Three new books on aspects of medieval Surrey

A pleasing thing happened a few weeks ago – I was sent a new book by its author, in the hope that (1) it might be of interest to me and (2) I might publicise it via this blog. It’s never happened before, but then I realised two other short books with a major focus on aspects of Surrey in the medieval period have been published in recent months. Cue the obvious thought – let’s write a post about them all! I did this once before a couple of years ago, and hope to do so again in the not-too-distant future. (I have also been working on a review of Susan Kelly’s Charters of Chertsey Abbey but for another outlet, at least at first.) By then I may be able to offer an answer for why these books seem to be published in threes!

Vested interest disclosure (of sorts): the first book below is the one I was given for free, whereas I purchased the second and third books below. Trust me, though, this has not affected my judgement one way or the other, and I recommend all three.

Susannah Horne, Early Medieval Dorking 600 to 1200 AD (Dorking: Cockerel Press, 2016)

Early Medieval Dorking

It’s both a rare and bold choice to publish a whole book on a subject that, at a local level, is all too often accorded little more than a superficial treatment along the lines of “the Romans left in AD 410, stuff must have happened in the centuries after but we have no means of knowing what, then the Normans came and 20 years later compiled Domesday Book which tells a few things…” Fortunately, it’s a successful one so far as this book is concerned. Dorking was not a place of especially great consequence at any point in the early medieval period as defined by Horne, nor (with one later ninth-century exception, of which more in a minute) is it the provenance of any significant contemporary material culture. To get around this, Horne adopts another familiar tactic – augmenting the local evidence with national history – but does so in a way that means her book acts as a primer for the entire period, a canny move given a chunk of the book’s readership will be one for whom the subject period is the Dark Ages (extra credit is due for resisting the temptation to go down the route of an alliterative title Dark Age Dorking!)

The book is divided into three chapters, each covering two centuries, a device that works rather well. Because of the temporal limits of the book, there are a couple of omissions which the completist in me would probably have included, especially given the initial discussion of Dorking’s origins goes back before the year 600. The first is a small-long brooch from the Milton Court area that is probably the earliest Anglo-Saxon artefact from the Dorking area (SUR-545C71), and a group of artefacts – two spears, one glass ‘bottle’, and a ceramic urn – recovered from the West Dorking Sandpit beside Vincent Lane that would seem to have come from otherwise-unrecorded inhumation burials, perhaps of sixth or early seventh-century date.


A 2015 view of the former sandpit from which came the various did-they-or-didn’t-they-come-from-a-cemetery objects found in the early 20th century. As far as I know, no further discoveries were made during the construction of Lidl or the adjacent housing. 

However, by way of compensation, the book provides nuggets of information that are not well known. A notable instance of this local-level insight concerns the “Dorking Hoard”, a remarkable group of over 700 silver coins contained within a wooden box found in 1817 at Winterfold Hanger, a remote spot well to the south-west of Dorking town. It was recovered in a far-from-ideal manner typical of the early nineteenth century, and the contents divided up and sold soon afterwards, with the two main purchasers offering the pick of the coins to the British Museum (page 34). Here and elsewhere, with considerable industriousness Horne shows Dorking to have been a place of no little interest during the six centuries covered by her book, and one worthy of both wider attention and further study.

The book is available to buy for £8 on Amazon and via Facebook.

Jo Richards and Esher District Local History Society, Esher: Origins and Development of a Surrey Village in Maps (Guildford: Surrey Archaeological Society, 2015)

Esher Origins and Dev

This is the latest – and, apparently, the sixth – volume in the Surrey Archaeological Society’s Villages Study Project, an enterprise which began at the turn of the Millennium and is slowly building up steam again after a few lean years. This book appeared right at the end of last year, and is in my opinion the best in the series to date. For those who don’t know/can’t be jazzed to look it up on Google Maps, Esher is more or less subsumed into London’s outer suburbs (although I’m sure its residents would emphasise its continued place within the administrative county of Surrey), and may be known to you from Monty Python’s (!) three or more (!) references to it as the stereotype of wealthy suburbia, or perhaps the episode of Time Team (one of the better ones, too) in which excavations and other investigations were centred on Waynflete’s Tower beside the River Mole – here’s the excavation report if you’re interested.

Whereas earlier Villages Study Project volumes took a regressive approach to chronology, starting in the recent past and working backwards (in some cases tailing off quite badly) into earlier centuries and periods, the Esher volume starts at the beginning (quite literally, with an an excellently-explained and illustrated overview of the parish’s solid and drift geology on pages 10-11) and works forward from there. Another point of departure is the focus for the most part being on changes happening within the parish bounds rather than within the eponymous “village” – here a practical measure because Esher as a distinct settlement did not take on a village-like form until the late medieval period (and then seems to have shifted north-west in the eighteenth century).

A highly laudable element of the research project that went into producing the book is its commissioning of transcriptions and translations of selected Esher sections of the Winchester Pipe Rolls by Dr David Stone. The manor of Esher was purchased by Peter de Roches, Bishop of Winchester, circa 1233, and remained in episcopal hands until 1530. The testimony of the rolls shines such a bright light on the later medieval landscape, its economy and nomenclature that it makes Esher the envy of many Surrey parishes (even more so when Stone’s work is published as a standalone volume by the ever-excellent Surrey Record Society.) Even the summary form in which the pipe roll evidence is presented in the book, I struggle to recall work of equivalent quality being done in Surrey before, particularly with attendant cartographic representation of the data.

The earlier medieval period is split between a Norman sub-period lasting 1066-1233, and a traditional 410-1066 Anglo-Saxon period that is joined with short accounts of prehistoric and Roman archaeological discoveries in the parish. Both sections displays confidence with the material to hand, be it a thorough discussion of the boundary of the Esher estate in 1005, as recorded in the Eynsham (re)foundation charter (pages 16-17), or Esher’s multiple appearances in Domesday Book (handily tabulated on page 19). Some interesting insights emerge, the sorts of thing that only come from years of focused local-level research. The presence of the place-name Æscere in the little-known Cerne Abbey foundation charter is interesting (page 16, 60), and the identification of Æthelmær, minister of King Æthelred and founder of Cerne, as the common denominator with Esher goes a long way towards disproving the statement in its Electronic Sawyer entry that all named landholdings were in Dorset.


Continuing my recent theme of terrible photographs of subject locations taken from fast-moving train, here is Sandown Park racecourse, the majority of which falls within historic Esher parish (it also happens to have been the venue for my school leavers’ ball). The wooded hill to the right of centre is the eponymous “sandy hill”, at the east end of which three early 7th-century burials were found during the Second World War.

