British History has been covered in many ways, on podcasts, documentaries, and blogs. But I want to look at things differently. I want to take the villages, towns and cities of Britain and Ireland, and talk about history through the eyes of the people living there. Who were they? What impact did each place have on these islands? What events happened in their streets?
In the old days, before Google Maps, you had to figure out your directions from a paper map. In the back of the map was an index with all the place names from A to Z, and you’d need to plan your route carefully as the map wouldn’t give you a time estimate or three different routes to get there. I’ve got my own road map of Britain, the AA 2014 Great Britain and Ireland map, from whose index of place names I will be working. Not every settlement in Britain is listed – a few small hamlets will be missed out, sadly, but there is plenty to be getting on with.
We travel this week to Abbots Morton, in the east of Worcestershire and close to the border with my home county of Warwickshire. The last time we were in Worcestershire we visited Abberton, and Abbots Morton is just a couple of miles north-east of there.
It is a quiet, picturesque, rural location, with a smattering of farms, houses, and a church. The name “Morton” comes from “More” meaning marshy, and “Tone” meaning settlement. And “Abbots” goes all the way back to the earliest records, when in 708 it was granted to the Abbey of Evesham (eve-sham).
The village of Abbotsley is situated in the ancient county of Huntingdonshire, which today is a part of Cambridgeshire. It is situated to the west of Cambridge, and south-east of the town of St Neots. Relative to the English east coast, head south-west from where the bulge of East Anglia heads north again.
Right, enough with the directions. It is a small, picturesque settlement, with whitewashed, thatched-roofed houses, a village green and a pub. Which could probably describe many of the English villages we’ll be visiting on our alphabetical tour.
The name “Abbotsley” sounds like it should have something to do with an abbey, but in fact the name has been twisted from the original Saxon. The earliest records we have, from the twelfth century, give the name as ‘Adboldesle’, meaning Eadbold’s clearing or Eadbold’s woodland. In the thirteenth century, other versions include ‘Abbodesle’ and ‘Abbotesley’.
The Domesday Book does not list Abbotsley as an independent settlement, but it probably existed as part of the lands of Countess Judith of Lens.
Another long episode for you all today, but unlike last week at Abbots Langley we’re visiting several different periods in British history. Hang onto your hats, people!
The pleasant, rural village of Abbots Leigh is situated on the west coast of England, south west of Bristol, and close by the banks of the River Avon. The area’s rich history dates back to the stone age, as evidenced by flints that have been discovered there.
Later on, iron age Britons constructed hill forts nearby – there’s Stokeleigh Camp at Leigh Woods, and Burwalls Camp and Clifton Down Camp on either side of the Avon Gorge where the Clifton Suspension Bridge now spans the river. The forts were inhabited from the 3rd Century BC to the 1st Century AD, when people moved out during the Romano-British period. Later, they returned to the hill forts, possibly due to the Roman departure from the islands. Pottery and coins have been found there.
Welcome to Hertfordshire, the English county immediately to the north of London. Our tour stop today is Abbots Langley, a village situated in-between three prominent towns in the area. There’s Watford to the south, St. Albans to the north east, and Hemel Hempstead to the north west. Abbots Langley is just inside the north eastern corner of the M25 motorway that surrounds Britain’s capital.
If it weren’t for one man, this village would be much like many of the other villages in England – quiet, peaceful, and nothing much ever happens there. But Nicholas Breakspear makes Abbots Langley a much more fascinating place, and most of this episode will be taken up with his life story.
You all are looking at me like “Isla, why are you doing three places in one episode?” Well, I’ll tell you. Sadly these places are all lacking in historical documentation. I’d absolutely love to tell you more, but I just can’t find anything. I hope you’ll appreciate what I did manage to find out.
Episode 19 – Abbots Deuglie, Perth and Kinross
Welcome back to Scotland, and the region of Perth and Kinross. The hamlet of Abbots Deuglie is about half-way between the two towns, and is home to a handful of people.
The hamlet is named ‘Abbot’ thanks to Cambuskenneth Abbey, to the south near Stirling. The monastery held land at Abbots Deuglie, so it must have been in existence prior to the Scottish reformation of the 1500s.
But in all my research I haven’t really found much information on this small place. Apart from the faint remnants of a stone circle, nothing of any historical interest or importance seems to have ever happened here. There isn’t even a website! And I don’t know how to pronounce Deuglie either, so feel free to mangle the name.
I imagine this must have been a small farming community, doing the same thing every day for hundreds and hundreds of years. Quiet, peaceful and hopefully happy.
