Suffolk's quirky place names explained

Somerleyton

Somerleyton's village sign perfectly depicts its name, from Old English ‘tūn’, meaning ‘a farmstead or estate’ belonging to a man with an Old Scandinavian name ‘Sumarlithi’, or ‘summer traveller’- a warrior who went on Viking expeditions in the summer. - Credit: Adrian S Pye

Finding your way around Suffolk can turn into an adventure when you don't speak the lingo. Ask the way to Monewden (Mon-yew-den) and you're likely to be met with a blank stare and some head scratching

"Oh, you mean Monewden (Mon-den)," they'll say, as the penny drops. How about directions to Hoxne (Hox-en)? Or if you're hoping to get to Waldingfield, don't make the mistake of asking for Waldringfield. That rogue 'r' could land you on completely the wrong side of the county. 

All parts of Britain have their quirky place names, of course, and Suffolk - settled since the 5th century - is no different. Monks Eleigh-based historian A.D. Mills explores the topic in a new book Suffolk Place Names - Their Origins and Meanings. A.D. Mills is an Emeritus Reader in Medieval English at the University of London, a member of the Council of the English Place-Name Society and a member of the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland. 

He has spent years studying the origins and meanings of English place names, including those here in Suffolk. “Suffolk’s place names are the earliest recorded expression of its language and dialect,” he explains.

“Once their likely origins are explored and revealed, they yield important and fascinating glimpses into many aspects of Suffolk’s past, including its Romano-British legacy, its widespread colonisation from the 5th century onwards by Germanic tribes (mainly the Angles), its later Danish Viking settlements, its agricultural economy and its social history.”

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Here are a selection of Suffolk places names explained by A.D. Mills with the help of Suffolk historian and dialect specialist Charlie Haylock.

Ipswich   
“It possibly refers to the harbour or trading centre (taken from the Old English 'wīc') of a man with the personal name of ‘Gip’,” explains A.D. Mills. “Alternatively, ‘Gip’ could be from the Old English ‘gipe(s)’ or ‘gype’, meaning ‘opening gap’, referring to the wide estuary of the River Orwell. In the early days, ‘Gip’ was pronounced as ‘Yip’ with a soft ‘g’. The current spelling of Ipswich is first on record in the 13th century.” 

A fleet of dutch tall ships sailed into Ipswich marina.

Ipswich port - it's thought the town's name refers to the harbour or trading centre, taken from the Old English 'wīc'. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Prior to this, the settlement was recorded as ‘Gipes wic’ in a 993 version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Gipeswic’, ‘Gypeswiz’, and ‘Gepeswiz’. In a 12th century edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the town was called ‘Gipeswic’ and ‘Gypeswic’.

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Ipswich was originally pronounced as ‘Yipswich’, as A.D. Mills states, with a soft ‘g’, and it’s believed by some historians that when the Normans completed the Domesday Book and saw the letter ‘g’, they pronounced it as Gipperswick - hence the two pronunciations in the town today, for instance with Gippeswyck Park and Gippeswyck Road.  

Charlie has also seen maps as late at the 1700s showing Ipswich spelled as ‘Ypswich’.  

Felixstowe  
Records show that the seaside town was named ‘Filchestou’ in 1254, and ‘Filchestowe’ in 1291. But how did it evolve into Felixstowe? “This most likely came from the holy or assembly place (taken from the Old English word ‘stōw’) of a man called ‘Filicia’," explains A.D. Mills. "This is probably an anglicisation of St Felix, the first Bishop of East Anglia c.630-648 with whom of course the place is associated. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History c.731 mentioned this as the site where St Felix established his see. The current form of the place name does not appear until early 16th century, however."

The Welcome to Felixstowe sign on the dock roundabout

Felixstowe was once named ‘Filchestou’ and ‘Filchestowe’. - Credit: John Kerr

Alpheton   
This tiny village’s origins are in the 11th century according to A.D. Mills, who says: “This is one of the four Suffolk places named after an Anglo-Saxon female landowner. In this case, possibly associated with a known historical figure, a lady called Elflet or Alflet, who was mentioned in the Domesday Book as holding estates in this area in 1066.” The Old English word ‘tūn’ means ‘farmstead’ or ‘estate’. Previously recorded iterations of Alpheton include ‘Alfledetun’, ‘Alflede(s)ton’ and ‘Alfeton’.  

Beccles  
According to A.D. Mills, Beccles (bece), which could be a reference to its location on the River Waveney. “Alternatively, it could stem from the Celtic for ‘the little court’, from ‘bacc’ and ‘lïss’,” he adds. Beccles has previously been recorded as ‘Becles’ in the 1086 Domesday Book, and later in 1157 as Beclis.   