Another suggestion that hopefully will gain wider traction concerns the nine-hide estate named æt Dittune in a diploma of 983 (S 847) as well as the Eynsham charter, which previously has not been identified beyond lying within Thames Ditton parish, abutting Esher on the north-east. Richards and her co-authors propose it comprised the Domesday manor of Weston (whence Weston Green) and possibly Arbrook – though the latter lies far to the south (see map on page 18). Other questions might have been asked of the early sources. What made þære ealdan dic, a point on the Esher estate boundary, an “old ditch” in 1005 – was it a landscape feature of earlier Anglo-Saxon date, or something older still? Is it significant that Sandon hospital, a modest Augustinian foundation of King John’s reign (and of which Sandown Park racecourse is a namesake), was on the site of cran mere, “crane mere”, the start-point of the recorded boundary of Esher as well as the neighbouring Ditton estate? And why is there so little in the way of Roman-period archaeology known from the parochial area?

At a more general level, the only thing missing from what is a very thorough study is a synthesis of the evidence that sets it in a broader context (the late Dennis Turner did this sort of thing very well in some previous Villages Study Project volumes). Particularly valuable would have been a discussion of Esher’s medieval settlement geographies (and indeed archaeology) that integrates the evidence with at least some of the raft of important studies – too many to list here – published on this subject in the past 20 years. Two, apparently contemporaneous, Early Anglo-Saxon settlement sites have been excavated in Esher (pages 14-15); these are commensurate with a dispersed settlement pattern, yet this goes unmentioned and so does the fact this is typical of lowland England as a whole in this period. Indeed, dispersed settlement is for the most part what Surrey did throughout the medieval period, one of the reasons why it rarely features in the extraordinary string of works looking at the topic of Anglo-Saxon settlement nucleation, so it would be nice to see local researchers set their findings in a wider context. But to do this first requires an ample foundation of published research to be in place, and this book makes a very significant contribution towards that target.

To buy the book, which I’m led to believe cost £12, contact the Surrey Archaeological Society’s office for details; it may also be on sale in the shop at Guildford Museum and other local museums…

Various, A guide to the Saxon and medieval pottery type series of Surrey (Guildford: Surrey Archaeological Society, 2015)

Surrey Pottery Guide 1

There’s a tinge of sadness to introducing the third book since Phil Jones, its main author and Surrey’s pre-eminent expert on the subject of medieval ceramics – and early ceramics in general come to think of it – passed away in January. This new guide is founded upon, and so should be read and used in conjunction with, the type series of medieval pottery manufactured or otherwise found in significant quantities in Surrey in Jones’ 1998 Surrey Archaeological Collections article ‘Towards a type series of medieval pottery in Surrey’. That said, this new book(let) stands on its own as an excellent primer to a sometimes very complex topic.

The content is thorough but succinct, beginning with an explanation of the main terminology (pages 4-6), then progressing to accounts of the various Anglo-Saxon wares known from Surrey (many of which are known from a couple of sites) and duly the “main” wares of the 11th-16th centuries. As if that wasn’t enough, as a bonus there’s a quick rundown run-through of the key post-medieval stonewares found in Surrey, and dating tables of imported and post-medieval wares, all of which are the work of Steve Nelson (who three years ago was kind enough to look at and identify some of the medieval pottery sherds I’ve found in Surrey). On the back cover is perhaps the single most useful feature of the whole guide: a dating table of all non-imported medieval wares discussed in the book.

A few, apparently novel, suggestions catch the eye. The notion of a significant link between Late Saxon Shelly ware (code S1; dated circa 900-1050) and places linked to Chertsey Abbey is interesting, though the text stops short of stating it was produced under the monastery’s auspices (page 12). The manufacture of Ironstone Sandy Ware (IQ; before 1050-1150) is explained in more detail, with its constituent elements of crushed “ironstone” (ferruginous sandstone) localised to the Farnham area and at least some of the clays coming from the Reading Beds along the north side of the chalk ridge, maybe even along the Hog’s Back (page 16). This makes a lot of sense given IQ ware is well represented in the assemblage of medieval pottery sherds I have collected from Puttenham village.

Screen shot 2016-04-14 at 18.42.24

Medieval pottery sherds from my back garden in Puttenham, all identified using the new guide. On the left, a sherd of Saxo-Norman Chalky ware (SNC, before 1000-1150), rare for the village; on the right, a mix of IQ, Grey/Brown sandy ware (Q2, circa 1150-1250), and a coarser whiteware (perhaps WW1A, circa 1240-1550).

For a publication that’s being sold at such a low price, the production values are remarkably high. The cover’s not too flimsy so I’m hoping it will withstand years of being carried around in bags and large pockets. The guide is colour printed throughout, with only colour photos – and no small number of them. On the whole, the photos are very useful: one or two are maybe a little on the dark side, and others not as sharply reproduced as they might be. However, the cross-section images by Isabel Ellis are all perfectly legible, and are especially useful as a result (those of the various whitewares are made even more effective because they can be compared with Jones’ earlier hand-drawn schematic reproduced on page 24). If there are factual errors contained within the text then I’ve not been able to spot them. All in all, a truly excellent product and, if it’s not already following an established model developed in other counties and regions, is one that deserves to be emulated in the future.

The guide is probably available from the SyAS office, price £5; if not, email me at and I’ll put you in touch with the person who sold me my copy!

Posted in Archaeology, Books, Dorking, History, Pottery, Publishing, Surrey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The “missing” Early Anglo-Saxon burials of historic north-east Surrey: bodies in the Thames?

(I’ve only gone and done another really long post! This is of course a good thing, as there’s plenty of what I consider to be great stuff in what follows, so please make some time to give it a go. Still, I promise my next offering will be much shorter.)

Midway through my previous post, I stated there was an issue on which wanted to fly a kite, one that needed its own stage to do it justice (a vast stage as it turns out). It boils down to the fact that, though we have several excavated settlements, buildings and features suggestive of nearby permanent or temporary habitation in the north-east of the historic county of Surrey which have been dated to the fifth and sixth centuries and look “Anglo-Saxon” in style, there are no inhumation or cremation burials contemporary with them known from the same area. (By historic north-east Surrey, I mean the current London boroughs of Southwark, Lambeth, Wandsworth, and that part of Richmond south/east of the Thames.) The settlements were obviously built and inhabited by people, who were mortal and therefore had to die and leave bodies behind that needed to be disposed of somehow. So what’s going on?

