Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The magic of Dorset placenames!

I ask you, what other English county has such evocative village and town names as these:

Three Legged Cross
Gussage All Saints
Sixpenny Handley
Tollard Royal
Fifehead Magdalen
Melbury Abbas
Fontmell Magna
Iwerne Minster
Tarrant Gunville
Blandford Forum
Winterbourne Zelston
Melcombe Bingham
Bere Regis
Corfe Castle
Langton Matravers
East Creech
Chaldon Herring
Burton Bradstock
Shipton Gorge
Wynford Eagle
Toller Porcorum
Maiden Newton
Cerne Abbas
Melbury Bubb
Beer Hackett
Ryme Intrinseca
Whitchurch Canonicorum
Lyme Regis

And these are just the first names that occur to me. I could go on and on. They not only conjure up a mental image of picturesque rurality, these names have have a definite hint of magic about them, a bit like a chanting a spell. And quite a few actually live up to the imagined image of an ideal place in an ideal setting! All this said, it can't have been much consolation to underpaid agricultural workers in the nineteenth century to live in a village with a pretty name. One shouldn't forget that. But when I visited Melbury Bubb not two weks ago - a tiny hamlet on a dead-end road, comfortably nestling against a hill - I felt a tranquility and sense of deep history, and there was no suggestion of past rural unhappiness and poverty. The old church was neatly kept, and still relied on candles and oil lamps, with aluminium picnic plates behind each lamp to spread the light a bit more effectively on winter evenings...

Melbury Bubb's church is 'famous' for having a font with upside-down carvings of animals. But I was more intrigued by the oil lamps, and the briefest War Memorial plaque I can recall seeing:

Just two names. The First World War was notorious for stripping men from the countryside to fight in their county regiments. I've seen much longer lists of the fallen than this, even in quite small places. It just shows what a backwater this place has always been. And you do wonder how many people turn up for the services nowadays. It can't be more than a tiny handful; and yet the church and its grounds are so well-kept.

I rather think that Dorset has more placenames with 'Mel' in them than any other county. I certainly feel at home there, with my own name of Melford. But Devon has the first claim on my West Country loyalties.


  1. All the more poignant for its brevity. To die so young as so far from home. My great grandfather survived the trenches returning home with a leg full of Hun shrapnel.

  2. It would be interesting to know the origin of those place names. Probably many of them have come into being because of local pronunciations, for instance near to Southport is a place called Scarisbrick and it is pronounced Skaysbrick. Now although it is spelled 'Scarisbrick' it could have developed into the way it is pronounced. Another place is called Haskayne and is pronounced as written but is the spelling a corruption of the original way it was spoken? I would love to know how those names you listed developed as seen or are they just spelled the way they are uttered and if so where they never spelled any differently? Very interesting and very quaint, very English.....I love it.

    Shirley Anne x

  3. We are on holiday in Dorset soon - a week in a cottage near the delightfully named village of Drimpton. There's one more for your list!

  4. You missed the rude ones, the various Piddles and Shitterton just outside Bere Regis.


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