Episode 20 – Abbotsham, Devon
And now that we’ve been in Scotland for a few minutes, let’s return all the way back to South West England and the county of Devon. Abbotsham is in the north west of Devon, very close to Bideford and Barnstaple. The village surroundings are mainly farmland, but it’s also part of the North Devon Heritage Coast of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Today we are back in the south of England, right on the coast in fact, just west of Weymouth, to visit the small village of Abbotsbury in the county of Dorset. The ‘Abbot’ part clearly indicates a religious house, and ‘bury’ is an alternative of the Anglo-Saxon ‘burh’ meaning a fortified place. English pronunciation of ‘bury’ sometimes gets shortened to a single sylable, but in this case it’s two. Today Abbotsbury caters for the many tourists who visit each year thanks to its fantastic location and history. Here’s a video of the location.
Nearly two hundred million years ago, the ‘Jurassic Coast’ was formed from the movement of the continents. Later, further geological events created the Ridgeway fault that runs across the north side of the village, continuing until it hits the coast again on the other side of Weymouth. The Jurassic Coast is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The most recent geological impact on the area was the end of the ice age, twenty million years ago, when a very visible, distinctive feature was created: Chesil Beach and The Fleet lagoon. Chesil Beach is a stretch of sand that runs from Abbotsbury for eighteen miles all the way along to Portland Harbour. The beach is separated from the mainland most of the way along by The Fleet, which is a shallow salty area connected to the sea only at Portland Harbour and when tidal conditions allow the water to come over the beach.
The village of Abbots Bromley has a long and interesting history, dating back to the earliest days of the Kingdom of England, and perhaps even earlier than that. It was a part of the region of Mercia – once a kingdom in its own right – whose capital was the nearby Tamworth. Today, Abbots Bromley can be found a short distance north of one of England’s biggest cities, Birmingham, and is in the county of Staffordshire.
The name ‘Bromley’ means ‘the clearing where the broom plants grow’, and there are a lot of English place names with ‘Bromley’ in them. Broom plants are thorny shrubs often with yellow flowers, which grow well in poor soil. And it is true that these plants are the origin of the word ‘broom’ to mean a tool for brushing and sweeping.
The earliest mention of Abbots Bromley is in 942. The King of England was Edmund I, the great-grandson of King Alfred the Great. We have record of three charters made in this year from Edmund to a Mercian nobleman called Wulfsige the Black, and in those charters Wulfsige was granted a lot of land around the Trent Valley including Abbots Bromley.
Good news, readers! We’re out of the abbeys and onto the abbots! Before you know it we’ll be done with A altogether! Hold on while I check my map index… Oh. Okay. Well, no holding back then.
Today’s first tour location is Abbotrule, a quiet hamlet in the region of Roxburghshire (Rocks-bu-ra-sheer), Scotland, not so far from the English border. It’s east of Hawick (Hoyk) and south-east of Jedburgh (Jed-bu-ra). The name comes from the Rule Water river, a tributary of the River Teviot (Tea-vee-ut). Other villages in the area are also named after the river, including Bedrule and Spittal-on-Rule.
Finding any information about Abbotrule outside or inside Wikipedia has been difficult, but it’s not such a quiet place as it first seems and won’t be beating Abberton, Essex to the UK’s least eventful village just yet.
On the west coast of England between Preston and Blackburn are a number of villages, and one of those is Abbey Village. This quiet English village was named ‘abbey’ due to its location close to Whalley Abbey – there is a track which goes between Whalley Abbey and the nearby Brinscall Hall.
Until the nineteenth century, this was a small rural community where nothing much of importance ever happened, except to those who lived there. But then the cotton industry arrived.
The western end of the border between England and Scotland is defined by the Solway Firth. This wide stretch of water points like an arrow towards Gretna Green, and it is the end point for a number of Scottish and English rivers. To the south-west of Greta the coast comes around a ninety-degree curve and then goes south towards Liverpool. But this quarter-circle segment is where we find Abbeytown, our next tour stop.
Today the land around Abbeytown is mostly fields, and fairly flat. But a thousand years ago the area was forested, and the small differences in height were enough for a marsh to develop. At high tide the marsh was covered in water and the areas that remained dry became islands, or in Norse ‘holms’ (the ‘l’ is silent and it’s pronounced ‘hohm’). The Norse had settled in this part of the world after they invaded Britain, and it would end up on the Danish side of the treaty line.
That being said, the Norse were long past by 1150, when the story of Abbeytown begins. The only thing that remains are their names. At the time, this area was under the control of Scotland, and for the next several-hundred years this would be the abbey’s biggest problem. Much as I would love to go into great detail about this, I’ll only cover the general picture here and get more in-depth as we navigate around Britain. Back in 1150, however, relations between England and Scotland were good.