Travelling to a show can be a challenge of unfamiliar roads and strange place names. This is especially the case for shows like the RWAS Spring Festival that are held in Wales, with its landscape of vowel deficient tongue twisters such as Pentre-llwyn-llwyd or Eglwyswrw, writes Helen Babbs.

But, Welsh place names are more than unpronounceable conundrums. Unlike the mosaic of French, Norse and Saxon words with their long-forgotten meanings which make up English place names, the Welsh names still have modern meaning in a living language. Say to a Welsh-speaker that you are going to Penrhyn-coch, and the only question is: going to the bare end (Pen) of which red hill (rhyn-coch)?

Spelling and grammar vary with region and archaisms, but this type of place name is typical throughout Wales. The names are mostly simple descriptions, and for a smallholder can be very useful for indicating potential advantages and problems on your land. Near Cefn gorwydd, “Slope at the edge of the wood,” the land is likely to be angled to drain well, while at Penrhyn, a polytunnel on the bare hill is likely to need a windbreak around it.

Given the sloping nature of much of Wales, Bryn or Rhyn (hill) features often, as at Bryn-bwa, “Rainbow Hill” and Brynberian, “Hill of the kites,” in the Pembrokeshire National Park. Mynydd (mountain) is changed to -fynydd when combined with other words, for names such as Trawsfynydd – “Across the mountain.” Allt means “hillside,” as found at Allt Mawr, “Great hillside,” on the slopes of Mynydd Eppynt to the south of Builth Wells. The rocky nature of the mountainous land is reflected in names such as Sarnau (rocky pavements) and Bwlch-y-sarnau: “The rock-littered pass.” Blaen is “summit,” as at Blaenau Ffestiniog, although on a more everyday scale, Blaen-ffos means “Head of the ditch” – another potentially well drained smallholding.

Coed (wood) and Betwys (grove) are common place names in more forested areas, such as Coed-y-Brennin (The king’s wood). The description of woodland can also be more specific: Llwyncelyn is “Holly Grove,” Gwern-afon “Alder trees by the river,” while Pentre-llwyn-llwyd is “Village of the Holy grove.”

With the ubiquitous Welsh rain, watery place names also abound. Afon is “river,” and Aber “the river mouth.”

This can be a large outlet, as at Aberystwyth, at the end of the Afon Ystwyth, or much small confluences, such as Abergorlech in the Brechfa forest. Many villages have developed at river crossings: Rhyd (ford) is found in names such as Rhyd-y-felin (The mill at the ford), while there are quite a few Pen-y-bont’s (The end of the bridge) and Pont-newydd’s (New-bridge). Felin, as in Felindre (Mill town) or Felinfach (Little mill), denotes the existence of a water mill, the old buildings of which often remain. Historically, these were an integral part of the rural community and economy, either grinding the locally grown grain, or more often as a “felin wlan,” woollen mill, processing the local Welsh wool.

The word “twnnel-polythen” has yet to be included in a place name, but many other names also reflect the long and continuing Welsh farming heritage. Dol and Dolau (meadow and meadows) indicate areas with good pasture land. Rougher, upland pasture can be found at Bwlch-y-fridd, “Sheepwalk pass.” It is not hard to guess at what must have been raised at Mochdre, “Pig-town,” outside Newtown, while my own smallholding with its neighbouring fields of sheep derives its water from the Afon Mamog – “ewe river.”

The other major influence besides farming on Welsh place names is that of church and chapel, with the many Eglwys (church) and Capel (chapel) across the map. Llan, meaning “Saint,” also denotes a church. This is generally just named after the patron saint, such as Llanfair, “Saint Mary,” or Llanpedr, “Saint Peter,” the Welsh name for Lampeter, but some landscape description does crop up in these as well. Llangoedmor is “Church in the wood by the sea,” Llanafon-fawr “Big church by the river,” while Llanfynydd, “Mountain church,” is a little village and church on a mountain in Carmarthenshire.

Useful smallholding description is even more pronounced when it comes to the names of farms. With a farm called Brith-dir, “Speckled Land,” there is little doubt of the rocky nature of the fields. Bryn and Dol are again common elements for farms on hills and in meadows, along with Maes (field) and Erw (acre). Teg, as in Maes-teg, means “fair,” while Heulog, often as Bryn-heulog, means “Sunny.” This sounds like just another pretty house name, but many of the Bryn-heulogs actually face east, to make the most of the daylight – any smallholder will appreciate the potential value of this for reducing the struggle on dark winter mornings. Nant (spring) and Ffynnon (well) imply sites with a good water supply, while Rhos (moorland) suggests land with more than sufficient water and rather impeded drainage. Many farm, and some village, names occur in pairs: either Fawr and Fach - “Great” and “Little;” or Uchaf and Isaf - “Upper,” and “Lower.” Felingwm Uchaf and Felingwm Isaf are the upper and lower mill valleys (cwm).

And finally, what of the location of this month’s CAFC Gwyl Gwanwyn (RWAS Spring Festival) itself? At first glance, you might think Builth was related to the welsh “bwl” for the bowl of mountains surrounding it, but it is actually a corruption of the full welsh place name. Llanfair am Muallt, the last word pronounced to match Builth, is the “Church of Saint Mary on the Mountainside,” and as anybody who has walked up and down the show-ground knows, the Smallholder Show at Builth is most definitely on the mountainside. n