We are probably safe to understand the fifth- and sixth-century inhabitants of the settlements along the north-east Surrey section of the Thames Valley disposed of their deceased in ways that were not completely at odds with their contemporaries in other parts of “Anglo-Saxon” lowland Britain. What is harder to understand is where and how they did so. I have an idea that may provide at least a partial explanation – then again, it may be barking up the wrong tree! In short, I’m invoking the concept of water-burial, or rather “watery-burial”, for my inkling is that the “missing” dead of the Early Anglo-Saxon-period settlements of north-east Surrey were deposited at the edge of and/or in the River Thames.

While feeling very much out of my comfort zone in setting out to investigate whether this is indeed a credible explanation, I can at least cite in support of the basic premise no less an authority than Prof. Howard Williams, who, in his brilliant Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain, offered the following observation:

‘We must bear in mind that a range of disposal methods [in addition to inhumation and cremation] would not necessarily leave behind a clear and coherent archaeological signature, including water-burial and excarnation.’ (Williams 2006, 86)

It’s important to underscore that I’m not suggesting that all the deceased were subject to water-burial in the sense of corpses being deposited in the main river or tributary channels. It’s as much about riverside bogs and fens, and drier-land locations in close physical proximity to the Thames. A few of these burials may be tangible through objects (bones, former grave goods) that have entered the river environment as a result of natural erosion or some form of destructive human agency. The means by which this could have occurred are to all intents and purposes irrecoverable, but we can at least ask questions that may allow us to get some handle on whether they are more likely to have derived from a mortuary or non-mortuary context. The following pages (please click through via the numbers below) are designed to investigate the following questions:

  • Do we really know enough to be confident that even the most recent presentations/interpretations of the archaeological distribution patterns are accurate?
  • Should/can the explanation of non-funerary ritual deposition be applied to all Anglo-Saxon artefacts found in the Thames?
  • How can the burials known from in or alongside the Thames be characterised, and do they point to any shifts in the perception of the Thames as a mortuary space over time?
  • To what extent are Early Anglo-Saxon-period non-martial artefacts from the Thames shoreline best interpreted as former grave goods?

Of pretty much equal importance to the above is the stress I must place on the fact mortuary archaeology is not a field in which I can claim to have any real expertise. I’m all too aware that there are plenty of early medieval mortuary archaeologists out there doing and blogging about so much amazing research that the internet barely needs me to add to the hubbub! My plea here is that, as a problem that has implications at the social and political levels in which I am better versed, I thought I’d stick my head above the parapet and set out my hypothesis to see how those in the know respond to it. The remainder of this post is not the presentation of the proof of the hypothesis, rather the investigation of its credibility as a potential explanation for a curious gap in knowledge, in the hope that research may be taken further and deeper in the future.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Landscape, London, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Ritual, Surrey, Thames | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The origins of Surrey: two scholars’ work and my two pennies’ worth

(This is a long post. I didn’t set out to write such a whopper, rather it grew and grew as a result of choosing such a big, juicy topic which requires time to do it justice. Which is not to claim that what follows below is somehow the definitive word on the matter – far from it. Instead I offer it as a series of linked observations and suggestions that sort-of add up to a thesis about the roots of Surrey as a territory and a place-name. Hopefully, you’ll stick with it across the several pages as it was written to be read in one go. All the same, I will highlight that a lot of useful references are collected – and linked to where they can be read online for free – in the bibliography at the end, so if nothing else this might act as a useful online resource for researchers looking into aspects of the subject matter in the future.)

Late summer and early autumn last year were a busy time for me. Not only did I finally finish the redraft of the article on transhumance and the Weald I’ve been trailing for some time now, I began my PhD – though I’ve been SO part-time I have very little to report thus far. In between, I found the time to put together and present papers at two events: the Naming in Diasporic Contexts workshop in Leicester, and a Surrey Archaeological Society Medieval Studies Forum meeting on ‘Village Life’ in East Horsley. I also had the pleasure of being present at Prof Chris Scull’s frankly astounding Wilson lecture on the hitherto hush-hush research project finding evidence (and lots of it) for the high-status Early to Mid-Anglo-Saxon period centre at Rendlesham in Suffolk, which is set to be a real game-changer on several fronts. Each would warrant a blog post of their own but, given my work rate over the last four months of 2015, realistically that’s not going to happen…


A select band of place-name scholars navigate their way along a hollow way through the deserted medieval village site of Ingarsby, Leicestershire, during the second day of the Naming in Diasporic Contexts workshop, September 2015


Not that the following should be read as a judgement on the quality of the aforementioned, but the impetus for me to write this post was another lecture I attended during this time, namely John Hines’ talk to the SyAS Roman Studies Group about the Roman-Saxon transition in Surrey. There was – and is – no person better-placed than Prof. Hines to speak on the topic, given the remarkable amount of work he’s done on Surrey (or at least making reference to elements of its Early Anglo-Saxon archaeology) over the years, and more generally his masterful knowledge of both the archaeology and philology of the period. For me, it was a great chance to hear him talk through the issues at hand and thereby compare mental notes with my own thinking.

What got me even more excited is that Hines cited another of my favourite scholars working in this field, Dr Caitlin Green. Her work on Lincolnshire, published in the book Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400-650, has put forward the idea that a British territory and populace known as *Lindēs endured through the fifth and earlier sixth century, centred on the Roman city of Lincoln (formerly Lindum Colonia). Contemporary cemeteries – mostly large cremation cemeteries at places like Cleatham and Loveden Hill – of Anglo-Saxon (in this case Anglian, at least for the most part) type have not been found in the vicinity of Lincoln; in fact, the nearest is some 17 miles distance from the city.

Screen shot 2016-01-28 at 11.40.21

This stark separation is explained first as the hand of ‘some sort of British authority based at Lincoln … preventing the Anglo-Saxon groups represented by the cremation cemeteries from settling in this territory’ (Green 2012, 62-63), and later, in conjunction with “British” artefact distribution patterns, as ‘suggestive of the deliberate direction of Anglo-Saxon settlement … to provide for the defence of their [i.e. the British *Lindēs] territory’ (Green 2012, 89). Green doesn’t formally present this as a model but effectively it can be boiled down to several transferable elements, against which similar evidence from in and around other former Roman urban centres in eastern Britain can be tested. (I heartily recommend Green’s book, but you can read a digest of most of the above in this post on her personal blog.)

