Updated: May 26, 2020
Wales is a small country but one that is blessed with thousands of fascinating place names. Of course, the beautiful and complex local language, as well as its history, has lent itself to creating the names we have today. It is the combination of the pronunciation, appearance, origins and meaning of these names that make them so unique and so interesting, both to locals and confused visitors alike. For the sake of this article, let’s for today forget the obvious example of llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, even if it is an interesting story in its own right. We will aim to discuss places that are fun in their pronunciation, but also equally interesting in their meaning. Additionally, this list is by no means complete as there are too many wonderful names to choose from in Wales. However, here are some of the most peculiar, most fascinating and most noteworthy place names in Wales nonetheless. If you have any further suggestions, please do not hesitate to get in touch or write a comment below…
So, in no particular order, here are ten of the most enjoyable and fascinating place names in Wales...
Llantwit Major An odd name due to its combination of both English and Welsh in its anglicisation. The Welsh translation of the town’s name is, in fact, Llanilltud Mawr, meaning the Great Parish of St. Illtud. Making English language versions of names is nothing new around the world but this is a particularly farfetched one, finding ‘Twit’ from ‘Illtud’. Carmarthen
A name many beyond Wales will be familiar with, being one of the largest towns in south Wales of course and a stronghold in the area for the Welsh language. Perhaps a more interesting name than it appears though. The Welsh name for Carmarthen is Caerfyrddin (Cay-er-ver-thin), which translates literally as the Fort of Merlin (yes that Merlin), the town’s most famous son. How he ends up in the north, as a child, in Snowdonia, makes his life more confusing, but that’s a story for another day. Nonetheless, Britain’s most famous wizard was thought to have been born in Carmarthen.
Incidentally, any Welsh place name which starts with 'Caer' means fort, indicating a Roman presence up to 2,000 years ago, like Caerdydd (Cardiff) or Caerphilly. Llandrindod Wells Another Welsh place name that’s English form is a combination of Welsh and English, Llandrindod Wells developed as a spa town in the 18th century due to the healing qualities of the local spring water. Llandrindod, meaning Trinity Parish, sits in the heart of old Radnorshire, now within Powys. Today the town is known for being a stopover in mid-Wales for those on longer journeys. Blaenau Ffestiniog
One of the more challenging pronunciations to the untrained eye, Bleye-neye Festin-iog is one of the more fun Welsh place names to pronounce once mastered. The name Ffestiniog is thought to derive from a Welsh word meaning stronghold, while the word blaenau translates to highlands. Therefore ‘Stronghold of the highlands’ is an option, or perhaps more simply it is just two different words, stronghold and highlands, representing two different places that merged together as the area grew into the famed slate-quarrying site it became in the 19th century.
Betws-y-Coed Staying in north Wales, Betws-y-Coed (Betus-uh-Coyd) is a unique name in its own right and translates even more beautifully to “prayer house-in-the-woods”. It is thought to refer to the 14th Century St. Michael's Church, where the old yew trees are thought to be around five centuries old.
This is one of the more interesting anglicisations of Welsh names. Cardigan is really just an English version of Ceredigion, which is fairly understandable. But isn’t Ceredigion the name of the county in which the town of Cardigan lies? Yes, that’s true, however, the county was formerly officially known as Cardiganshire, and Ceredigion again before that. So Ceredigion, the county, became Cardiganshire, and the principal town of the county became Cardigan. To make things more confusing, the Welsh for Cardigan, the town, is not Ceredigion but Aberteifi (meaning Mouth of the River Teifi). Even more confusingly, or interestingly, Cardigans, as in the item of clothing, come from the town as well! The cardigan was named after James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, a British Army Major General who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. It is modelled after the knitted wool waistcoat that British officers supposedly wore during the war. Incidentally, the balaclava has its origins in the same battle. Cwmrhydyceirw Pronounced Cumry-du-kai-roo, it looks a bit like ‘Cymru’ and a bit like ‘cwrw’, which is probably why it appeals so much. The English translation of the name means "the valley of the stags' ford", which is cool enough in its own right as well. There’s even a local pub named "The Deer's Leap"! However, the name of this north-Swansea village may even have been corrupted from its original, thought to have been "Cwmrhydycwrw" - a reference to the ale-like appearance of the local stream. Cwrw meaning beer, of course.
A close call between Skokholm and Skomer for this spot, the two Norse-named islands off the Pembrokeshire coast. There aren’t many places outside the Nordic countries that still maintain original viking place names a thousand years later, but here are two side by side. Skokholm translates to "wooded island", although that’s not really how it looks these days, and of course, it sounds a lot like Stockholm, the Swedish capital. Tonypandy
For such a merrily sounding name, Tonypandy is most well known for workers riots. The name of Tonypandy, which actually means the "pasture of the fulling mill" has gone down in history as the place where striking miners, faced with starvation due to years of consistently low wages, rioted in 1910. It led Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, to sending in the Army. Something that has left a mark against his legacy, at least in Wales.
Not to be confused with the fictional town of Pontypandy of course, an amalgamation of Tonypandy with Pontypridd, to form the home of Fireman Sam.
Ysbyty Ystwyth Even non-Welsh speakers in Wales will be familiar that Ysbyty means hopital. Ysbyty Ystwyth puts together two of the more enjoyable words to say in Welsh, and also means ‘Hospital of the river Ystwyth’ (pronounced Usbuty Ustwith, more or less). The village’s church and the parish of the same name were the property of the Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, hence the 'Ysbyty' in the title. Ysbyty Ystwyth is only a few miles south-east of the larger town of Aberystwyth, which while being one of the best known universities in Wales, remains one of the most mispronounced place names in the country.
There you have it, they are just ten of the more noteworthy, fun to say and interesting place names that Wales has to offer. There are many more from the final long list that easily could have made this collection, so maybe we will have to save them for another day.
If you have enjoyed this blog, make sure to check out our other articles about Wales, Welsh history, culture, traditions and its people on our regularly updated Blog page.
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