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Black Placenames

Black Placenames
Think of the word ‘black’ and you will be hard pressed to come up with anything that does not have dark, evil, sinister or menacing associations; blackmail, black arts, black ops, blackball, Black Friday, Black Death, blacklist, black mark, black market, black sheep, etc. The very colour is synonymous with death and morning in most European cultures, again suggestive of sombre connections. The actual word comes from Old English blæc which means amazingly black or dark and in some contexts ink, incidentally the earliest prehistoric art yet found was painted in black. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following description of the word:

Etymology: Cognate with Middle Dutch blac ink, Old Saxon blac ink (Middle Low German blak ink, black dye, black colour), Old High German blah- (only in blah-faro of the colour of ink, blah-mal niello decoration (Middle High German blach-mal ), blah-malon to decorate with niello); further etymology uncertain; on formal grounds the word could be from a base related to the Germanic bases of blank adj. and the various forms discussed at blik v., but since this would give an expected meaning ‘shining, white’ there is an obvious semantic difficulty; many have sought to resolve this by hypothesizing that the word meaning ‘black’ originated as a past participle (with the meaning ‘burnt, blackened’) of a verb meaning ‘to burn (brightly)’ derived from this base; this verb may perhaps be reflected by Middle Dutch blaken (Dutch blaken) to flame, to burn.”

 

To some people Dartmoor has a black menacing appearance with many dark and sinister places which if you use the above suggestion is easily brought about by looking at the Ordnance Survey map. There are many, many locations that have the ‘black’ descriptive place-name prefix element attached to them. For instance – Black Hole, does that sound a welcoming place? Possibly the ‘Blackhole of Calcutta’ also springs to mind? Black Dunghill, is that a place you would relish the thought of visiting? The Dark Lake, one might be forgiven for thinking it’s a location from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ but no it can be found on Dartmoor.

Ok, enough of the dramatics, there is a much more agreeable reason why so many places on Dartmoor are ‘black’ and that is quite simply in some instances thanks to the presence of peat. Well, I use the term ‘pleasant’ loosely because it’s not so pleasing if you find yourself hip deep in a ‘black’ peat bog. Blackwood is an old Dartmoor term sometimes used to describe the peat which was cut for fuel, Hemery, p.23. It may well derive from the fact that in the deeper peat deposits can be found the remains of ancient trees that are literally jet black? Therefore it was quite logical to describe such landscape features where peat occurs as being ‘black,’ be they downs, hills, fens, or moorland tracks used for transporting peat or peat workers. Crossing confirms this idea when he noted: “There can be no doubt that Black, also frequently met with, had reference, in some cases at least, to the peat.. The Dartmoor man never speaks of it as such: he calls it either ‘turve’ or ‘black ‘ood’, i.e., black wood.”, p.48. Similarly, brooks, lakes and streams would also take on a dark appearance especially in times of torrent flows although the waters are darker than normal they do have a rusty tinge not black.

For a different interpretation of ‘black’ Worth, notes the following;

Black, this may derive from two very different sources, either ‘bleak’ or ‘black’, both of which however, come from the Anglo Saxon blaec, meaning pale or colourless. Hence if we regard the first meaning, the limit of paleness is white, places bleak and exposed are apt to be covered with snow, and hence white at times. The other extreme of colourlessness is black… The task of determining which meaning of ‘black’ is intended in any Dartmoor place-name is wellnigh hopeless; so many places are both black and bleak Erica cinerea (Bell Heather) is not inaptly named, and is by no means the only moorland plant which is dark in shade when dry, and practically black when wet. Calluna vulgaris (Ling) has a very similar effect as a ground covering. On the other hand, places where these plants grow are often exposed and bleak.”, p.435.

There is another theory about the word ‘black’ that could possible apply to a few of the Dartmoor place names which was muted by Alfred Watkins. He considered that the element ‘black’ could refer to hills or high point where beacon fires were lit, this being based on the idea that the original meaning of the Anglo Saxon word ‘black’ was light or shining, p.81. But as can be seen from the O.E.D.’s etymology above this is a dubious connection.

There will also be instances where the ‘black’ element refers to a personal name such as ‘Blackman’s Holt’ or Black’s Newtake. Again, Watkins associated surnames with elements of ‘black’, ‘blake’ or ‘cole’ in them as being synonymous with beacon minders.

Below is a list of just a few ‘black’ locations on Dartmoor but there are numerous others when one takes into consideration the associated locations of the original place-name. For instance; Black Tor = Black Tor Falls, Ford, Hole, Mead, Mire and Rings.Some of the information listed below have been taken from Mike Brown’s ‘Gazeteer of Dartmoor Place names’.

