The landscape reveals many things about our past. You can stand in the middle of the city entirely enveloped in the past; the Norman cathedral and Castle, medieval churches and Tudor buildings, the remnants of war and peace, people remembered in plaques. To cast a net into the deep waters of the past you have to look in a different way. Street names are always a good magnifier, beyond the recent modern mayors and councillors, the curious dissonance of the modern estates there are roads that echo their former uses, hay markets, homes and workplaces of potters, fishermen. Streets named after long since vanished churches, friaries and chapels in fields. All are still here cut by feet, hooves and wheels, street signs that point to a world below the asphalt and paving to our past.
The same is true in the countryside, the names around us are as much of a coded clue to our past as the streets of our urban centres. The county has been long settled, further back than we can measure. There are hints in distant footprints in the mud of a distant somehow different past, but there are clues nearer at hand in the overgrown or neatly trimmed roadsides and on village greens.
We live in a pattern, our settlements follow vague formulas, they are based on indices, a web of life that has grown around us. Our cities surrounded by towns, ringed by villages, wrapped in hamlets each one in turn surrounded by farms. It is imperfect, the web distorted by landscape features, soil types, rivers, transport features and availability of resources. Norfolk displays as good a pattern, as near perfect as you are likely to find. This has grown over time into the modern network we see today. There is another dimension to this which is focused around not just the where but the when and the who as the patterns become distorted and the emphasis shifts from industries like fishing to newer ones like shoes or gas over time.
We drove to the coast on Sunday. A walk with the dog into the cold North-easterly between Beeston Regis and West Runton, a Cmd-Option-Esc ready to relaunch the soul for the new week. Along the edge between the broken cliffs and the rough water across the soaked heavy reflective near unblemished sand running like an uneven ribbon between it and us. There was hardly a soul in sight as we walked where generations of people have landed boats and catches, swum in the summer and buttoned down against the storms, The wind drove us back skin reddened by the cold. We drove home deciding on the way to stop off and get a hot drink. From West Runton, through East Runton, to Cromer, past the signs for Overstrand and Sidestrand, Northrepps, Roughton down onto the side roads that roughly echo the coastline drawn in muddy tarmac beneath overhanging leaf empty trees. Through Thorpe Market, past the signs for Suffield and Gunton, Antingham and Felmingham and on into North Walsham where we stopped. We could have travelled on, skipping backwards and forwards through time as we went each name a place somewhere in the past in some cases personally in others in the greater sense, our past. Everything sits along the coast, practically every age outlined in names in black and white or cut from wood, the ruins of Broomholm and the half-remembered remnants of Keswick, The concrete barrier to the flatland that marks some far distant old community at Walcott. Onward to the desolate beauty of Happisburgh. The cliffs slip down into dunes through the old lost church village of Eccles on to Palling and Waxham and the seasonal twins of Somerton and Winterton where the dunes protect the island of Horsey before dipping again into the flat of Flegg; Scratby, Hemsby and their cousins nestle between the old broads before the terminus of Norfolk guarded by the fort at Caister and sand spit-footed behemoth of Great Yarmouth.
It’s in Flegg this journey should start. I’ve sat in those reeds and weeds in a boat on Lily Broad and watched the sun go down, hidden under a bridge at Filby in a thunderstorm fishing rod tips kissing the water to stop the sort of strike that has more than a usual catch. We cowered and watched the lightning play across the horizon reflected in the broad until the rain came so hard it turned the surface to mist.
This is the land of the Danes. They may have landed nearby mycel heathen here ‘The Great Heathen Army’ trod these lands in the ninth century before setting off to take the rest of East Anglia like jewel thief magpies heading North to York and Nottingham. They’ve left a mark on a landscape that overlays the Anglians, while we remember them for killing King Edmund and sacking Thetford and much later burning Norwich it’s what happened between and after the blood-letting, after the theft and rape which is rather more interesting. They settled. Not only did they settle but across the county and into North Suffolk they left their names marking where they had been, and they aren’t the names of pirates and invaders they are the marks of farmers and huntsmen, of people who assimilated into communities after a fashion. You will find farms and birds, lakes and trees and marshes in their names.
It can’t have all been peace and light or horror and darkness, it must have as is the nature of things been mundane as life tends to be between things. The temptation to settle in these unsettled edges of places, to fight no more would have been evident amongst some. It certainly wasn’t all in one period either, There are stories of different sets of Vikings in Ireland, Dubgaill and Finngaill; the dark and the fair foreigners. There are records of previous bands of Norse and Danish or mixed established settlers protecting their interests against later bands of Vikings in the North, Norwegians siding with Mercians and infighting between different kingdoms and parties on both sides. They were after all just pirates out for what they could get who had turned into rulers and kings as is the way with the world. Norfolk can have been little different in terms of assimilation and reinvasion. Rather romantically the name Flegg itself is an echo of a Old Norse word Flaeg, a marsh plant that still grows here; believed to be the marsh Iris. The settlements here are almost entirely named using words of Old Scandinavian origin, the clue is in the ending, names you only see here and in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and thinning across to the North-west. Scrotta’s bȳ or Scratby Scratta’s farm, the same for Hemsby, Filby, Thrigby, Rollesby and so on, all display the typical ~bȳ ending that indicates an Old Scandinavian farm. In this instance it’s fair to say I think mostly from the Danish with a smattering of Friesan born Danes too. The word -by actually also echoed in the modern Icelandic Bærinn. It is still found in the modern name for village in Danish landsby. I wonder if it in fact relates to the English word byre. And here is our first clue in the layer of settlement names that are the linguistic archaeological evidence of some of our forebears.