Last year, I started tinkering with the idea of taking the basic tenets of Green’s hypothesis and applying them to the situation in Surrey, as there’s what seems to be a very big gap – 10 miles or more – between the Roman city of London with its suburban bridgehead at Southwark and the earliest Anglo-Saxon-type cemeteries in historic Surrey at Mitcham, Croydon, Beddington, and Ewell. Hines identified an arc of Early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries (and by extension communities) extending from Shepperton in the west (now Surrey but historically Middlesex), through Surrey, on to Orpington and Dartford in Kent and ultimately Mucking close to the Thames in Essex, all of which could be seen as being sited in reference to London and its hinterland (cf. Hines 2004, 92-3 (esp. Fig. 7.1)). Only minor details and emphases need be changed for this proposition to accord with Green’s hypothesis.

Much more recently, I rediscovered Ken Dark’s Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, first published in 2000, and found he’d got there first with the idea of a post-Roman British buffer zone around London. Now I’ll admit to having not been the biggest fan of Dark’s book at the first time of asking, but it’s been really stimulating rereading the section ‘Thinking the unthinkable: British kingdoms in eastern Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries’ (Dark 2000, 97-103). Its title is something of a misnomer, as all talk of kingdoms is quickly dispensed with in favour of ‘enclaves’ of British ‘political control’. He dedicates several paragraphs to setting out his stall (or rather one he acknowledges is inherited from the work of Mortimer Wheeler in the 1930s) in regards to one such enclave around London.

Dark’s take on things (2000, 99-100) is pretty sophisticated in some respects. Finding a dearth of suitable evidence from within the walls of the former Roman city of Londinium (a situation I’ll address on the next page), he argues for a shift of ‘sub-Roman’ activity to the west in the vicinity of what would become the emporium of Lundenwic. But, as I read his argument, he suggests that this was not the sole centre of enduring British political control, rather one of a dispersed network of nodal settlements, often of fifth-/sixth-century date with potential Late Roman precursors nearby. The locations of the earliest so-called Anglo-Saxon cemeteries of Surrey and Essex in Dark’s eyes betray the original role of the interred as members of ‘military communities’ offering protection from the periphery (often settled at strategic points on lines of land and water communications), and trading their ceramics and metalwork with their British masters.

Another riff on the hypotheses of Green and Dark is to be found in this multi-author article reporting the preliminary results of research into the origins of the West Saxon kingdom, the fruit of a project which I’ve been keeping tabs on for a good while now. Here too, along the course of the upper Thames and tributaries, a decidedly uneven pattern of post-Roman material culture has come to light. For good reason the primary focus is upon the ‘hotspots’ of material, containing several nationally and internationally-important excavated settlements, burials and other find-spots, which arguably stand for a riverine heartland zone of the nascent kingdom of Wessex. What is more relevant for the purposes of this post are the conspicuous gaps in the artefact distribution maps which require explanation, such as west of the Thames-Evenlode confluence, and the wording of Helena Hamerow’s assessment is worthy of direct quotation:

‘Such gaps in the evidence, though often ignored, raise the possibility that some of these areas represent enclaves where “native” forms of settlement and burial persisted into the post-Roman period. In considering the distributions of different kinds of dress items and buildings, it is necessary to recall that “early Anglo-Saxon” material culture stands for a whole social and political system; its absence therefore is unlikely to indicate an empty landscape, but rather to communities with different ways of doing things.’ (Hamerow, Ferguson and Naylor 2013, 61)

In this case, there is no major Roman urban centre in the area which might be compared to Green’s Lincoln of the fifth and sixth centuries, with civic leaders who continued to exercise considerable intramural and extramural control. Not that this actually matters, particularly in terms of the evidence from Surrey that will be examined in a little bit, or at least not so much as the suggestion that British communities were continuing to do things their own way in the face of the importation and/or native uptake of a new material culture.

With Hines having brought the north-east of the historic county back into the frame as the most credible location for the original Surrey, and invoking Green’s work to explain the Roman-Saxon transition, I’ve been spurred into digging out the draft plan for this post and, well, the rest is history (and archaeology and onomastics). My key concern is whether the obviously uneven geography of Early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and artefacts in north-east Surrey reflects a similar situation to what has been hypothesised at Lincoln/*Lindēs, or what might be characterised as the more informal explanation advanced by Hamerow for parts of western Oxfordshire.

As with so many aspects of the early medieval period, it comes down to the issue of whether absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Do areas of north-east Surrey lacking in “Anglo-Saxon” artefacts = areas of persistent “British” control and material culture, as Dark believes? Or do they represent areas that were genuinely empty or very sparsely populated in this period? Alternatively, are such interpretations premature and pessimistic, ignoring the relevant evidence, perhaps because it has only recently been reported? Was the situation more complex? We can at least define the period of time with which we are primarily concerned: the fifth and sixth centuries CE. Finally, if the evidence is found to be significantly different from what has been identified in Lincolnshire and Oxfordshire, could/should we construct a distinctive “Surrey model” to explain it, or just chalk it up to local-cum-regional diversity not worthy and/or capable of being modelled?

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Brittonic, Language, London, Old English, PhD, Place-Names, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Roman, Surrey, Thames, Topography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

At the end of the year

It wasn’t supposed to take me so long to post something new here. I have my reasons for this. You know how they say you can balance a full-time job with a part-time PhD? Exactly, no-one says that, because you can’t, or at least not when the full-time element also requires a lengthy commute three or four days a week. But now executive decisions have been made and the full-time job (working for a company I didn’t like, doing a role I wasn’t that interested in) has been given the heave-ho. 2016 is going to be a year of big changes for me and I’m good with that, because many of the changes are ones I feel like I’m choosing to make.


Back to the here and now, I’m glad I’ve found the time to sneak in a post before 2015 becomes 2016. I mean, this isn’t the thing (actually, either of the things) I had intended to form the post heralding my return, but as they say, good things come to those who wait. (Look out for some new bits and pieces in the new year.) Instead, being at home over Christmas has meant I’ve been in very close proximity to reminders of another piece I’ve had up my sleeve since the other side of the summer, and therefore it seemed natural to take up where I left off and finish it. So please check out the newest addition to my Puttenham tab, in which I delve into the significance of the little nineteenth-century painting above. If things go to plan, I may even mount a mini-exhibition about it in Puttenham next year.

Hope 2015 has been good to you, and that 2016 will be even better. See you then.

