Sunday 24 February 2013

Doctor Richard Beeching

My latest book, released this week, is a little different for me. March sees the 50th anniversary of the infamous report of the reshaping of the railways of Britain, most often referred to as the Beeching Axe. In truth there are a couple of others released on the same subject but they ostensibly deal with the report, the man, and the impact on railway transport in this country ever since. My book is somewhat different as it looks at what happened to the parts which closed. Hence my book looks at what happened in that half century following closure and asks the question – is he justifiably one of the most loathed individuals in recent British history?

Beeching 50 Years On is published by The History Press.

I would be delighted to hear from anyone who has purchased or would like to purchase a copy. As always I also welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies.

Sunday 17 February 2013


When giving talks on the origins of place names, I am often asked to name my favourite place name or names. I have no particular favourite any more than any piece of music or song has remained my number one choice for both change with time. In defining place names I do have a particular favourite theme, that is a name which very specifically describes the place so as to give a mental picture.

For example Stinchcombe in Gloucestershire tells us it was a ‘valley frequented by sandpipers or dunlin’; or East Stockwith in Lincolnshire and West Stockwith across the border in Nottinghamshire share an origin in ’the landing place made of logs or tree-stumps’; and Wilby in Norfolk is ‘the farmstead at the circle of willow trees’. While we know a fair amount of life in Saxon England, these names enable us to picture the place very much as it would have looked in the time when the name was coined – and these are images no painter would commit to canvas and no camera could record.

Often the questioner comments how archaeology could also tell us the same thing and yet while the value of archaeology is unquestioned, in the three examples given archaeology would concentrate on the location of the buildings, artifacts, clothing, etc., to build up a picture of life. In the place name we have a picture of the place as the inhabitants would have seen it.

There is also an example of a place name showing an archaeological find which was known before the terms antiquarian or archaeologist was even coined. In Hampshire is a place called Hordle, a name coined before the Domesday survey and described ‘the hill where treasure (or hoard) was discovered’. Note the place could not have been known as such until the hoard was unearthed, we have no notion of the name of the place prior to this, hence it is a little pointless looking for other buried treasure.

Archaeology, at least as a science, is relatively new. Certainly the person who found the treasure at Hordle would never have seen him or herself as an archaeologist. Modern archaeology can be traced to the middle of the nineteenth century when finds were analysed with other sciences now showing the earth was billions and not thousands of years old. Until the finds were examined with a view to understanding what could not be seen, this cannot be said to be scientific archaeology.

Doubtless uncovering artifacts had happened for almost as long as people have been living on the same site for several generations, for human habitation does tend to remain in a certain area as long as climate and conditions do not change dramatically. There is some indication of research being conducted in Egyptian history by the Chinese from the ninth century. However these were undertaken to discover rituals and/or technologies. Relics would then bring parts of the Egyptian culture to China, reverse engineering would enable the Chinese to re-invent lost discoveries, always assuming they were ever discovered in the first place.

Yet perhaps the first true archaeologists who sought information on the lives of early peoples can be found in Italy and the Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Two men in particular could be said to be instrumental in making archaeology a study, if not a science. Flavio Biondo is most often referred to as the founder of archaeology after he documented the ruins and topography of ancient Rome in the first part of the fifteenth century. A contemporary of his, Ciriaco de Pizzicolli, travelled through Greece doing much the same on the ancient buildings and relics of Greece, before heading off for the eastern Mediterranean and eventually produced six volumes on his discoveries leading to him being known as the father of archaeology.

With their chosen field a comparatively modern science, archaeologists have the advantage of realising just how quickly advancements in techniques and technologies can happen. Hence wherever possible the finds are recorded and left for future generations to analyse when improvements in equipment, greater knowledge and experience will enable the story of a site to be better understood. This makes perfect sense for while there are undoubtedly many, many more sites to be dug, there is a finite number and that number will never change until man journeys to other planets and finds other long-dead civilizations – and they will have to be long-dead otherwise the present occupants will defend their rights and never allow us to dig their own archaeological sites.

When it comes to understanding history, the value of understanding a name will help the archaeologist and, as I can vouch from personal experience, the reverse is also the case with toponymy benefiting from evidence at a dig.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday 10 February 2013

Lincolnshire Place Names

With the up-coming release of Lincolnshire Place Names, courtesy of Fineleaf Editions, talks in the county on that very subject are on the horizon. Thus here is a taster.


A name found in Domesday as Lude, although the earlier form of Hludensis monasterium in 790 tells us much more. The name comes from Old English hlud, itself given to the River Lud and describing itself as 'the noisy stream'. Those from Louth are referred to as Ludensians.

The name of the Lincolnshire Poacher may allude to those who lived off the game from the lord of the manor, but here the reference is to the tradition song of The Lincolnshire Poacher. The Miller's Daughter is a typical rural pub name, the sign featuring a young lady with a windmill in the background. The Massingberd Arms is named after the family who have held land here and been resident at nearby Gunby Hall since around 1700.

Louth's most obvious feature is St James' Church or, more correctly, its 295 feet high spire is one of the tallest in the land. The ascent of this daunting climb was made to repair the weathercock and on another occasion the spire itself following lightning strike. However it is the unofficial climbs which are of more interest. In 1771 Anthony Fountain, a sailor from Doncaster, went up and came back down quite safely, although the purpose of this exhausting venture is unknown.

However we do know the reason for Louth cobbler Benjamin Smith climbing the church on 5th May 1818, it was to win a bet he had made with a pedlar. Smith, having just consumed no less than ten pints of beer, boasted he could climb the church without any trouble whatsoever. Up he went, right to the very top where he daringly danced a hornpipe on the top stone of the spire. On the way down he paused to climb and recklessly balance on only one leg on the very point of one pinnacle. When he finally reached the ground he found the joke was on him. The pedlar, whom he left holding his jacket and the stake money, had vanished and he returned to the pub where he still had to pay for his ten pints!

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday 3 February 2013

Hertfordshire Place Names

With the up-coming release of Hertfordshire Place Names talks in the county on that very subject are on the horizon. Thus here is a taster featuring a name synonymous with film, quite relevant with both the BAFTAs and the Oscars in the news.


Listed as Tithulfes in the eleventh century, this name features a Saxon personal name and Old English treow and describes 'the boundary tree of a man called Tidwulf'. That the modern form is Elstree and not Telstree is almost to be expected, for Middle English would have described it as atte Telstree and the initial 'T' would have been easily confused with that at the end of the preceding word. Indeed this happens even more often when atte is followed by a vowel at the beginning of the original place name and thus starts 'T-' today.

Cranes Farm was named after Mary Crane, Nicoll Farm remembers Susanna Nicoll, and Palmers named after Edward Palmer, all of whom would have known each other for they were all here in the middle of the eighteenth century. Deacons Hill is of an earlier time, the old chantry here granted by Henry VIII to All Souls College, Oxofrd.

The Fishery Inn is aptly named as it overlooks Aldermaston Lake. The Artichoke was chosen for its image, the vegetable much less common than any tree names such as the Hollybush. The Woodcock is a pub which has taken the place name of Woodcock Hill, which must have been a family name as the habitat is quite wrong for the bird.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.