February “fill-dyke” is a good month to stay indoors and avoid the slush and sogginess outside. The topic I have chosen for today’s article can be contemplated indoors and concerns the plants and animals which feature in place names. Some can be obvious; a name such as Ferny Hill needs no explanation. This hillside area of Orleton lies just beneath Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s Hanley Dingle Nature Reserve. Known for its undisturbed protection of damp-loving ferns and fungi, this wood was once memorably described by David Bellamy as “Worcestershire’s own rain-forest”. Similarly, May Hill in Knighton-on-Teme takes its name from hawthorn blossom, those creamy clusters of flowers which billow into the landscape every May.
Other names are less obvious. The village of Rock is not situated on a cliff but is named from a contraction of the old words “therAck”, meaning the oak. Once, a great oak tree stood there, from which the settlement took its name. Other ancient oaks formerly in the vicinity were Augustine’s Oak at Abberley, the Nunupton Oak at Nunupton west of Tenbury, and the most-recently demised Mawley Oak at the junction of the road from Clows Top to the Cleobury to Bewdley road. Another oak-derived name is Ockeridge, a place just south of Little Witley, which means oak ridge and another ridge, this time of lime trees, is reflected in the parish name of Lindridge.
Trees are not the only plants to end up in place names. Ramsons, also known as wild garlic, feature in the name of Romsley. A ley was a woodland clearing and this parish, which I mentioned in my Clent Hills article last month, can be translated as “woodland clearing of wild garlic”. The plant loves to grow alongside stream-edges and when the stream flows through a wood the enclosed space makes the smell of the leaves very noticeable. Maybe those pilgrims trudging to St Kenelm’s church noted the smell and gave the place its name.
Animals and birds appear too. Bevere Island, the island in the Severn just north of Worcester where the city-dwellers once retreated to avoid invasion and plague, derives its name from the beaver. Beavers last lived in the wild in the sixteenth century but they have recently returned as their damming activities may prove important for flood-management. Another recent re-introduction is the crane, a bird having many place name associations. The Cornbrook, the Teme tributary that starts below the Clees and runs into the Teme near the Peacock at Boraston, takes its name from these birds. How many cranes there were historically is the subject of discussion, some people claim the term to refer to herons, but thirteenth century royal banquets certainly mentioned them. At Henry III’s Christmas dinner in 1251, 115 were apparently eaten, amongst other rich fare no doubt.
Finally, there’s my favourite – the pine marten – apparently once so common in Martley that its name has been immortalised for ever. If you want to find out more about this fascinating subject I can recommend Worcestershire author Mike Jenkins’ new book, “The History of Place Names in England and Worcestershire.”