Posted in Being organised, History, Landscape, News, Puttenham, Surrey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The beech, pannaging, and the unexpected relevance of Riddle 40

The beech-tree, shedder of uncomfortable-to-lie-on mast

The beech-tree, shedder of uncomfortable-to-lie-on mast, and giver of minor inspiration

As seems to be becoming an annual inevitability, summer in the UK has been another overcast letdown. Luckily, I skipped these shores for a week at the start of the month for the altogether more hot and sunny climes of Switzerland (which at that point was in the grip of a heatwave). It was glorious, all that hot weather meaning there was little else to do than head for one of Zürich’s many schwimmbaden and take a dip in the clean, clear waters of the lake or river.

One of the most interesting places to take a swim is the Letten, the channel going into and out of a former waterworks. Zürich being Zürich, it’s been turned into two fantastic (and free) outdoor bathing facilities. The bathing is great – not least because the current is strong enough to pull you along without much need to move your arms, perfect for a weak swimmer like me! – and the gardens alongside the water blissful. Coming round from a mid-afternoon nap out of the heat of the Swiss sun, I realised I was lain beneath a mighty beech tree (and on its pointy and deeply uncomfortable mast or nuts shed by the tree); the way the sun was percolating through its branches and leaves spurred me to take the photo above.

For a couple of years now, I’ve been slowly plugging away at getting a draft of an article titled ‘Anglo-Saxon swine pastures and transhumance in the Surrey Weald’, written by the late Dennis Turner, fit for publication. Beech mast was one of the main things eating by pigs during woodland-based pannage grazing in the very late summer and autumn months (only in the Weald it was probably acorns from oak trees that were the main foodstuff). The link with what I’ve been doing (or meant to have been doing much quicker than I have!) was more to the fore in my mind at the time because of a blog post by Megan Cavell I had read not so long before on the always fascinating Riddle Ages site. This looked at some of the themes emerging from Riddle 40, not only a whopper length-wise but equally noteworthy for having an extant Latin version (found in the Enigmata 100 collection by my favourite OTT wordsmith, Aldhelm) as well as the more commonly-encountered Old English.

One of the points of divergence between the two texts concerns pigs in woods. The pasturing of swine in woodland environments is not well recorded, and attestations are largely limited to charters (often occurring lists of pascua porcorum found towards the end of diploma texts) and place-names containing Old English words like denn or hlōse. What I hadn’t expected was for the two versions of Riddle 40 to contain remarkable (and so far as I am aware previously unnoticed) details about Anglo-Saxon pig husbandry. I was chuffed to discover, therefore, that the contrast between the “swarthy boar” (bearg bellende) living the life of Riley in a beech wood (bocwuda) of the OE text, and the greasy sows (scrofarum) carrying themselves back (referunt) from beech trees with their “fattened flesh” (carne subulci) in the Latin original, seems to accord in the main with a model I tentatively constructed sometime last year to explain early medieval Wealden pig pasturing as part of a continuous year-round cycle.

I will need to look more closely at both riddle texts and what’s been written about them to check that it does indeed stack up (Aldhelm’s Latin can be a source of particular difficulty) and if this practical implication has been noted previously. Nevertheless, initial indications are certainly promising and, given Aldhelm died in 709, the Latin version could well constitute the earliest Anglo-Saxon-period reference to the pannaging of pigs. (There’s a reference to swine in woodland in Ine of Wessex’s law code of the very late seventh century, but this is about the shade provided to the animals by trees and makes no mention of their movement.)

By way of thanks for bringing this to my attention, I’m strongly recommending anyone who reads this post now goes on to check out the Commentary for Riddle 40 and all of the Riddle Ages’ many other delights. Meanwhile, I’ll be going back through all of the other riddles to see if there’s anything else of equivalent relevance to pigs, or to other topics within my research crosshairs.

Posted in Aldhelm, History, Language, Latin, Literature, Old English, Pigs, Riddles, Switzerland | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

From Eliopoleos to Sunbury-on-Thames, and the mystery of ‘sunnan hyg’

A couple of years ago, in my first flush of excitement at doing a Master’s degree involving a substantial slice of Old English, I wrote two blog posts linking the Surrey place-names Wanborough and Clandon with hitherto-unacknowledged literary references from a charm and OE Herbarium respectively. I was on the look out for a third such name-literature pairing, because trios of things are somehow especially satisfying to me. Not sure exactly why this is, but, whether you see it positively (like De La Soul) or negatively (every time there’s a major air disaster my father remarks that these tragedies come in threes), I’m clearly not alone in imbuing the number three with a particular significance. Anyway, I didn’t come across another example at the time and my attentions moved on to other things (coursework, mainly).

My discovery of the third (but in the grander scheme of things hopefully not final!) reference had to wait until Christmas Day last year. Among the presents I received was Towns & Topography: Essays in Memory of David Hill, an if I’m honest slightly-disappointing collection of papers on various topics united by their affinities to the research interests of the book’s late, great dedicatee. One of its more interesting contributions is that authored by Mark Atherton, entitled ‘”Sudden Wonder”: Urban Perspectives in Late Anglo-Saxon Literature’. In the course of a mere nine pages he quotes from and analyses a wide variety of Old English-period texts, some of which were familiar from reading other bits of scholarship within this field (The Ruin, Legend of the Seven Sleepers), others more or less brand new to me.

Detail from the illustrated Old English Hexateuch; not sure which folio, but it's one of those images related to royal justice that gets reproduced in loads of works so it shouldn't be hard to find out (photo via Wikimedia Commons, you know the score)

Detail from the illustrated Old English Hexateuch; not sure which folio, but it’s one of those images related to royal justice that gets reproduced in loads of works so it shouldn’t be hard to find out for yourself (photo via Wikimedia Commons, you know the score)

Falling into the latter category was the illustrated Old English Hexateuch (a.k.a. BL Cotton Claudius B. iv), an eleventh-century work produced at Canterbury (or else by one or more person with a Canterburian connection). Atherton highlights a depiction on folio 60v. – click here to see it for yourself in all its digitised glory – of the Pharoah’s presentation of a wife to Joseph, who had not long before been appointed ‘reeve over all Egypt’, which is accompanied by the following text etymologising the name of the city of which her father was priest (quoted here along with Atherton’s translation):

of þære byrig þe is genemned Eliopoleos, þæt is on Englisc, ‘Sunnan buruh’

‘of the city that is called Eliopoleos, that is in English, “Sunbury”‘ (Atherton 2014, 80)

Thanks to Atherton’s rather literal translation (the Old English glossing might be read as spelling out the meaning of “city of the sun” to the reader), it didn’t require a great leap of the imagination to make the connection with Sunbury-on-Thames. An estate of Westminster Abbey from the late tenth century (until 1222), there is a run of genuine Old English spellings of the place-name which can be equated with Sunnan buruh: (æt, to) Sunnan byrig 962 (S 702), (æt, into) Sunnanbyrg c.968 (S 1447). Sunbury also appears in a number of other Westminster charters that purport to date from before the Norman Conquest but in reality are later forgeries. The spellings – Sunnabyri (S 1293, S 1043), Sunnanburig (S 894), Sunnabury (S 1039), Sunnabyrig (S 1040) – are fairly reasonable attempts at replicating the OE form(s). Domesday Book renders it as Sun[n]eberie.

