In 1982, when I was a mere sixteen years of age, I read a book that really did change my life.
It wasn’t a classic like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, it didn’t keep me up all night and day and night again like War and Peace, it didn’t have me dreaming of grandeur like The Great Gatsby or feeling awkward like Lolita, or harking back like Middlemarch or Wuthering Heights.
No, this was a book that had me staring out of the car window every time my parents drove me and my brother anywhere, walking through fields with an eye to contour not cow pats, and endlessly searching the places we passed to see if I could glean ancestral and cultural etymological meaning from their names.
I was a fun teenager to be around, I can tell you.
The book was titled Lost Villages of Britain and was written by the enigmatic, debonair, adventurous, and fearless history detective Richard Ernest Muir.
Of course, I really knew nothing whatsoever about Muir, which is why to me, and maybe the three or four other people that also read his book, he could be a superhero.
Every chapter was a treasure, listing long-lost names of abandoned settlements, deserted medieval villages, disappeared boroughs, lost counties, lonesome churches, ancient remains and recently departed towns. The fact that the majority of these were down to a lack of antibiotics and sheep took nothing away from the mystery.
And at the very end, when Muir had taken me on his ghost train of phantasmagoric Britain, he told me exactly how to read the landscape. But he didn’t stop there, because he actually wrote a book called Reading the Landscape as a companion to the Lost Villages, and off I went, never to look back.
Well, actually that’s in chapter 11 I think, ‘always look back as you're walking’, because you get a sense of movement along a hollow-way or around an earthwork you couldn’t see earlier.
But you get the point.
My first find was the lost village of Gobions, of which remained just a single arch at the end of a cul-de-sac in suburban England. Aerial photographs showed clearly the parch marks in the fields around it, and so I proudly wrote about this, all the history I could find, and described its location.
And, when I had the chance I decided to study this, and in particular, landscape archeology, just like Richard Muir, and like, it turned out in 1994, Stewart Ainsworth, who soon became the resident Muiresque figure on the British archaeology show Time Team, striding long-legged over hills and summits, along medieval lanes and Roman roads, and traipsing through the fields that once housed long, lost villages, as he made sense of a shadow world visible only by the means given to us by pioneers like Muir.
Along with the exploration of the landscape, came the study of place names, just as I’d done in the back of an Austin Princess as my father, nicknamed the ‘automatic pilot’ for his sparkling conversation during these silent sojourns, drove us to our destination, and my mother, whose utter hatred of in-vehicle music left only I-Spy to keep us from swallowing the ashtray, pointed out the fascinating sights, like a weather vane or a pregnant horse.
Where I live now, many lifetimes later it seems, are villages that have grown and shrunk, shifted and disappeared, but the names often remain, and in particular ones ending in by, meaning farm or settlement, or the place of, like Grimsby (Grims farm), or Rigsby (place of Odin, of whom Rig is a nickname) or Calceby.
That last one, by the way, is one of the best preserved lost villages I’ve seen, with earthworks that clearly define the old village and its buildings and thoroughfares. My son and I search these out when he stays, much to the chagrin of farmers who always seem to be terribly frightened of two nerds in walking boots looking at bumps in the ground.
Places though, as well as being named for early settlers, like these Vikings, can also be named for the topographical features they encompass or are built on or near.
If you ever been to North West London, or studied a road map of said city you may have come across a three-kilometre road that is the A1 carriageway through the borough of Islington in the heart of the capital. It’s called the Holloway Road, because it was, at one time, though most of the people tracking up and down it to buy lottery tickets or attend church or eat bad pies (in which sentence I feel I've captured an entire nation) are unaware, a hollow-way. A shallow ditch that was a road, and a river, and often a receptacle of effluent and deceased animals, of garbage and offal.