NOT AS THEY SEEM
Most of our place-names have been with us for hundreds of years. It is inevitable then, that over such a long period of time, changes have occurred to many of them. We of course, may be unaware of these changes, and we sometimes scratch our heads because a place-name may not seem appropriate.
Take Pontardulais for instance. The literal translation is ‘bridge on (the) Dulais’, yet the Pontardulais Bridge spans the River Loughor! Why is this? Well, the answer lies with a mid 16th century document that names it Pont aber Dulais ‘(the) bridge (near the) mouth (of the) Dulais’. Look at any map, and you will see that the bridge is located c100 metres north of the spot where the Dulais stream empties into the Loughor River. Pont aber dulais was shortened to Pontardulais and the meaning was changed!
Ynyswendraeth is a farm name in the parish of Penderyn in the Brecon Beacons National Park. On the face of it, ynys wen draeth translates as ‘white beach island’, surely a rather strange name for such a location. Early forms however, disclose a different etymology. In 1830 it appears as Ynyswendorth, giving ‘white loaf river meadow’, while a 1570 document records Ynysbendorth implying ‘loaf hill river meadow’. A popular interpretation of ynys as ‘island’ rather than ‘river meadow’ had lead to a corresponding change in the subsequent elements, hence Ynyswendraeth. The place was actually named Ynysbendorth because of its location in a river meadow, near a loaf shaped hill.
It is unusual to have the elements aber and cwm next to each other in a place-name. To compound the situation by adding the English word ‘boy’ to the name, makes it unique to say the least. Who then was the boy in Abercwmboy? Let’s see shall we?In 1570, Aber Convoye Yssa and Aber Convoy Ycha appear as the names of two farms in the lower Cynon Valley. Convoy is the early Welsh personal name Cynfoi. Cynon and Gwawr are also personal names found as river-names in this valley. By the 18th century, Cynfoi was no longer recognised as a personal name, so the final elements were thought to be cwm and voy, (Abercwmvoy 1720). By 1798, voy was further rationalised as boy giving an ungainly Abercwmboy. And there we have it – the ‘boy’ was actually a man named Cynfoi. The later village of Abercwmboi was also known as Cap Coch, but that’s another story!
Talking of presumed English elements in Welsh place-names brings us nicely to Spudders Bridge, on the B4308 between Cydweli and Trimsaran. Who was Spudder? Was he an early potato picker? The Welsh form of Pont Spwdwr has lead to a belief that the bridge was associated with a certain Rhys bwdwr, ‘lazy Rees’. Melville Richards however states that Pont Sbwdwr is derived from Pont yr Ysbydwr, ‘the hospitaller’s bridge’, and may well be connected with the ancient order of Benedictines previously based in Cydweli. Another assumed personal name – Curwen is thought to be present in Gwauncaegurwen. (The village is also known as an abbreviated GCG). This presumption is unfounded. Documentary evidence indicates an earlier Gwayn Kegerwen 1574, giving ‘moor land of white hemlock’. Cwmrhydyceirw near Morriston conjures up a pastoral image of ‘stags’ near a ‘ford’ in a river ‘valley’. The place was previously Cwmrhydycwrw ‘beer ford valley’, probably due to the yellow or frothy nature of the water at that place. A Roman Centurion appears on an inn sign outside the popular Caesar’s Arms near Creigiau. It is doubtful however, if any Roman remains will ever be unearthed at that site. The inn and restaurant stand on the banks of Nant y Cesair ‘the hailstone stream’, so named because of the low temperature of its water. Cesair is cesar in the local Gwentian dialect. Unfortunately, Cesar is also the Welsh form of Caesar as in Iwl Cesar (Julius Caesar). Hence the appearance of the misplaced Centurion! Conversely, an actual Viking presence has been removed from Milford Haven.
It would be unwise to look for a ‘mill’ near a ‘ford’ in this locality. The Vikings called the area melr fjord ‘sand-bank haven’ recorded as Mellferth 1207. This was later changed to Milford and haven was added to a name (fiord) that already had that meaning.
Place-name changes can be deliberate. Some are altered for respectability, as in the case of the earlier Cwmrhydyceirw; Cross Inn the name of a public house, became Ammanford and Rhydaman; Gwter Fawr ‘large gutter’, became Brynaman Upper/Lower; Bwlchylladron ‘thieves’ pass’ near Hirwaun became Graig y bwlch; Pandy Tudr ‘Tudor’s fulling mill’ [Denbighshire], was earlier Pandy Budr ‘foul fulling mill etc.
Whatever the reason, place-names are not always what they seem, and great care must be taken when trying to explain their meanings.