Beccles' village sign

Beccles combines the Old English word for ‘pasture’ (lǣs) with the word ‘stream’. - Credit: Suffolk County Council

Dallinghoo  
Just outside Woodbridge, the village of Dallinghoo has previously been called ‘Dallingahou’ and ‘Delingahou’ in the 1086 Domesday Book, and ‘Dalingeho’ in 1150. It is thought the Old English name means the ‘hill spur (hōh) of the family or followers (inga) of a man with the personal name of ‘D(e)all’. “The Old English word for ‘hill spur’ - ‘hōh’ - also appears in the derivation of Culpho, Hoo Green, Iken(ho), Wixoe, and of course the world-famous Sutton Hoo,” adds Charlie.  

Woolpit  
Woolpit was once referred to as ‘Wlpit’ in a 13th century copy of an Anglo-Saxon charter dated c.1000. It was then later called ‘Wlfpeta’ in the 1086 Domesday Book, and ‘Wulpettas’ in the 11th century. “The name comes the Old English ‘wulf-pytt’, which means ‘the pit(s) for trapping wolves,” explains A.D. Mills. This can be seen referenced on Woolpit’s village sign, which depicts a wolf.

Bury St Edmunds   
Suffolk's cathedral town has had a few names over the centuries. ‘Byrig’ was first recorded in a 1035 Anglo-Saxon will, and later ‘Sancta Eadmundes Byrig’ in 1038. “The fortified town, or ‘byrig’ in Old English, is associated with St Ēadmund, the 9th century king of the East Angles who was killed by the Danish Vikings in 869.

"He quickly became revered as a martyr, and his remains were brought to a small monastery here in 870, hence the reference to ‘Sanctæ Eadmundes stow’ in an 11th century copy of an Anglo-Saxon charter,” explains A.D. Mills. “This is another case of where the ‘g’ was pronounced softly as a ‘y’, so ‘byrig’ is pronounced as ‘birry’,” adds Charlie.

Dallinghoo's village sign

Dallinghoo - the Old English word for ‘hill spur’ - ‘hōh’ - also appears in other Suffolk place names. - Credit: Simon Parker

Ramsholt  
The village on the River Deben was once ‘Ramesholt’ in the 1086 Domesday Book, and later ‘Ramisholt’ in 1291. “Its name most likely refers to the wood or thicket (‘holt’ in Old English) where wild garlic grew (‘hramsa’ in Old English),” explains A.D.  

Eye  
This market town’s origins go all the way back to 1086, when it was first called ‘Eia’ in the 1086 Domesday Book, and later ‘Eye’ in 1103. Its name comes from the Old English ‘ēg’, which means ‘the place at the island of dry or higher ground in a marshy area’. 

“This is another example of where the ‘g’ was pronounced softly as a ‘y’, as in ‘Yipswich’ (Gipeswic). In this case, ‘ēg’ is pronounced ‘eye’. Even today, there are many words in the English language where the ‘g’ is pronounced as a ‘y’, such as ‘reign’, ‘eight’, ‘neighbour’, ‘night’, and ‘align’,” explains Charlie. “Ēg also appears in the derivations of Bawdsey, Bungay, Campsea Ashe, Kersey, Lindsey, Nayland and Thorney Green.”  


Woolpit village sign

Woolpit's sign depicts a wolf referring to its name meaning a pit for trapping wolves. - Credit: Mark Bullimore

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The Viking influence

“In the 8th and 9th century, the east coast was constantly being attacked by Scandinavian pirates. But towards the end of the 800s, they decided to try and venture inland to settle, which they did with great success,” explains Charlie. 

“The land of the East Angles was attacked in 869 by the Great Army of the Danes - later to be known as the Vikings. This is when King Edmund was killed, and the East Angles succumbed to the Danish warlord Guthrum and became part of his kingdom.

“Danish settlements sprung up in many Suffolk locations, and in 885 Alfred the Great led a successful sea battle off Shotley Gate against the Danes, which has given rise to the name Bloody Point on the Shotley Peninsula.

"After this battle, the Danelaw was agreed in 886 and England was divided roughly into two sections - one to be controlled by the English, and the other by the Danes. Suffolk ended up in the Danelaw, hence why we have so many Suffolk place names and dialect words with Viking roots.”

Lowestoft   
England’s most easterly point, Lowestoft's origins can be traced to the 11th century, as A.D. Mills explains. “Lowestoft comes from the Old Scandinavian word ‘toft’, which means ‘homestead settlement’, belonging to a man called Hlothervér. This was then recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Lothu Wistoft’, and later as Lothewistoft in 1212,” he says. 

“From the history of the various spellings of Lowestoft, one can quite easily see why even today, there are two pronunciations of the town - ‘Lowstoft’ and ‘Lowerstoft’, and perhaps even a third, ‘Lowstof’. It is interesting to note that the ‘Scores’ in Lowestoft, a series of narrow lanes and steep pathways from the High Street down to the shore derives from the Old Scandinavian word ‘skora’, which means to make an incision, or in this case, cutting into the cliffs,” adds Charlie.  

