Place names, Somerset and Dorset

Sitting on the blue linoleum on the attic floor above his parents’ grocery shop, with a pile of small pieces of paper on which he had copied place names from a gazetteer of the UK, the nine or ten-year old David Kendall couldn’t remember why he had started this project or what he intended to do with the result. So he stopped. Then a long period of latency before revived interest. But now my bedtime book is Per Vikstrand’s doctoral thesis “Gudarnas platser. Förkristna sakrala ortnamn i mälarlandskapen” (2001), which I skimmed through before reading it carefully (the author’s English title “The Places of the Gods, Pre-Christian sacral place names in central Sweden “). There are many such names around Uppsala although, of course, it’s not always easy to interpret these coded messages from the long dead when the reference might be to the God Thor or simply to a bloke named Thor, who had a farm on a hill.

It’s good to have access to a cogent description of the research issues, a guiding light when making one’s way through will o’ the wispish popular etymology.

I’ve just become an associate member of the English Place-Name Society, which sounds rather grand but in fact only means that I subscribe to their journal. I stumbled on their website when looking for literature about Somerset place names. Since my exile began in 1973, I have read intensively about Dorset, spurred on by an interest in family history when I traced my ancestors on my father’s side back to the sixteenth century (with only a modicum of skill as they had obligingly decided to remain ag. labbing, carpentering and brewing in the same village century after century). It was no mean addition to my fond feelings for the landscape to find a long line of ancestors on my father’s side and that my great grandfather was the publican of the Crown Inn in Marnhull, the model for Thomas Hardy’s Pure Drop Inn in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I have subsequently learned much more about Dorset than about Somerset, the county where I actually lived a few miles to the north.

Recently, I’ve thought that I wanted to remedy this and to look more intensively at Somerset, to get beyond superficial familiarity, which easily leads to an ossified museum-like relationship when you live far away in a foreign country. While Dorset is marked by the sweep of chalk/limestone hills and dramatic coastline, Somerset is more like a saucer with a prominent rim. The flatlands of the centre, not unattractive with their willows and atmospheric Glastonbury, hard to resist even for those who are allergic to the mystic, are encircled by hills, the Mendips, the Quantocks, the Blackdowns among others. The Mendips I have known since my youth and I had a very enjoyable holiday in the Quantocks a few years ago in the footsteps of Coleridge. The Blackdowns I know far less well despite having spent some time close to them during the last period of my mother’s life when she lived in Chard in the very west of the county. In fact, the Blackdowns were present to the very end of her life and just beyond, as I asked the undertaker not to drive on the noisy heavily trafficked A358 to the crematorium at Taunton but to take the back road, the straight empty road through verdant Neroche Forest (fine Norman name).

On the way back, in the understandable but somewhat weird post-funeral lightness of mood, I relaxed my attention and looked dreamily at the landscape until I noticed that our big black shiny car had come to a halt in a field. It felt like some scene from an Italian film where the driver, less adept at the byways had taken a wrong turn. We succeeded in extricating ourselves without having to get out and push and I succeeded in repressing my inward gales of laughter at the situation and preserving my dignified mien (at least this is my official memory picture…).

I want to read more about the Blackdowns and shall try to spend time there at some point.

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