does not explain why local pronunciation gives the name as 'Ucheter'; Wolverhampton began life as 'the high farmstead', with the later addition of Wulfrun, the name of the lady who held this manor from AD985; and Worcester describes 'the Roman stronghold of the Weogora tribe'.
One place name was named by the man himself. Hamilton is named after Lord Hamilton, who came here in the fifteenth century to a village previously known as Cadzow or 'the battle hollow'.
Others simply describe the place itself such as Ascot is 'the eastern cottages'; Bangor is 'the fenced enclosure'; Beverley speaks of itself as 'the stream frequented by beavers'; Bath is an Old English name for the '(place at) the (Roman) baths'; Chepstow is first found in the fourteenth century as coming from ceap stow 'the outlying place with a market'; Chester this Saxon name describes 'the Roman stronghold'; while the name of Devon and Exeter refer to the 'territory of the Dumnonii' and 'the Roman stronghold on the River Exe'.
Doncaster speaks of 'the Roman stronghold on the River Don'; Edinburgh began as a Scottish Gaelic name, which is still seen in the name of the New Zealand city of Dunedin, while the present name has been influenced by Old English it still means the same thing as 'the stronghold of the rock face'; Goodwood does indeed refer to the 'excellent wood'; Haydock appears to be borrowed from the Welsh to describe 'farm where barley or corn is grown'; Hereford the 'ford suitable for the passage of an army', that is large and hard-wearing enough, it was not only for an army; Hexham is 'the warrior's homestead'; and Lanark comes from 'the forest glade'.
Leicester remembers the Celtic tribe who were here in 'the Roman stronghold of the people called Ligore'; Liverpool refers to 'the pool or creek with muddy water'; Lingfield describes 'the open land of the dwellers in the woodland clearing'; Ludlow is 'the hill by the noisy stream', that being the Teme; Perth is a Brythonic name describing the 'place at the thicket'; Plumpton speaks of 'the farmstead where plum trees grow'; Pontefract is of Latin origin, pons fractus describing 'the broken bridge'; and Redcar is a reminder that this was once known for 'the red or reedy marsh'.
Ripon is another telling us of the people, this name meaning the '(territory of) the Hrype tribe'; Salisbury is 'the stronghold at Sorvio', the earlier Celtic name for a place which has never been understood; Sandown means exactly what it says 'the sandy hill or down'; Warwick is 'the dairy farm on the bank', that is not necessarily the bank of the Avon, more likely to be a simple bank of earth; and York is a name of Scandinavian influence, the city of Jorvik to the Vikings was known as Eboracum by the Romans, all telling us of 'the place of the yew trees'.
There are those which are derived from the local water source. Ayr is a pre-Celtic river name which describes it as 'smooth running'; Catterick a rare place name from Latin describing a 'waterfall'; Fontwell derives its name from a spring; Southwell comes as no surprise for it does indeed describe 'the southern spring or stream'; Wye is a common river name which is of Celtic origin or even earlier and has never been understood: Yarmouth stands 'at the mouth of the River Yar', a river name meaning 'the babbling stream'; Wincanton tells of its location as 'the farmstead on the River Cale'; Teesside is 'on or by the River Tees', this river name also describing its power in 'the surging one'; Towcester is another river name in 'the Roman stronghold on the River Towe', here the Towe tells us it was 'slow'; and the name of Taunton is the 'farmstead on the River Tone', this Celtic river name thought to describes 'the roaring stream'.
Geographical features are seen in the names of Cheltenham which is 'the enclosure by the hill slope called Celte'; Kelso means 'the place at the chalk hill'; Stratford is a common name, always referring to 'the ford on the Roman road'; Thirsk is from an Old Scandinavian word meaning 'a marsh'.
Market Rasen is one of three places with the element Rasen, this given distinction by mentioning its market and is one of the writer's favourite kind of name for it paints an instant picture of the place in Saxon times, one that no camera could record and no artist would paint, it tells us of 'the bridge made of planks', a fairly rare sight in England when most streams were forded and the rudimentary footbridges were simply a tree trunk. Newbury tells us it was 'the new market town', although the name is certainly well over a thousand years old and therefore should be seen as 'newer market town'. Newcastle as with Newbury this should be understood as 'the newer castle'. Newmarket and once again 'the newer market town'. Newton Abbott comes from 'the new farmstead belonging to Torre Abbey'. Stockton's origins are either stoc tun 'the outlying farmstead' or stocc tun 'the farmstead constructed from or marked by logs', two similar words having quite different meanings and virtually impossible to distinguish between the two. Wetherby was a place known as 'the village where wethers are raised', a wether is a castrated male sheep. Windsor, also the taken as the surname of the present royal household, refers to its position alongside the River Thames where goods were brought along the river to the settlement and brought up 'the muddy slope on a sled by means of a rope attached to a winding mechanism'.
So armed with this insight did it enable the writer to produce the winning formula? Sadly not yet, but there is always tomorrow.

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