River Wissey Lovell Fuller


November 2020

I often wonder who invented all the words we use. Most have been about for a long time although new ones are continually being added. When Covid kicked off I wondered if ‘furlough’ was one of these but it was in my 1998 ‘Little Oxford’. At least I know what it means now! The easiest meanings to trace are place names which, thanks to past invaders, are derived from Celtic, Latin, Anglos Saxon and French languages. Many are references to hills, rivers, fortresses, forest clearings, animals and land ownership. First recorded in Old English (mid7th century) over time many have become distorted through being mispronounced and wrongly spelt. There are many simple historical suffixes which appear in place names today. For instance ‘ton’ and ‘tun’ once meant a farm or a hamlet, ‘ham’ meant a settlement, village or estate, ‘ly’ or ‘ley’ a wood or a clearing, 'down' came from the Celtic ‘dun’ meaning hill or hill fort, ‘stow’ was a place or meeting place, wic was a farm or dairy farm, ‘wella’ was a spring, ‘bury’ was a fort and ‘ford’ was where a river could be easily crossed. Often these were added to the names of local geological features such as rivers. An excellent example is the ancient Norfolk town of Thetford standing on the river Thet. Activity has been known in the area since Neolithic times and, as a crossing point of the river, it was very important in Roman times. By the time of the Norman Conquest Thetford had become the sixth biggest town in the kingdom. Kings Lynn was once called Bishops Lynn when, in 1101, Bishop Herbert de Losinga of Thetford first developed the town. It became Kings Lynn in the 16th century. The word ‘lynn’ means pool and it’s thought it referred to a tidal pool on the Ouse. Closer to home, Downham means a settlement on a hill, it has a commanding view over the Fens. In Saxon times it became Downham Market and is one of Norfolk's oldest market towns. The interpretation of Swaffham is the settlement of the Swabians. It was valued highly in the Domesday Book of 1086 and by the 14th and 15th century was prospering from the sheep and wool industry. Barton Bendish was recorded as Bertuna. Its modern name is derived from ‘bere-tun’ meaning a grain farm, ‘binnan’ = within and ‘dic’ = a ditch. The ditch referred to is the Devil’s Dyke, a linear earthwork stretching between Barton and Beachamwell and possibly dating to the early Saxon period. Boughton was recorded as Buchetuna meaning a settlement belonging to Bucca. Beachamwell was recorded as Hekeswella and originated as ‘the spring at Bicca’s homestead’. Originally it was two distinct settlements - Bitcham and Wella. Wereham was recorded as Wigreham. Regarding the prefix, it’s thought perhaps the old name for the River Wissey was Wigor or Vigora, which was changed to Were as in Wereham. It’s awesome that we all live in places where people were going about their daily business more than a thousand years ago.

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