Culture

Review: Ar Drywydd Enwau Lleoedd is a fascinating collection tracing the origins of Welsh place-names

30 Aug 2021 6 minutes Read
Ar Drywydd Enwau Lleoedd

Jon Gower

This book is both a gift and a tribute to the scholar Gwynedd Pierce, who celebrates his 100th birthday this year.  It contains 20 articles, some in Welsh, some in English, about place names in the country, written by fellow academics and enthusiasts who all clearly share Professor Pierce’s dedication to the sort of detective work necessary to properly trace origins and meanings.  As he himself warns, you cannot ‘pontificate on what you see in front of you today, you have to go back and collect all of the old forms. It’s difficult, but you have to go to all manner of documents.  It takes hours, days, months…’

This is evident in Pierce’s own article on Y Waun Ddyfal area of Cardiff which takes us, darkly to Gallowsfield, a place of execution still in use in 1793 and intriguingly not far from Cutthroats Field. It also takes us back to a time when City Road, before its current name – given to celebrate Cardiff’s status as a city – was Hewl-y-plwca or Plwcca Lane, having also been incarnated as Castle Road after the nearby ‘castle’ in Roath.

A good example of the same sort of painstaking diligence is evident in David Parsons’ exploration of names found on deeds in the Oswestry area, just over the border in England, dating back to the period between 1330 and 1430.  They provide rich material indeed, including include ‘Wern yr heer deer’ from gwern yr hirdir, the ‘marsh or moor by the long land’ being a compound name common in the area and indeed across the border into adjoining parts of Wales where, say, surdir is used for ‘sour, acidic land’ and llindir for flaxland.

Flemish settlers

The essays range widely over the map of Wales and indeed beyond, from the street names of Aberaeron, Caernarfon and Cardiff. There is also a taste of the linguistic soup of Scotland, where no fewer than seven languages meld and mix and accounts of the presence of the Welsh language on the maps of Ireland. We find out about the connections between Penarth in south Wales with no fewer than 11 places in Cornwall, and the way in which Flemish settlers baptised places as geographically distant as south Pembrokeshire and Upper Clydesdale in Scotland.

On these essay-journeys of detection there are many delights along the way, such as the two cottages near Talley called ‘Llety’r Dwrgi’ and ‘Gochel Foddi’ (‘Otter’s Home’ and ‘Beware of Drowning), or places such as Tyllgoed or Tollddar, which are evidence of bee-hunting, or honey hunting where holes were bored in trees to promote their use by these benign insects. Indeed, wildlife is mapped in many names, from the kite that flies through the name Kittle to the buzzard or bwncath that may be present in Pool Bidder on Gower. Not to mention the woodcock, the deftly camouflaged game bird that hides away in the name Waun Fflogyn, a field at the base of Tryfan in Snowdonia.

The name-hunters themselves are a fascinating crew.  One of the most prominent of them, Melville Richards amassed almost a third of a million slips of place-name information, which fortunately have now been digitised and represent one of the most important resources in this field of study.  The antiquarian and archivist John Hobson Matthews is profiled by Dylan Foster Evans, who tells us how this lawyer who taught himself Welsh wrote about names for the local press, much as Gwynedd Pierce did with his weekly columns for the Western Mail.

Matthews, writing in the South Wales Daily News, has an account of a picturesque stone bridge and nearby homes in the Roath area, noting his concern that ‘when the fairies were finally scared away by the contractor who laid our Roath Park, this old bridge, this pretty lane, and most of the village disappeared for ever, and the name Pont-y-llechau vanished with them, unless it be preserved by the Ordnance Map and in the memory of a few aged natives of the locality.’ And of course there’s Gwynedd Pierce himself, who turns out to have been a bit of a pioneer sports broadcaster as one reads Dei Tomos’ affectionate vignette of a man who would spend his weekdays lecturing in Welsh and History and his weekends translating match reports, often under extreme pressure, for the BBC.

Snake-fighter

An interesting trio of names for cottages in north Ceredigion is discussed by Angharad Fychan in her contribution to the book, being Gochel Gwympo, Gochel Boddi and Gochel Dwmlo, names which suggest one should beware of, respectively, falling, drowning and tumbling. These carry an echo of elements in myth, such as one about a man in the Conwy Valley going to fight a serpent on a high cliff after being assured by a local wizard that he would not be harmed unless he was bitten by the snake, then broke his neck and finally drowned. The unfortunate snake-fighter believes he cannot possibly suffer all three misfortunes but, as tends to happen in such stories, he is first struck by the snake, then breaks his neck as he falls head-over-heels before finally drowning in the river below.

This book manages to deftly mix academic essays with brisk accounts of such things as the history of standardising place-names in Wales and indeed that of the Welsh Place Name Society itself, which has produced this volume. Collectively they serve to remind us of the cornucopia of names that pepper the map, and the time-intensive processes of finding out what they mean, even if some meanings will be forever elusive, lost in the Celtic mists of time.

This book is a fine and fitting festschrift to a man who has done more than most to ensure that the study of Welsh place-names be placed on a sure footing. We should join all of the contributors in wishing him many happy returns, even as we thank him for so many years spent under archive light and poring over ancient documents on our behalf. Penblwydd hapus iawn.

Ar Drywydd Enwau Lleoedd is published by Y Lolfa.  You can buy a copy here…

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arthur owen
25 days ago

I remember a time when this would have been published by the University of Wales Press.

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
25 days ago
Reply to  arthur owen

And when reported by the BBC, would say. This is a book was written in Celtic. Anyway, I’m off to cool down in Bala Lake

Stephen Owen
Stephen Owen
25 days ago

Diddorol iawn, da iawn 😊

Wrexhamian
Wrexhamian
24 days ago

Excellent. Any research that contributes to the body of knowledge on Welsh place names should be encouraged..

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