Hunts place-names – The Fens

Happy Easter Monday, everyone! Those of you who had today off work, I hope you made the most of it, and those of you who did not, I hope you were well fuelled by chocolate. Or religion. Or both.

This is part of my little mini series on a sample of Huntingdonshire place-names, where I look at what they were originally named and discuss what this could mean about the area (for example, what was farmed there?) or the people living there (who were they?).

(Catch up with part 1part 2part 3  and part 4 or browse my whole place-names tag)

Today I’m going to be introducing you to several place-names in the area of Huntingdonshire (and other counties) called The Fens which discuss notable landscape and environment features.

An acquaintance of mine has an excellent podcast about the myths and creepy stories around the fens, so you should check it out here, or search Fencast on Twitter!

  • Ramsey – Garlic Island

I discussed Ramsey yesterday in the plants section, so just to remind everyone:

Earliest spelling: Hramesege from roughly the year 1000. It’s made up of two Old English words: hramsa, ‘garlic’, and e.g. for ‘island’.

“Island” as you might have guessed is the word of interest here. This didn’t necessarily mean that everywhere around Ramsey at the time was underwater, since it could also mean an area of land which was higher than everywhere surrounding it. Given that the Fens are incredibly low-lying, both interpretations are possible.

© Copyright  David Deardenand licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

You can see from the little lane just to the right hand side of this picture that the land where Ramsey Abbey sits, which presumably was the first and most central part of the settlement, was raised from the Fens surrounding it.

If anyone does know the inundation state of the lands around Ramsey, do let me know! In the meantime it’s on my list of things to research.

  • Holme – Island

The fancy word for this type of name is simplex


because it only has one element. That element is from Old Norse (finally, it’s not Old English!!) and it’s holmr. It means almost exactly the same as Old English eg for Ramsey, so, island/dry ground in marsh. It probably wasn’t hard to be raised higher than the surrounding lands, since according to a bit of Googling the Holme Fens contains the lowest point in the whole of the UK. Wikipedia says that it is 2.75 metres (9.0 ft) below sea level. I can’t find a decent map of the area which shows land levels, which is really annoying.

  • Fenton – Fen Farm

This tiny settlement near Ramsey  was first recorded in 1236 as Fentun. Pretty simple here, it’s Old English fenn and Old English tun. The interesting thing is that several of my sources query what exactly fenn meant. One just calls it an area specific dialect term for  marshy ground. Given that the entire area for miles around is marshy, and that this settlement is tiny so probably didn’t have huge importance (look at me and my generalising without evidence; I’d be shot for this at uni), why this settlement was actually named fenn is unknown. Mystery!

  • Fenstanton

Another fenn name! This one interesting for a slightly different reason. So, we’ve got the settlement first recorded in 1012 as Stanton and then over 200 years later in 1260 as, Fenstanton. Fenn + stan for stone + tun, which as we’ve seen many times before in this series means farm or enclosure. I think this may actually be the least changed name I’ve ever come across.

It’s not quite the puzzle of Fenton because this place wasn’t named for fenn. We can clearly see in the recorded names that it was called Stanton first and only had the Fen added on much later.

I’m still intrigued though as one of the points from above still basically stands – why would you add a prefix which means marshy to a name in an area which is overwhelmingly marshy? Names are meant to distinguish settlements from each other! What did fenn mean??

Fun fact, the first person I’ve found with the surname or byname (see here for the difference between the two) Fen is “Willielmus de Fenbrig”, who was in a list of fines. Tut, tut. Piqued my interest though – there’s no modern place-name I can find called Fenbridge. Lost place-name?? Does anyone know of a street or field with a name like this?

  • Morborne – Marsh River

This tiny village near Yaxley is first recorded in an almost identical form: Morburne in 1086 (Domesday Book again). This is made from OE mor which means ‘marsh’ combined with OE burna. People of a Scottish persuasion might be able to figure out that second element without being told – yup, I’m pretty sure that word is the direct ancestor of Scots “burn” for stream. In an Old English context, a burna was used for a small waterway which wasn’t big enough to be called ea ‘river’.

In conclusion, every post I come up with new questions! When this daily challenge is over I will have a lot of material for future research, that’s for certain.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment, pass it on to anyone with fabulous local knowledge, or just ‘like’ it on social media. See you tomorrow!

Hunts place-names – The Fens

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