It stretches across the county, meshed into the pervasive Saxon and Anglian place names, in between the layers with the Roman, the faint remains of Brittonic and Celt and the Norman and modern. As you travel you will see them everywhere. The ~by endings become rarer in the pattern. Alby exists outside this small area it nestled up to Thwaite or þveit, The same with Kirby Bedon and its own Thwaite, another Scandinavian remnant, a clearing. You will find plenty of þorps or Thorpes, ubiquitous smaller satellite centres to larger Anglian and Saxon settlements that absorbed something of the Danes. There are more Pockthorpes; the ‘fairy settlements’; probably referring to size rather than magical beasts; in Norfolk than any other county in Britain. You will also find lundr and skógr, even the odd Scandinavian holmr (holme) and Toft. We even have some haugr such as Howe and a handful of Dalr such as Bracondale.
Do not be fooled though, just because a settlement name looks like a Dane came up with it doesn’t mean they did. Northern European languages like Old German, Old English and Old Norse are more than cousins, they are almost conjoined triplets, drifting over one another. So similar are many of the words that it is reasonable to assume that a Dane would have had a reasonable chance of understanding some Saxon or Anglian. There are words in common and as the settlers became absorbed words become borrowed, hence we have things like bylaws which come straight from village laws. Some settlement names may hint more at the binding of the races and their languages, while others, such as what are known as Grimston Hybrids, may seem more like a hijack, an Anglo-Saxon ~ton with a Norse or Dane name in front of it. Or an Anglian word with an Old Norse detail added. There are in addition plenty of Wicks which plainly predate the settlement of the Danes, these mean something else entirely in their lexicon. There is even a question over the Thorps, some predate the Norsemen and are in fact Anglo-Saxon þrops or throps. The wash of waters; time, language use and dialectal changes have worn these names smooth like pebbles on a shore. obscuring them to be blinked at like staring at the road through windscreen wipers in heavy rain.
What I’ve tried to do with the map is outline the main names that either are or appear to be considered rooted in Old Norse, Old West Scandinavian and Old Danish. These are drawn from a variety of sources both on and offline. There is a degree of overlap between all the sources but some are less keen than others in attributing them to any particular group. I’ve also added a few of my own. I had to draw the line too; there are field names listed that almost certainly have had Danish footprints in them, North Walsham in particular has so many field like Lyngate around it that it’s almost impossible not to think these are gata type names named after roads in Old Norse, so I’ve limited the map mostly to settlements.
This isn’t quite complete as I’m waiting for things to turn up.
It also is part one in a series of however many it takes. There’s a chance it might be Anglian settlements next.
~þorp – Thorpe – ancillary or outlying farm or settlement. I’ve not listed them all yet, just the ones that appear on modern maps, there are rather more, which will be added. There is a big question surrounding them and the dates they appeared and why and what factors and who put them where they are.
~dalr – dale, valley.
~bȳ – Farm or settlement
~toft or ~toft – Can be either Old English for dwelling or Old Norse for building plot. Can be either, tend to be Old English in Norfolk.
~tūn – generally speaking these are almost always Anglian or Saxon (Old English) in old Norse on the very odd occasion they occur it would be ~tún. Tends to occur as a Grimston Hybrid which is a mix of Old Norse and Old English.
~hreppr – repps – In Old Norse it means Community, in Old English it comes from Rippel meaning a parcel of land.
~lundr – wooded grove (old Norse) not to be confused with ~lond meaning land/earth/ground in Old English
~skógr or Skógr~ – appears as ~scoe or Sco~ means a wood.
~haugr – tends to be either how or how or hoe, means a hill or a mound, can be either natural or refer to a burial mound.
~kirkja – kirk referring to a settlement with a church.
~kjarr – Carr, usually referring to marshy or boggy ground.
~þveit – Thwaite, means a clearing, meadow or paddock
~gata – ~gate, as a name ending means street. From the Old Norse gata for path or pathway, (it differs from gate in the sense of gates in say the city wall which come from ġeat the Old English. Pottergate, Colegate etc are from the Norse gata and are street names, St Augustines Gate is from the Old English. In the county these are conjectural on my part.
~holmr or holmr~ ~holme/~holm, or Holm/Holme either as a prefis or and ending. Means island as opposed to the Anglian -ey
~brycg – Bridge
~skáli or skáli – hut or shed
stæþ or stoð – staithe, Jetty, pier or landing place. usually an addition to a name, not many composites (if any). It is fair to assume that as a word in modern use, this is a borrowing that has passed into English from Old Norse and maintained it’s separate state. Most of the Norfolk ~ staithes could be later additions.
~ness – headland or promontory on the coast, such as Inverness, usually an ending. In Norfolk due to the nature of our soft coast these are usually transitory or cyclical, there are several recorded as existing, Winterton being the best known. Whether these are a later use of a word that had entered the language is open to discussion.
~ferjais – ferry
~ðyrne – Thurne – thorn or thorn bush
kringla~ Circle, may refer to a boundary or a monument
A Dictionary of British Place-Names by David Mills
A Popular Guide to Norfolk Place Names by James Rye
Domesday Book: A Complete Translation by Geoffrey Martin
KEPN – Nottingham University
Norwich Archaeology of a Fine City by Brian Ayers
Thorps in a Changing Landscape by Paul Cullen, Richard Jones, David Parsons
The Place-names of Norfolk: The place-names of the city of Norwich by Karl Inge Sandred, Bengt Lindström
The Concise English Dictionary of Place-names by Eilert Ekwall
© Text, pictures and data © Nick Stone.