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Red Placenames

Red Placenames

It will come as no surprise that the term; ‘everything is not black and white‘ aptly applies to Dartmoor – sometimesit’s red. Having now compiled web pages on Dartmoor place-names that contain the descriptive element ‘black’ and ‘white’ surely ‘red’ cannot be left out? When compared with ‘black’ and ‘white’ the ‘red’ place-names are a lot fewer and much more straightforward to interpret or so it would seem. The problem with place-names, especially when documented is that firstly how literate was the person recording them? If their spelling was not up to scratch then it’s likely some names resemble nothing like what they should. Secondly, local dialect can be mis-interpreted, especially when the person recording them is not from the locality, again leading to mistaken identities.

The descriptive place-name element is a perfect example of the above as noted by R. H. Worth when he commented that:

This presents a possible ambiguity, the syllable is always pronounced (on Dartmoor) ‘rid’. The reference may in some instanced be to the colour of the bed of a stream, in summer, when, the water being low, the limonite, formed by the oxidation of ferrous carbonate, derived from the bogs, colours the stones. But this feature is by no means markedly developed in many of the streams called by this name. It is to be noted that many of the ‘Redlake’ valleys are places to which the moormen still resort to cut reeds for thatching, and ‘reed lake’ is probably the correct interpretation.”, p.427.

Basically what Worth is saying is that to some ears, especially those unaccustomed to the Dartmoor dialect the words rid (red) and reed (reed) can easily become confused. When applying the theory regarding the limonite it is therefore quite possible to suggest that all ‘red’ lakes, brooks, and waters on Dartmoor are so called because of its presence. To illustrate the possible confusion take the example of the Riddipit Stream which is a tributary of the River Meavy. Worth suggests that the first element ‘riddi’ is derived from the Anglo Saxon word riÖe or  riÖ meaning a well or spring, Clark Hall, p.283, Worth, p.426., thus giving the ‘spring in the pit’ or words to that effect. Hemery on the other hand refutes Worth’s claim and considers that the idea of reeds growing in the pits is much more likely, p.127. I am going to throw a spanner in the works here, there was once a great deal of tinning activity in the area of this stream and deposits of limonite are known to occur in run-off from such mining operations. Could we be back to the limonite idea?

Slightly off track, I have often wondered why waters that show the effects of limonite are described as red, to me they have more of an orange hue than red and can look as if someone has spilled a can of tomato soup. The colour orange derives from the fruit of the same name and in English was first documented in 1512. Could it be that the Dartmoor water place-names which contain the element ‘red’ were so named before the word ‘orange’ was introduced to our language and red was the only known word to describe the limonite colour?

Back on track, the presence of limonite and reeds cannot explain every place-name with the descriptive element of ‘red’, what about Red Barrow, Red Down, or Redstone. In the case of natural landscape features the ‘red’ element may refer to the colour of the local vegetation, in boggy tracts of the moor the land can take on a distinct red tinge due to the moor grass, or even bracken and depending on their stage of growth, heathers. Another possibility for tracts of land where the famous Red Devon Cattle grazed could be that their very presence created a seasonal  ‘red’ appearance to the landscape.

Below is a list of some of the Dartmoor place-names that have a ‘red’ descriptive element but there are numerous others when one takes into consideration the associated locations of the original place-name, ie. White Moor, White Moor Stone and White Moor Circle. Some of the information listed below have been taken from Mike Brown’s ‘Gazetteer of Dartmoor Place names’.

RED BARROW SX 6767 7998 Tumulus A barrow
RED BROOK SX 656     631 Brook
RED COTTAGES SX 5660 7475 Habitation
RED DOWN SX 670     762 Down AKA Riddon Down.
RED LAKE (western) SX 5664 8193 Lake
RED LAKE (eastern) SX 5712 8203 Lake
RED LAKE SX 646     666 Lake AKA The Rode Lake.
REDAVEN BROOK SX 585     895 Brook
REDDACLEAVE SX 7002 6394 Habitation
REDDAFORD FARM SX 5370 8334 Farm
REDDAPIT LANE SX 6238 5987 Lane
REDDAWAY’S SHEEPWASH SX 6218 9249 Enclosure Onetime Sheepwash
REDDICLEAVE FARM SX 702? 638? Farm Desterted Farmstead.
REDDIFORD DOWN SX 786     698 Down
REDFORD NEWTAKE SX 54                   83 Enclosure AKA Hamlyn’s Newtake
REDLAKE FARM SX 7045 9245 Farm
REDSTONE FARM SX 5582 6819 Farm
REDWATER BROOK SX 681     814 Brook
REED SX 8353 8380 Habitation
RIDDIPIT STREAM SX 573               701 Stream
REEDY BROOK SX 8200 8900 Brook
RIDDON RIDGE SX 66       76 Hill

Riddon Ridge and its associated landscape features is another confusing place-name in respect of the various ‘red’ theories. One could assume that as previously, the name as the mutated ‘rid/red’ element could imply that reeds grew in the vicinity. However, according to the Place-Name Society there are two elements in the word Riddon; Rid and Dun, the latter is an old English word for ‘hill’ and Rid means literally that thus giving a ‘hill that had been cleared of vegetation’, Glover et. al. p. 199. Personally I find this a bit fanciful as Riddon is the only hill on Dartmoor where this occurs and numerous other ones have been cleared of undergrowth?

Being really obtuse now, Redlake Tip is a waste heap from the China Clay workings and although now sporting a covering of vegetation is actually ‘white’.

Red Placenames

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

Clark Hall, J.R. 2004. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Canada: Cambridge University Press.

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

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

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

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor


  1. No mention of red-a-ven brook?

  2. John Nigel Thomas

    It is my finding that red in a place-name more often than not has nothing to do with colour. There are several Red Hills in my area that are in no way red. The five companion peaks to Ben Nevis are each named Carn Dearg, or Red Hill in Gaelic. They are not red either. All around Snowdon in Wales are references to red in Crib Coch, the Red Ridge, Foel Goch, the Red Hill, Cwm Coch, the Red Pass, Afon Goch, the Red River, Llyn Goch, the Red Lake and so on. None are red. Scafell in the English Lake District may also mean Red Hill, for Sca is the first part of scarlet, while a fell is a hill. The Cotswolds are the Cottes Wolds, or Red Hills as in the red of terracotta. Red is a widespread phenomenon that reaches far beyond Britain’s shores. The Matterhorn on the Swiss-Italian border is alternatively known as Monte Cervino, or Red Mountain while Monte Carlo or Mount Charles means exactly the same. The vast country, Russia, means Red.
    There is a reason for all this and I am writing a book about it for it is an ancient mystery hidden in plain sight. To learn more you will have to wait until I get the book finished, but let me just say it is the explanation for Stonehenge. In fact, the henge in the name derives from ‘hen’ meaning red, as in henna, the red dye. A henge is a circle and the key to the mystery lies in something long regarded as circular and connected intrinsically with red. If you are a Welsh native you may understand what I am talking about.

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