The heart of historic Eliopoleos, sorry, Sunbury

The heart of historic Eliopoleos, I mean, Sunbury-on-Thames

Despite the philological similarities, the most credible etymology for the place-name Sunbury is unfortunately not the same as for Eliopoleos, rather “*Sunna‘s stronghold or manor” (hence CDEPN, 589, here adjusted to reflect the understanding of the second element proposed in VEPN, 74). The specific would be the genitive singular inflection of a weak masculine personal name *Sunna (the equivalent female form *Sunne is possible, too), the generic the genitive or dative singular of the very common noun burh (of which the Heaxteuch’s buruh is a reflex). The personal name is unattested (note should be taken of the late-recorded dithematic man’s name Sunngifu, however), but would credibly stand for a byname arising from the masculine noun sunna, ‘the sun’ (cf. the more common feminine version sunne). In origin, it was perhaps a reference to the colour of the hair or complexion of the person in question – hence, when travelling in China, my blonde-haired girlfriend was told on at least one occasion that her hair was “bright like the sun”.

Over the years, some (see, for instance, Bailey 1989, 114) have made a connection between Sunbury and the various place-names upstream along the River Thames in Berkshire which derive from OE *Sunningas (Sonning, Sunninghill, Sunningdale), a presumed tribal name going back to a male figurehead named Sunna, and first documented in the earlier 670s as prouincie que apellatur Sunninges (“the province which is called *Sunningas“; the spelling is likely to represent a 13th-century modernisation of the OE original – for a discussion of the name and province, see Kelly 2015, 102). While Sunbury is not so many miles away from the Berkshire name cluster, it strikes me as perverse that the tribe’s eponymous figurehead could have had his stronghold (real or imagined) at a remove from what is safe to assume as being the territorial centre in east Berkshire. While there simply isn’t the evidence with which to discount a direct link altogether, there seems no harm to proceeding by treating Sunbury as a name formation in its own right, potentially one of later formation than the *Sunninga(s) derivatives.

Thames Street in Sunbury, decked out with bunting to celebrate, er, how great bunting is?

Thames Street in Sunbury, decked out with bunting to celebrate, er, how great bunting is?

Historically, Sunbury was part of Middlesex until 1965, when Sunbury-on-Thames and Staines Urban Districts were transferred to the county of Surrey. Nine years later, the urban districts were merged and reconfigured as Spelthorne Borough, which interestingly represents a revival of the local Domesday Hundred name. It’s nothing personal against the area, but I’m always a little cautious about taking Surrey Medieval into matters to do with Spelthorne. In this case, however, I have a very good reason for sticking with Sunbury, as there’s an Old English mystery I believe I can solve.

The mystery of “Sunna‘s hyg

Of the charters mentioned on the previous page, two are definitely genuine and hence of considerable interest: S 1447 (analysed and discussed in great detail by Thompson Smith 2012, 79-107) and S 702. This is a typical royal diploma of the third quarter of the tenth century, which survives in near-contemporary single-sheet form (for a good, primarily palaeographical account, see Korhammer 1973, 182-87). What it lacks in narrative details when compared with S 1447 it more than makes up for by its inclusion of an Old English boundary description of the perimeter of the estate (plus 10 yardlands of the meadow at nearby Halliford and rights to wood and pannage from ‘burhwuda‘). The start and end point of the perambulation catches the eye because of its obvious connection to the first half of the place-name Sunbury:

Ærest on sunnan hyg [] on sunnan hyg

“First to sunnan hyg […] to sunnan hyg” (S 702)

No-one has been able to offer a satisfactory explanation of hyg. Indeed, in recent years the question has been swerved altogether; when the Sunbury bounds were edited for the LangScape database, no translation was suggested in even the most tentative way. (Out of interest, LangScape cautiously glosses sunnan as “sun’s”, although the more probable personal-name alternative is acknowledged in a footnote.)

One might have thought it would be connected with Old English hyge, ‘mind, heart, soul’, although the obvious difficulties in envisaging a topographical application of any of these senses may explain why this has not been pursued. A less well-attested noun hyge, ‘the upper part of the throat’, might be admissible given the use of the likes of ceole, ‘(the) throat’, and tunge, ‘tongue’ in toponymy (whence perhaps the Surrey place-names Chilworth and Tongham, for example). The problem is this would necessitate detailed anatomical knowledge as well as a very distinctively-shaped landform, which arguably serves to rule out this possibility. Moreover, so far as I can determine, hyg is not straightforwardly identifiable as a dialect and/or inflected form of another word.

A remarkable privately-published book on S 702 – or, to use the title given to it by the author, ‘the Sunbury Charter’ – provides two further suggestions for the sense of hyg, as well as the inspiration for my new alternative (Tapp 1951). A significant portion of the book is given over to an analysis of the boundary clause, including several identifications of tenth-century landmarks in the landscape of London’s urban periphery. Concerning sunnan hyg, Tapp wrote the following:

‘Mr. Earle took this to be a mis-spelling for “byrig-byrg” dative of “burg”. The word appears twice and we therefore came to the conclusion that it must have some connection with “hæg-haga” meaning enclosure or fence (stockade)’ (Tapp 1951, 3).

If it’s not clear already, hyg shouldn’t be read as an elision of either of the two word pairings, for these represent Tapp providing two forms of the same Old English term. Both are credible on at least a basic level, as we seem to be dealing with a word arising from scribal error. But I believe true understanding of the Old English root-word comes from Tapp’s mapping of the Sunbury estate boundary (1951, 9). He placed what is labelled ‘Sunna’s Haw’ at the south-eastern corner of the estate (but not the parish; it has long been recognised that the estate boundary was not coterminous with the parochial boundary), beside the Thames in the immediate vicinity of the present parish church (approximate OS grid reference TQ 10656855).

