What an odd-sounding place-name! And we can’t sweep past this little outpost to the north of Durham City without having a bash at its derivation. Truth is, no-one seems to have the definitive answer, no matter what they say. Take your pick…
Theory No.1 – it is derived from the French petite mer (or the Norman petit mere), meaning ‘little sea’ (perhaps meant as ironic, given the arid nature of the land thereabouts);
Theory No.2 – it is a corruption of ‘petty mere’ (small lake)
Theory No.3 – it is a corruption of ‘peaty mere’ (peaty lake);
Theory No.4 – it is a corruption of ‘pithead mere’ (a boggy area into which the water from pithead pumps was dumped);
Theory No.5 – it is a corruption of ‘pitty mea’, meaning a pitted/uneven meadow;
Theory No.6 – it is from old British/Celtic words meaning ‘field of graves’ (Beddan Maes);
Theory No.7 – “a whimsical name bestowed in the nineteenth century on a place considered desolate, exposed or difficult to cultivate” (Mills, A. D., The Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names);
Theory No.8 – The monks carrying the coffin of Cuthbert dropped it near this spot – the saint imploring them to take pity on him and resume their task with more care;
Theory No.9 – during a flight from a Viking raid, a group of monks stopped there and sang the 51st Psalm, the Latin version of which includes the words Miserere mei, Deus, which can be delivered in English as “Pity me, O God”.
Dare I say, there may be more!