Ouse

On April 12, 2015 · 2 Comments

I came across the oddly named River Great Ouse as I researched Pathway to Bedford. The river ran through Bedford, the County Town of Bedfordshire.


The Great Ouse at St Ives
The Great Ouse at St Ives by sean_hickin, on Flickr (cc)

I was amused even further when I discovered that it was pronounced somewhat akin to "Ooze." A body of water likened to a great ooze seemed awful, as if it flowed with black tar or sewage. That wasn’t the case of course. In fact, photographic evidence made it appear quite lovely.

The Great Ouse became great because there were actually several rivers Ouse located throughout England and this one happened to be the largest and longest. In fact this one was the fourth longest river in the United Kingdom extending 143 miles (230 kilometres) from Syresham to the Wash on the North Sea in East Anglia (map).

One of its more interesting features might have been the Cardington Slalom Course in Bedford, the first artificial kayaking facility constructed in the United Kingdom.

Opened in September 1982, Cardington is a 120m long S-shaped trapezoid concrete channel with movable boulders fixed to the base which can be moved to make different river patterns. The maximum drop is 1.7 meters, but it’s enough for a good white water training facility and you can warm up on the main river. It offers safe moving water for paddlers at any level, and is suitable for up to Division 2 Slaloms, and also for recreation groups to hire.

What about some of those other Rivers Ouse?


River Little Ouse


Little Ouse River, Thetford
Little Ouse River, Thetford by Alan Winter, on Flickr (cc)

One might consider that River Little Ouse would be an ideal name for a tributary of River Great Ouse, and that was indeed the case. Little Ouse flowed into Great Ouse near Littleport in Cambridgeshire after passing Thetford (map). Indeed it was little, a mere 37 miles (60 km). However it also hid a greater significance, the dividing line between Norfolk and Suffolk for a considerable distance. Portions of it were also navigable by canal boats.

The other Rivers Ouse were not part of the Great and Little Ouse watersheds.


River Ouse, Yorkshire


River Ouse at York
River Ouse at York by Tim Green, on Flickr (cc)

The River Ouse in Yorkshire (map) might not have been designated as Great, however it flowed through the rather significant city of York. As the city explained, "The city of York owes its existence to the Rivers Ouse and Foss. These natural barriers made it an ideal defensive site which was settled by the Romans in AD71."

A couple of towns incorporated the river’s name, Newton-on-Ouse and Linton-on-Ouse. A Royal Air Force base located nearby adopted the name by extension, RAF Linton-on-Ouse: "RAF Linton-on-Ouse is one of the busiest airfields in the country. Tasked with the training future fast jet pilots for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, the Station operates the Tucano T1."


River Ouse, Sussex


The River Ouse at Lewes, East Sussex
The River Ouse at Lewes, East Sussex by Henry Hemming, on Flickr (cc)

Another River Ouse existed in Sussex (map). It was notable for a more painful reason.

The English author Virginia Woolf suffered from depression for much of her life. A number of tragic events befell her during the early years of the Second World War including the destruction of her London home during the The Blitz.

These seemingly insurmountable facts motivated Woolf’s decision to, on March 28, 1941, pull on her overcoat, walk out into the River Ouse and fill her pockets with stones. As she waded into the water, the stream took her with it. The authorities found her some three weeks later.


Why were there so many rivers named Ouse? The Free Dictionary offered an explanation.

Ouse is a perfectly appropriate name for a river, but one whose etymological meaning is likely to raise a smile. The name of these two rivers is derived from the Celtic languages that were spoken in England before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the British Isles. Their Celtic name, Ūsa, is derived from *udso-, “water,” which is in turn derived from the Indo-European root *wed-, “wet, water.” The same root *wed- gives us the English words water and wet as well. Thus the Ouse River etymologically is the “Water River” or the “Wet River.” Of course, the speakers of early forms of the English language who borrowed the name from the Celts did not know the meaning of the word—as is rather frequently the case when foreign topographical terms are borrowed.

So in a since they were all really the River River.

On April 12, 2015 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Ouse”

  1. Craig says:

    The related Scottish Gaelic word for “water” is “uisge”. The phrase “uisge beatha”, meaning “water of life”, comes into English as “whisk[e]y”. Interestingly, “uisge beatha” simply calques the Latin “aqua vitae” which is in turn seen in the Scandinavian “Akvavit/Aquavit” and the French “eau de vie”.

  2. Philip Newton says:

    Much like the various rivers called River Avon.

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