Barnby village sign

Barnby's name probably means ‘the farmstead belonging to a man with an Old Scandinavian name of either Barni or Bjarni'. - Credit: Adrian S Pye

Ashby  
The name of this tiny village on the Suffolk-Norfolk border is derived from the Old Scandinavian word ‘bý’, meaning ‘farmstead settlement or estate’, and the Old Scandinavian word ‘askr’, or even the Old English word ‘æsc’, which both mean ‘where ash trees grow’. “It was recorded in 1198 as ‘Aschbi’, and in 1254 as ‘Askeby’,” says A.D. Mills.

Barnby  
“The name of this village most likely means ‘the farmstead belonging to a man with an Old Scandinavian name of either Barni or Bjarni,” suggests A.D. Mills. It has also been recorded in the Domesday Book as both ‘Barnebei’ and ‘Barneb’. 

Eyke's village sign

Eyke's name means ‘(the place at) the oak tree’, from the Old Scandinavian word for oak, ‘eik’. - Credit: Geograph

Eyke   
Recorded in 1185 as ‘Eik’, and in 1270 as ‘Eyk’, this village’s

This can be seen referenced on the settlement’s village sign, which features an oak tree on the left-hand side.

Lound  
“Recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Lunda’, and later in 1254 as ‘Lund’, Lound in north Suffolk comes from the Old Scandinavian word ‘lundr’, which means ‘a small wood or grove’,” explains A.D. Mills. Also located within Lound is Lound Lakes, a 280-acre nature reserve comprised of woodland, open water, grassland and fen meadows.  

Lound's village sign

Lound - from the Old Scandinavian word ‘lundr’, which means ‘a small wood or grove’. - Credit: Adrian S Pye

Risby  
According to A.D. Mills, this west Suffolk village’s name comes from the Old Scandinavian words ‘bý’ and ‘hris’, meaning ‘the farmstead or village among the brushwood’. "It’s worth noting that these Viking settlements have very simple descriptive derivations. The spelling variations of many English place names and words, through the passage of time, is due to the fact we have never had any official standard in the English language and in English spelling,” adds Charlie.

Thwaite  
“This settlement’s name comes from the Old Scandinavian ‘thveit’, meaning ‘a woodland clearing, a meadow or a paddock’,” explains A.D. Mills. Thwaite has previously been recorded as ‘Theyt’ in 1228, and in the 13th century as ‘Thueyt’ and ‘Tweyt’. "From the 13th century spelling ‘Tweyt’, it’s easy to see why it’s still pronounced today by many locals as ‘twate’,” adds Charlie. 

Interestingly, ‘Thwaite’ is also commonly used as a suffix for a number of place names across the North West of England and Yorkshire. There are around 80 examples in Cumberland, 40 in Lancashire, and 30 in the North Riding.

Risby

Risby, from the Old Scandinavian words ‘bý’ and ‘hris’, meaning ‘the farmstead or village among the brushwood’. - Credit: Adrian S Pye

Somerleyton  
This Suffolk village, not far from outside Lowestoft, has been recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Sumerledetuna’ and as ‘Sumerletun’ by about 1185.  
“Its name comes from the Old English word ‘tūn’, meaning ‘a farmstead or estate’ belonging to a man with an Old Scandinavian name ‘Sumarlithi’. This is a byname meaning ‘summer traveller’, and denotes a warrior who went on Viking expeditions in the summer,” explains A.D. Mills.

"Somerton, north west of Long Melford, has exactly the same derivation as Somerleyton, and originally had the same spelling, but through the ages got abbreviated to Somerton,” adds Charlie. 

Other place names across Suffolk with Viking connections include Wickham Skeith, Minsmere, all the villages with ‘thorp(e)’ in the name, Thingoe, Bildeston, Drinkstone, Kettlebaston, Thrandeston, Westleton, Carlton, Coney Weston, Ilketshall, Kirkley and Kirton. 

“As you can see, the Vikings had a great influence in the Suffolk dialect, and many words we use today derive from Old Scandinavian,” says Charlie.  

Some examples include:
Ranny – a shrew, from the Old Scandinavian word ‘rani’ meaning ‘a snout’. ‘Ranny’ is also a Suffolk nickname for someone with a long nose.  
Rove – the scab on a partially healed sore, from the Old Scandinavian word ‘ruva’.  
Sarnick – to dawdle, from the Old Scandinavian word ‘seinka’, meaning to walk slowly.  
Stroop – the gullet or windpipe, from the Old Scandinavian word ‘strupe’. Strupe is also the Swedish word today for ‘throat’. The ‘oo’ in stroop is pronounced as in ‘foot’.  
Dag – the morning dew, which comes from the Old Scandinavian word ‘dagg’. Dagg is also the Swedish word today for ‘dew’.  
Groop – a gulley dug out from the grass verge for carrying off water into the ditch. This comes from the Old Scandinavian word ‘grop’, meaning ‘open water course’. The ‘oo’ in groop is pronounced as in ‘foot’.  
Marram – mat grass found on the shore, from the Old Scandinavian word ‘maralmr’.  
Tittymatawter - a see-saw. This is derived from the Old Scandinavian word ‘tittermatorter’. Children in years gone by when playing on a see-saw would chant “Tittymatawter, ducks in the water, Tittymatahta, geese come after.”  

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