Finding Yalesham

North Norfolk Town

A North Norfolk Town. Source: wikipedia

If you have been following Neve you’ll know that it is set in Yalesham, an English east coast resort. Yalesham of course does not exist, neither is it an anagram of the Norfolk market town of Aylsham. In fact, Yalesham isn’t based on any existing place.

When planning the story I wanted on offshore island where a dragon could be buried, and later be disturbed when a wind-farm is constructed. Since it also needed to be close to Norfolk, Scroby Sands, 2 miles off Great Yarmouth, at first seemed the ideal place; Scroby had the bonus of a 30 [+/-] turbine wind-farm. But no way would Neve have sold her grandmother’s house and moved to Great Yarmouth, no matter how many happy family holidays she might have had there as a child. It just isn’t her type of town. Sheringham, on the North Norfolk coast, would have been more to her liking, but Sheringham hasn’t an island.

The only recourse was to create the town and island. I had fun playing God. First, where along the Norfolk coast might such an island be found?

To the north and west, Norfolk is formed on sand and shingle glacial deposits, upon an undulating bed of chalk. That chalk rises in places, and in places the glacial deposits form hills and ridges; together they give lie to the myth that Norfolk is flat. (Okay, so the hills do more resemble pimples.)

In places along Norfolk’s north-facing coast are cliffs 300’ high (100 mtrs wow!) of compacted sand and shingle, sheered by the sea. High winds, raging storms, and surges could easily have caused a detachment of land. Indeed, on the map, the stretch of coast as it turns from north-facing to east does look as if a chunk has been lost to abrasion. This seemed a likely place to find an island. The ridge here rapidly decreases, soon to sink beneath sea-level, giving way to the flatlands around the Broads. Thus was Widow Cob’s Cat created.

Next, the town needed a name.

Amongst Norfolk placenames by far the most abundant endings are –ton, –ing, –ham, –wich or –wick (and combinations of), and -by. Usually the first element is formed on a topographical feature, although occasionally are found the names of a local saint or a lord. So what local topographical feature would give the yales to Yalesham?

Al-, Alan-, Ale-, Aln-, Alw-, Ayle-, Ayr-, Yale-, and Yeal-, are found as prefixes in river-names not only in Britain but right across Europe. They are formed on the Proto Indo-European root, *ghel-, meaning ‘to shine’, which gives also glass and yellow, but here means bright water.

There is an erroneous belief that –ham always means a hamlet, i.e. a family settlement. But there was also the ending –hamm, meaning ‘an enclosed or hemmed-in place’ with the second ‘m’ already dropped by 1086, Domesday Survey.

So Yalesham could mean ‘the family settlement by the river’, or, and this is more likely, ‘the place hemmed round by the river’.

Yalesham now was a town named for a river. So I needed a river. But Norfolk’s northeast corner is drained southward, into the Bure and Wensum, which outflow at Great Yarmouth. With no existing river I had to create that, too. Once created, it became a plot device, as you’ll find later in the story.

Yalesham now needed a history . . .

A busy port until late medieval time, Yalesham suffered the same fate as Cley-next-Sea (North Norfolk coast), and Dunwich (Suffolk coast) in that the town rapidly declined when the estuary silted and became a salt-marsh. The fishing industry remained longer and has only recently failed in the face of factory-fishing. Now all that remains of Yalesham’s maritime past are the weekend sailors with their dazzling white yachts

– oh, and the quaint little fisherman’s cottage, modernised by a previous owner, that tempted Neve into buying.

Small and decayed, yet Yalesham still attracts a few holidaymakers.

It attracted Neve’s mother when Neve was a child.

Now I had created one fictitious location, I had to give serious thought to the other locations that appear in Neve – particularly to the village where she had lived with her grandmother. The idea for Neve is rooted in a legend local to the village where I lived as a child. But I couldn’t use that village for Dowsingham – for reasons I’ll explain in a later post.

About crispina kemp

Spinner of Asaric and Mythic tales
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6 Responses to Finding Yalesham

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    Having visited it in 1993, I was thinking of Dunwich while reading this, and, hey, presto, there it is! And I shamefully have to admit that Rebecca’s home town is never given a name because at the last minute I had to chuck the name I was going to use to avoid conflict with another story.

    According to S.T. Joshi in the annotated versions Penguin put out of M.R. James’s collective stories, James was so good at coining realistic names that Joshi had considerable trouble determining which were fake (see p. viii of “The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories” (2006)). Have you read these stories, and would you agree?

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    • crimsonprose says:

      It’s a problem all fiction writers face and I read loads of advice from other authors before committing myself. Then, as I remark in ‘Dowsingham’, a future article I’m preparing, once you’ve used one fictitious placename do you continue the same? Neve has the added problem of Medieval placenames, which mostly I have taken from Domesday Book, e.g. Guy de Hamahall. I had changed that to Guy de Boiland (meaning Cow-Field) with intent of giving Hamahall to his leigelord. But then I posted the older version and so was stuck with it. I think the thing is to look at the placenames in the speculated region then take elements and combine. I’d the advantage of a pre-existing interest in placenames.

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      • Brian Bixby says:

        In the U.S., the choice of place names pretty much always includes local Native American (frequency increases going west), English (frequency decreases going west), surnames of notable figures, (non-English) colonial heritage names, and newly coined names.

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      • crimsonprose says:

        In Britain too there’s an increasing/decreasing distribution of names. Celtic west, Anglo-Saxon east, and that overlaid with Norse from Norfolk through to Orkneys and around the top and down the west coast, into Ireland.
        Placenames reveal settlement patterns, both in Britain and America. Yea?

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    • crimsonprose says:

      And no, I’ve not read those stories. It’s not generally the genre I go for.

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