Tales of the riverbank

My feeling is this riverside location is important, and as a result my hypothesis is that the final letter in hyg represent a misreading (or mis-reproduction) of the glyph þ (thorn) or ð (eth/ðæt) in the Old English noun hȳþ, “landing-place (on a river)” (my spelling follows the head form used in the Old English Thesaurus; the term is given the full Gelling and Cole treatment in LPN, 83-89). Both letters occur elsewhere in words in the boundary description (e.g. þanonþonenorðeƿeardreoðre, etc.), but only once in a terminal position: hyrð (“belong”); this might indicate the scribe of the extant charter had trouble correctly identifying thorn at the end of sunnan hyþ. Trouble is, the two identical forms of the name occur in grammatical contexts both requiring the dative singular inflected form hyþe (or hyðe), which therefore would imply misunderstanding of not one but two characters.

A possible explanation for the apparently erroneous hyg is that the scribe was working from a boundary description written down on a separate sheet by another individual whose handwriting was not entirely legible and/or who failed to provide the correctly-inflected ending (most likely by accident in view of other nouns in the bounds having the correct endings). Elsewhere in the Westminster archive is a set of bounds for Battersea, associated with an entirely unrelated diploma text of 957 (S 645; glossed bounds here). It may have been common for boundary descriptions to have been composed on parchment which was then attached to the respective diploma, or transcribed into the latter before being discarded (see Keynes 1990, 255 footnote 114). It’s beyond my scholarly capabilities to adjudge whether the Sunbury boundary clause is written in the same hand as the rest of the diploma – all I’ll say is that it looks very alike to me. (If you can get your hands on a copy of the book, draw your own conclusion by consulting the image of the charter on Tapp 1951, 2.)

The riverfront at Sunbury-on-Thames

Hereabouts was sunnan hyg? The riverfront at Sunbury-on-Thames

Another way of testing my hypothesis was to visit its presumed location, something I did last weekend. The weakness in this approach is that it’s reliant on Tapp’s suggestion being correct – being a first-time visitor to Sunbury with only limited prior knowledge of the place culled from books, journals, and websites, I’m proceeding in the expectation/hope that it is! Anyway, I found the riverbank below Sunbury church – and hence in the postulated environs of sunnan hyg – is now a pleasant, sort-of landscaped linear garden. Appropriately, all along the water’s edge are moorings for boats. I’ve no idea if the current river wall is a structure with a long history or a modern development, but at its western limit is George Wilson & Sons boatbuilders, based in Ferry House. A ferry at Sunbury is on record from at least 1604, which is of course but a hop and a skip from the medieval period.

This photo shows the curvature of the river and north bank despite being taken a few metres back from the water's edge

This photo shows the curvature of the river and north bank despite being taken a few metres back from the water’s edge

Sunbury mooring

Sunbury boatbuilders

The riverside premises of Wilson & Sons, the nearest thing to a landing-place at Sunbury these days

Sunbury Ferry House

Whatever its current status and appearance, pretty much any piece of riverbank could be postulated to have been an early medieval landing-place. Making a convincing case for a landing-place below Sunbury church can be aided by comparing its situation with the other places both downstream and upstream of Sunbury on the lower Thames which bear (or bore) names containing OE hȳþ. The suggested site of *Sunnanhȳþ lies on the outside of a gentle bend in the river. Previously, I’ve discussed at length the ones further down the river in what was once Surrey (even going so far as to make a poster for the Thames Discovery Programme to illustrate my point).

Heading the other way along the river on a walk, I passed two extant “hythes” with probable pre-1066 origins (see captions to the photos below for details). The place from which Egham Hythe takes its name is on the south bank of the Thames but is likewise on the outside of a meander, whereas The Hythe opposite Staines (sorry, Staines-upon-Thames) is on the inside. Both resemble Sunbury in having the capability for boats to moor up – but I must concede this could be said of most of the stretch of river I walked alongside. I dimly recall from my GCSE Geography syllabus that the river channel is deepest and flow fastest on the outside of a bend or meander in a river, but one as large as the Thames I’m not sure if the differences would be sufficiently pronounced as to dissuade the siting of landing-places if there were other factors (e.g. proximity to estate centres or other settlements) in operation.

This is Egham Hythe, first recorded as Huþe in the boundary description appended to S 1165, perhaps in the second half of the 11th or early 12th century; it was substantially revised in the mid-13th century (see Kelly 2015, 108-111).

The part of Egham Hythe (and a Mute Swan) closest to the site of “Wealh‘s or Briton’s landing-place” which features in not one but two of S 1165’s three estate boundary descriptions: as Ƿeales huþe in the one for Chertsey and Thorpe, and wheles huþe in the one for Egham (discussed sequentially in Kelly 2015, 104-111).

The Hythe, first recorded as Huþe in the boundary description for Egham. The text was perhaps created and in the second half of the 11th or early 12th century, and substantially revised in the mid-13th century (see Kelly 2015, 108-111).

The Hythe, first recorded as Huþe in the boundary description for Egham, viewed from Staines Bridge. The bounds were perhaps surveyed and written down in the second half of the 11th or early 12th century, and substantially revised in the mid-13th century (see Kelly 2015, 108-111).

Returning to the language, it must be noted that there’s an outside possibility S 702’s sunnan hyg could stand for a shortening of an original compound *Sunnanbyrig-hȳþ. The phenomenon of the middle element being dropped from a tripartite name formation in late Old English is well-evidenced but so far as I am aware has not been the subject of a dedicated survey (the reference I’ve seen trotted out most often is the brief yet influential comment by Gelling 2005, 244). This would implicitly place the coinage of name at a considerable period of time before 962, although by how much is unclear (and likewise the notion gives no means of determining the date of Sunbury as a name formation).

A piece of evidence which casts doubt on this scenario is to be found miles downstream on the opposite, Surrey bank of the river (though no longer in the administrative county – keep up!). The place-name Putney is first attested in a corrupt Domesday form Putelei, but later spellings (e.g. Puttenhyth 1350) confirm the generic is hȳþ. Like Sunbury and Egham Hythe, the historic settlement of Putney lies on the outside of a river bend. Opinions on the specific this vary between the early-attested weak masculine personal name Putta (e.g. CDEPN, 486) and the related noun putta, “hawk” (e.g. LPN, 88). Unless we see the name being a secondary formation from a lost *Puttanburh, -byrig nearby (and never say never), the evidence from the Sunbury bounds encourages its interpretation as OE *Puttanhȳþ, “Putta‘s landing-place”. In return, the philological data for Putney supports the judgement that sunnan hyg is not a shortened form of a once-longer name compound.

