Wait for a train on any English platform for long enough, and you will see them: the train spotters.
They stand, usually in clothes which are utilitarian rather than the height of current fashion, waiting voraciously to devour each new number as it arrives at the platform.
Romanced by the figures billeted on every train, they wait for each train’s identity and slot it, lovingly, with endless care, into their notebooks.
It is a singular occupation which affords incredible pleasure to its prectitioners, though the rest of the world looks on, at best with baffled affection, at worst with puzzlement.
They are their own kind of icon.
I am told there are equivalent collectors outside the world of numbers.
They live here: for like bad weather, Britain has collected settlers and languages for millennia, and it is on this little set of islands that the tides of Roman, Celtic, Anglo Saxon and Old Norse crashed together to create the perfect storm.
I speak, of course, of the Toponymists. Those who collect not numbers, but place names.
Our place names here have a sort of code. You can begin to read it, if you but know how. Many old English words have retained their meaning. And there they sit,suffixes which say the same things they always have. Clif, comb, ende, forde, lande, sande, thorn: they tell us what that place has always been percieved as.
So Guildford- thought to be the original Shalot – was a ford across the River Wey, and its guild the golden sand which lined its banks. And Mudeford was the ford over the River Mude, in Christchurch, Dorset.
Like computer coding, knowledge of a few snatches of old English can help: tun means farm, or town; haga means hedge; burg – or bury– means fort. dün is hill, or down, and ëg ( which later becomes ey, as in Molesey or Witney) is island.
The Celtic names have their own rules. Like the Welsh llan, which seems to be attached to Welsh places with a church. And the Norman ones exude French, so that Beaulieu is simply “beautiful place”.
But if it were that simple, I wonder if people would bother collecting at all. Equipped with an idiot’s guide it is possible to hazard guesses at what a place name might mean, but the hard-core toponymist must have more up his or her sleeve than that.
First port of call is The Venerable Bede’s best sellerThe Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a Latin history completed in 731AD. Bede was a deep rooted toponymist. If anoraks had existed then I feel sure he would have posessed one, and a little notebook, to boot. His history, which extends from the landing of Julius Caesar to his present day, is full of explanations of place names and even translates them into Latin: Carlisle is referred to as “The city of Lugubalium, which is corruptly called by the English people Luel.”
Then there’s the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, and of course that encyclopaedic Domesday Book, though the latter’s scribes were French-speaking Normans and had a few problems with place names.
And like train spotters and their classes of locomotive, toponymists have their classes too. Some concentrate on ones from a particular language – Sacandanavian names in Scotland, for example – others focus on one county or region. Still others choose a theme – names linked to sheep, for instance, like Shipton, Skipton and Shepton; and here are purists who choose a feature like street-names or field-names to study.
Just writing about it makes me itch to take out a little notebook, and a map, and begin.
I wonder if it does the same for you?