On the naming of forts

Reconstruction of gatehouse at Alchester fort.


Finding names for places that are authentically ancient British is a patchy affair. Sometimes we know; sometimes we work it out; sometimes we haven’t a clue.

The ancient name for Cirencester (Roman Corinium) eluded me until a friend shouted across the allotments, ‘Linda! It’s Kyronion!’ He’d just read it in a recently published paper. (That’s Oxford allotments for you.)

In Chariot of the Soul one or two places refused to yield up their names, one of them Oxford itself. The same friend and neighbour had reliably informed me that, in Welsh, it is Rhydychen, something which thrilled me to the core until, a year or so later, I discovered this translates as ‘Ox Ford’ – in other words, it’s a back-formation, something Welsh does a lot.

I have found many ancient names from local features of the landscape, especially waterways, so I always investigate streams and brooks in the locality. (According to modern druids, it is a good idea to get to know your local water and its original name. It didn’t take me long to discover that the lake just up the road from my house was once known as ‘the gullet’). But ‘Thames’ and ‘Cherwell’ didn’t yield anything for Oxford – which anyway didn’t exist as a settlement at the time – and in the end I called it ‘Ford at Two Rivers’. Not very imaginative, I grant, but then ancient British names are far more prosaic than they sound now.

While I was working on Chariot, my friend and academic guide, Prof Martin Henig, became very excited about an excavation eight miles from here: Alchester fort, near Bicester. At the time, it did not feature in my story (not until the very end), but now, as I work on the sequel, I am very interested and I went to visit it a couple of weeks ago. Of course ‘it’ is a field; nevertheless, you can learn much from a situation.

Just a field…


‘Alchester’ is Saxon for ‘old fort’ and not something I can use as its name. In ancient sources it was referred to as Alauna, but this is now considered iffy, and, besides, has been claimed by the fort of Alcester in Warwickshire. So what do you call a fort? Martin gave me a couple of contacts, both archaeologists. I took a deep breath and wrote to both.

The response by email from the first was a visible spluttering and he suggested I might follow the wilder speculations of antiquarians to come up with some total fantasy name. As if… But he did give me a clue when he mentioned claims that nearby Ambrosden derives its name from Ambrosius Aurelianus. More nonsense of the antiquarians…

I turned to an excellent database of place names produced by Nottingham University, and it told me that ‘ambr’ means ‘yellowhammer’. ‘Don’ is easy enough. It comes from dun, or hill (usually fortified). It is because of this word that our southern uplands are called ‘the downs’ (in case you ever wondered).

So, close to the fort was Yellowhammer Hill. Nice. There was more. An embracing lane is called Langford, and with the help of an OS map I soon found out where the long ford once was. So the name, if you want to be particular, could have been ‘The fort at the long ford by Yellowhammer Hill’.

But it struck me that, as this fort was the first in Britain, begun in AD43-44, it was probably just called ‘the fort’, at least for a year or so. When there were other forts, it became ‘fort of the Second Legion.’ When the Second had other forts, it perhaps became ‘the fort of the Second at Yellowhammer Hill’. Perhaps. Anyway, this will do for my purposes.

The other academic’s response to my news that Alchester was to feature in a novel was, ‘Excellent!’  And he sent me sheafs of pdfs (what’s a collective noun for pdfs?). In return, I mentioned that the name of the stream running through the fort, which is ‘Gagle Brook’, means ‘basin in a stream’ – something the excavation actually found, perhaps some very ancient watering hole for wild animals. It would be nice to think that the relationship between novelists and academics could always be as symbiotic as this.

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