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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Black places

Penny Drayton

Those 'fundamentalist ley hunters' who swear oaths on copies of Alfred Watkins' The old straight track and can cite chapter and verse for the most obtuse observations therein will be well aware that he makes many references to place-names with the word 'black' or 'blake' in them.

The prophet of aligned site studies writes: '"Black" is one of the abundant place-name elements and . . . occurs both in the "high places" and at all track points' [1]. He cites numerous examples and then proceeds to examine the origins of the word 'black'. When he looked up the word in the New English dictionary he found it was said to be a 'word of difficult history', apparently deriving from the Old English blake and blac which, even in Anglo-Saxon days did not mean 'without light' but 'shining, white, pale'; indeed the root words for our 'bleach' and 'bleak'.

He goes on to see an association between 'black' place-names, particularly hills, and beacon fires which would at one time have brightened their summits. As with 'red' and 'white' place names, they rarely seem to derive from local colouring. Indeed, Watkins sees 'white' place-name elements as being associated with traditional (and perhaps exceedingly ancient) salt ways.

While this origin for 'white' place-names has not been seriously contested, much debate has raged over the years about 'black' place-names. Even Watkins, in The old straight track openly retracted his views of a few years earlier which appeared in Early British trackways [2], where he had suggested that they were sites of early iron working.

Two decades prior to Watkins the pioneer place-names scholar, W.H. Duignan, had noted that there was an ancient farm known as Black Lees about three miles south-west of Cannock. He states that 'Land covered with gorse and heath was locally called black land, as distinguished from cultivated land' [3]. He goes on to describe 'Blake Street', which was 'the name of an ancient road forming a portion of the boundary between the parishes of Shenstone and Sutton Coldfield, and the [then] counties of Stafford and Warwick.' Duignan considers that 'blake' has the same meaning as 'black'. The country around Blake Street was heath until the mid-eighteenth century and therefore 'black land'. He notes that another ancient road, also called Blake Street, once a portion of the great London to Chester road, formerly went over Cannock Chase between Brownhills and Hednesford and formed a manorial boundary. In 1300 it was written 'Blake streete'; in 1595 'Black street'; it was surround by uncultivated land.

Watkins seems unaware of Duignan's earlier observations; had he been I feel sure he would have cited these 'Blake Streets' as support of his trackways theory, although I suspect he may have disputed the etymology.

However, discussions on the origins of the 'black' place-names have recently resurfaced in the pages of Current archaeology (as has been noted in the 'Outlines' section of recent issues of Mercian Mysteries). This started when Ruth Richardson published a letter [4] stating that she was researching field names in Herefordshire (strong synchronicity here, as this was Watkins' home) that could be indicators of Roman sites. These tend to leave distinct discoloration of the soil; indeed, in France Roman sites are known as terres noires. Richardson suggested that Blackwardine and a blacklands field name in Lugwardine both linked with known Roman settlements. Preliminary enquiries revealed similar examples in Gloucestershire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire.

The following issue brought a response from Kenneth Jermy [5] to the effect that in Cheshire there is a connection between 'black' and Roman roads. A well-attested Roman road in Willaston in Wirral (part of which is now known as Street Hey lane) was known in medieval times as 'Blake Street'. Another road in Saighton, near Chester, is probably Roman too and adjoining fields are named the 'Black Streets'.

Then a flurry of contradictory correspondence was published in the next issue [6]. David Sherlock pointed out the meaning of the Old English blac as 'pale. shining' and suggested links with French blanc. He even speculated that the Black Death turned people white and the Black Prince was a knight in shining armour. R.J. Penhey drew upon the Oxford English Dictionary and also noted that in the Lincolnshire fens there was a Blake Creek in Morton Fen where the creek's silt would have shown pale against the surrounding peat. He tentatively suggests that the metalling of some Roman roads stood out similarly against their surroundings.

In the same issue Sheila McGregor observed that the Gaelic word for cows is bleachd and, in Perthshire, 'black mail' was mail or rent paid in the form of cattle, i.e. 'cow rent'. Perhaps, she suggests, 'black' roads were drovers' routes.

Some issues later, Carole Biggam refutes her idea [7] as the rare use of Gaelic in English place-names is attributable to tenth century settlement from Ireland - too early for the cattle drovers. She asserts that the Old English blaec can mean either 'black' or 'dark' and cites the opinions of the author of the English Place-Name Society volume for Cheshire, J. McN. Dodgson, regarding the Willaston and Saighton Blake Streets. He interprets them as a 'black, perhaps dirty, paved road'. Biggam also avers that blac, meaning 'pale', is rare in place-names and that any apparent associations with French blanc are coincidental.

This brings us up to date but seems to have brought us little further forward from Watkins' own uncertain attributions. Perhaps he was wrong to link black hills with OE blac (pale, shining) but OE blaec (dark, black) is an equally valid description of a beacon site. Or should Duignan's overlooked remarks about 'black land' being uncultivated be given much greater prominence? A final verdict seems unlikely for some time. It is interesting, nevertheless, that a number of obscure 'black' place-names have been revealed in the process.


1: A. Watkins, The old straight track, Methuen, 1925, p79.
2: A. Watkins, Early British trackways, moats, mounds, camps and sites., Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co,. 1922.
3: W.M. Duignan, Notes on Staffordshire place names, Henry Frowde, 1902, p16.
4: R. Richardson, 'Does dark earth = black?', Current archaeology No.130, p439.
5: K. Jermy, '"Black" and Roman sites', Current archaeology No.131, p479.
6: D. Sherlock, 'Black = white?'; R.J. Penhey, 'Black = bright?'; S. McGregor, 'Black = cows', Current archaeology No.132, p511.
7: C. Biggam, 'Black is black after all', Current archaeology No.135, p118-9.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.18 February 1994

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Created April 1996; updated November 2008