Why is it called Pity Me? The story behind County Durham’s oddest place

Pity Me is a village in County Durham which lies north of the city itself and on the way to Chester-le-street. The unusual name of the village has long attracted national attention and appeared on lists of the most bizarre settlements in Britain. But just what is it all about? Who is being pitied exactly, if anyone? And where did it come from? Here we dive into the story of “Pity Me”.

First of all, in the name of the village is associated with the legendary story of St. Cuthbert. With the monks of St. Cuthbert’s community having purportedly carried the coffin of the saint around the region in search of a new resting place, stories of miracles abound. While one such miracle is associated with the hill of Warden Law in Sunderland, another claims that on reaching this location the monks accidentally dropped his coffin, which resulted in a visitation or spiritual voice of Cuthbert to demand they “take pity on him.”

That story of course, has no actual evidence to it. Another myth is that in that same era, the vikings raided the settlement of some monks, who responded by singing Pslam 51 at the attackers. This translates to “Pity me, O’God.” Again, this is only longstanding heresay. Evidence shows that the Pity Me settlement has existed for at least 250 years.

Historical Linguists have of course offered their own competing theories pertaining to the origin of the village’s name, and as you can imagine they are far less inspiring. One must remember that in the English language, the names of places tend to reflect older pronunciations and meanings which no longer exist due to the language evolving over time. In other words, names of places tend to originate from Old English, Celtic languages, Old Norse or Norman French.

In addition to that, the written forms of these old names change over time due to a lack of consistency and no printing press. For example, the suburb of Farringdon in Sunderland can be found written as Farrington, Farnton, Farendon, Faerendon, etc in old records. The current spelling of the name is a product of modernity. Therefore, the name “Pity Me” may not have been written as, or event meant “Pity Me” in old times.

This has led to theories that the name could be derived from Old French, called Petit Mere meaning “small sea”, possibly in reference to bogland or a lake. Or, a more contemporary theory argues it was given the name on a whim in the 19th century because it was “desolate” and failed to deliver in terms of Coal resources.

In conclusion, there is no definitive explanation as to where the name “Pity Me” came from, yet what we can learn from this is that understanding placenames is rarely as straightforward as what it seems.