Written on 11/12/12 by Paul Oldham

Why are Lake District Hills called "Fells"?

It's always seemed odd to us that in the Lake District the hills are known as "fells". How could they be fells when they went up? But there was clearly a pattern of local names for things as other words came up again and again. Like "gill" or "ghyll" for a narrow valley or stream, "force" for a waterfall, or "pike" for a peak.

Great Gable, Kirk Fell, and upper Ennerdale
Great Gable, Kirk Fell, and upper Ennerdale
And then the other day we came across this page on Wikipedia on Cumbrian toponymy1 and all became clear. It turns out that all of these words, and more besides, are from Old Norse. The Norse appear to have arrived in Cumbria in about 925 AD and were originally from Norway. They left a wealth of words behind them in the Lake District derived from Old Norse including:

There were other influences too including Iron Age Celts (who left us with "crag"), Old English ("mere"), and Anglo-Norman and Middle English ("great"), but we'll leave you to read the whole Wikipedia article if you want to know more.

  1. Toponymy being study of place names (toponyms), their origins, meanings, use and typology.

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