BLACK BEAM SX 664     679 Beam
BLACK BRAKE SX 683     631 Brake
BLACK BROOK SX 588? 608? Farm Ruined farm.
BLACK BUSH SX 671     677 Miscellany A small, natural hollow.
BLACK DOWN SX 50                     82 Down
BLACK DOWN SX 58                     91 Down
BLACK DOWN SX 681     783 Down
BLACK DUNGHILL SX 581     774 Hill
BLACK DUNGHILL STREAM SX 585     777 Stream
BLACK FEN SX 673     832 Mire  AKA Turf Hill, Broadmoor Mires.
BLACK FURZES SX 649     738 Miscellany AKA Blakey Furzes, Blackfursses
BLACK HILL SX 523     825 Hill
BLACK HILL SX 604     846 Hill
BLACK HILL SX 761     786
BLACK HOLE SX 5731 7820 Hole
BLACK HOLE SX 582     845 Hole
BLACK HOLE SX 6125 8290 Hole
BLACK HUT SX 6458 6783 Miscellany A junction of paths where a peat-cutters hut stood
BLACK LANE NORTH SX 5587 8030 Peat Pass
BLACK LANE SOUTH SX 6270 6944 Moor Cut
BLACK MOOR SX 7366 6831 Habitation
BLACK POOL SX 6549 5812 Pool
BLACK POOL SX 6850 7199 Pool
BLACK RIDGE SX 595     855 Ridge
BLACK ROCK SX 533     853 Rock
BLACK ROCK SX 5350 7599 Rock
BLACK ROCK SX 5710 7804 Rock
BLACK ROCKS SX 6295 6705 Rocks
BLACK ROCKS SX 6553 5832 Rocks
BLACK SHELLS SX 638     760 Enclosure Single enclosure.
BLACK SHELLS SX 5170 7825 Pool AKA Tadpole Pond.
BLACK STUBBS PLANTATION SX 723     699 Plantation
BLACK TOR SX 567     895 Tor AKA Blacktorr Hedges, Blacka Tor. Great Black tor
BLACK TOR SX 573     718 Tor
BLACK TOR SX 681     635 Tor
BLACK TOR FALLS SX 5740 7149 Waterfall
BLACKA BROOK SX 550     707 Brook Also known as The Dark Brook
BLACKA BROOK SX 574     634 Brook
BLACKA BROOK SX 580     778 Brook
BLACKA TOR SX 567     895 Tor AKA Black Tor.
BLACKA TOR SX 666     750 Tor
BLACKA TOR SX 6943 7850 Tor
BLACKADON FARM SX 6655 5769 Farm Formerly known as Blacket.
BLACKALLER SX 7375 8381 Habitation
BLACKATON SX 6950 8020 Habitation
BLACKAVEN BROOK SX 592     885 Brook
BLACKBROOM PLANTATION SX 525     872 Plantation
BLACKDOWN DOWN SX 714     733 Down AKA Blackadon
BLACKFURSSES SX 649     738 Miscellany A piece of ground so called in 1350.
BLACKHAY SX 56?? 67?? Habitation AKA Jobbers.
BLACKHOLE PLANTATION SX 7848 8970 Plantation
BLACKINGSTONE SX 7920 8559 Habitation
BLACKLANDS SX 537     640 Habitation
BLACKMAN’S HOLT SX 6820 6478 Miscellany
BLACKMOOR SX 699     773 Habitation
BLACKPOOL SX 8127 7406 Pool
BLACKROCK POOL SX 7441 6673 Habitation
BLACK’S NEWTAKE SX 638     760 Enclosure
BLACKWOOD PATH SX 6420 6502 Trackway
BLACKSLADE DOWN SX 734     756 Down
DARK BROOK SX 550     707  Brook AKA The Blacka Brook
DARK LAKE SX 627     690 Lake . AKA Wollake,

 

So basically you can pay your money and take your choice as to the meaning of Dartmoor’s ‘black’ places, they could be in areas of peat or dense coverings of heather or maybe beacon fire locations, possibly even bleak and remote locations. They could even be a mixture of several of the suggested ideas or none.

Brown, M. 1995. The Gazetteer of Dartmoor Place Names. Liverton: Forest Publishing.

Crossing, W. 1996. Crossing’s Dartmoor Worker. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Hemery, E. 1983. High Dartmoor. London: Hale Publishing.

Gover, J.E.B., Mawer, A., & Stenton, F. M. 1992 The Place-Names of Devon, The English Place Name Society, Nottingham.

Watkins, A. 1995. The Old Straight Track. London: Abacus

Worth, R. H. 1988. Worth’s Dartmoor. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Oxford English Dictionary – online source at – Oxford University Press. 18 August 2013 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/19670?rskey=17nIyu&result=1>.

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Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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