What does Martin Top mean?

I laughed the other day to read that the Mount Zion Free Methodist Church in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, has changed its name to the Transformation Centre. I imagined middle-aged mums turning up on a Sunday morning desiring a make-over or misguided teens wishing to change gender. Doubtless, a thrusting young pastor has made his mark and rendered his CV that little bit more impressive. I prefer older church names, naturally. Yet our chapel’s name does cause some difficulty. We’re traditionally called Salem Independent ChapelSalem Congregational Chapel or just Salem Chapel, so even this variety of nomenclature is unhelpful. Most just use ‘Martin Top Chapel’.

Martin Top is itself a queer expression. A number of emails come to me addressed Dear Martin, with the header FAO of Pastor Top. Some have called it Marsden Top, out of facetiousness or genuine mix-up, I cannot quite tell. 

Martin is a Roman name, deriving from Mars, the god of grain and war. The chapel is built on or close by the Roman road to Ribchester, and I’ve visited villa and watchtower sites just a couple of miles’ distance. It’s perfectly plausible to imagine our Martin was a Roman chap, a brave settler or a retired soldier investing in a bit of land. More likely, however, he was a rough Norman, a people among whom the name was more common. 

The English Place Name Society proves rather helpful in researching the origin of geographical locations. In 1406, the area in which our chapel sits was called Martinestoftes deriving from Martin’s tofts. A toft is either a farmstead, or a house next to an enclosure, such as a fenced or hedged field for grazing cattle or sheep. 

In 1251, Alan of Gaisgill, son of Adam of Newby, gave to Sawley Abbey two acres in Martinstokisclif. Gaisgill is the place with the organic farm many of us pass near the chapel; Newby is the hamlet on our other side going towards Rimington. Martinstokisclif probably means Martin’s place (stoc) by a cliff (Witch’s Quarry?) or a steep hill. Walk to chapel from Barlick, and you’ll come across a steep hill just before the finish line.

So Martin Top does not have an exciting origin by any means. A long time ago, some bloke called Martin had a farm where he kept cattle or sheep enclosed. Little has changed; we’re still a rural, quiet, insignificant place. Yet there’s something about this I rather like. Salem is for us an enclosure, a safe place to pasture against the blustery gales of worldly values and cretinous, fake gospels. It is a place amid the dark valleys, a little hill upon which the sun shines. It may partly be named after a pagan god, but only Christ, the God of peace, is preached from its pulpit. 

God bless Martinestoftes and all Christ’s sheep who there graze.

I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. John 10:7-9