Thematically and geographically, this is nearest thing I have to a photo of Putney

Thematically and geographically, the nearest thing I have to a photo of Putney


Given the connection of our putative *Sunna with the nearby fortified manorial centre (or whatever burh, byrig was meant to signify in the place-name), it must be assumed the nature of his association with the Thames-side landing-place was one of ownership/proprietorship. At a microtopgraphical level, it looks as if landing-places meriting the use of the term hȳþ were positioned so as to be proximate to deeper parts of the river channel, perhaps a inevitable consequence of the navigability of the Thames above its tidal limit.

So when in the Anglo-Saxon period was *Sunnanhȳþ established and at its height? Frankly, other than pre-dating the documentary historical horizon of circa 950, it’s all but impossible to tell. At Putney, there is considerable evidence for Romano-British activity on the shoreline as well as seventh-/eighth-century proto-pennies and other early medieval finds. A very rare coin of the West Saxon King Beorhtric (786-802) was found in Sunbury parish in 1865 (e.g. Bonser 1998, 216), but there’s nothing to say it came from the water’s edge rather than in a location set well away from the Thames. Nor is it obvious from the Sunbury estate boundary description whether the landing-place was still operating to any significant degree in 962 (or whenever the S 702 bounds were surveyed). And maybe therein lies the most important lesson to be learned from this exercise: a topographically as well as philologically credible explanation for the identity of sunnan hyg has been advanced, but this only prompts new questions about its place in time, and likewise of its relationship with the similarly-named estate centre.


Atherton, Mark, ‘”Sudden Wonder”: Urban Perspectives in Late Anglo-Saxon Literature’ in Towns & Topography: Essays in Memory of David H. Hill, ed. by G. R. Owen-Crocker & S. D. Thompson (Oxford & Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2014), 74-82

Bailey, Keith, ‘The Middle Saxons’ in The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. by S. Bassett (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1989), 108-122

Bonser, Michael, ‘Single finds of ninth-century coins from southern England: a listing’ in Kings, Currency and Alliances: History and Coinage of Southern England in the Ninth Century, ed. by M. A. S. Blackburn & D. N. Dumville (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1998), 199-240

Gelling, Margaret, Signposts to the Past, third edition (Chichester: Phillimore, 2005)

Gelling, Margaret, and Ann Cole, The Landscape of Place-Names, new edition (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2014) [= LPN]

Kelly, S. E., ed., Charters of Chertsey Abbey (Oxford: Oxford University Press for The British Academy, 2015)

Keynes, Simon, ‘Royal government and the written word in late Anglo-Saxon England’, in The uses of literacy in early medieval Europe, ed. by Rosamond McKitterick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 226-57

Korhammer, P. E., ‘The origin of the Bosworth Psalter’, Anglo-Saxon England, 2 (1973), 173–87

Parsons, David N., and Tania Styles, The Vocabulary of English Place-Names (Brace-Cæster) (Nottingham: Centre for English Name Studies, 2000) [= VEPN]

Tapp, W. H., The Sunbury Charter (Sunbury-on-Thames: Major W. H. Tapp, 1951)

Thompson Smith, Scott, Land and Book: Literature and Land Tenure in Anglo-Saxon England (Toronto, Buffalo & London: University of Toronto Press, 2012)

Watts, Victor, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) [= CDEPN]

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Charters, Church, History, Landscape, Language, Old English, Spelthorne, Sunbury, Surrey, Thames, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Guildford Museum: facts, fears, and the future

What follows is not a run-of-the-mill Surrey Medieval post, but something I’ve felt moved to write in the wake of some dramatic local news. Over the weekend, I learned that the Surrey Archaeological Society, of which I am a long-standing member (right back to fondly-remembered days as a YAC), has been given notice to quit the rooms and other spaces it occupies in Guildford Museum by Guildford Borough Council, the owners and operators, in preparation for a process considering future options for the building. The Society must vacate the museum premises, also known as Castle Arch thanks to the adjacent medieval gateway, by 29th January 2016, giving it roughly six and a half months to make arrangements to leave and find a new home. At the time of writing, what I know about this situation stems largely from two online articles I have read in the excellent Guildford Dragon NEWS online newspaper: one breaking the news about the notice being served, the other giving the Council’s response to and explanation of it.

Before I go any further, let me make it crystal clear that I have written the following in a personal capacity as a sort-of local blogger and what might be termed a stakeholder with an interest in the broader changes which seem to be afoot regarding Guildford Museum. I do not speak for the Surrey Archaeological Society on this or any other matter, and I most certainly do not want any of what follows to be taken as representing the official viewpoint of the Society or its membership. Nor am I party to what its official position is on the matter at the present time. This is simply me, offering a few facts and my own opinions about what I know so far.

The salient facts as reported in the Guildford Dragon NEWS articles are as follows:

  1. Notice to quit has been served on the Surrey Archaeological Society, which had paid ‘a peppercorn rent’ for the sections of the museum building it occupied for what seems to have been a considerable number of years.
  2. According to a quote from the Society’s spokesperson, Emma Corke, ‘We [i.e. the Society] will have to remove all our property from the museum including the numerous exhibits currently on show’ – it is not clear if the necessity of doing this is to meet a stipulation made by the Borough Council or a decision on the part of the Society, although the former party has expressed a hope that there is dialogue to be had about ‘access and use of the [Society’s] collection’.
  3. Guildford Borough Council offered to sell the building known as 48 Quarry Street to the Surrey Archaeological Society for ‘a guide price of £1 million’. This currently forms part of the Guildford Museum complex, but has been adjudged ‘not at all large enough’ by the Society to meet its present and future needs.
  4. Councillor Geoff Davis, Guildford Borough Council’s recently-appointed lead for economic development and a member of the Council’s Executive, has issued a written statement in which he underscores that the Council is ‘committed to Guildford Museum and providing a cultural offering in Guildford for residents and visitors’.
  5. It’s not something I’d picked up on before, but reportedly there has been debate about whether the Surrey-wide scope of Guildford Museum’s present displays is appropriate for an institution operated by a borough council (for those that don’t know, Guildford is the county town of Surrey, so there is something of a tension attendant to such status).

My purpose behind writing this post is not so much to do with the Surrey Archaeological Society, which very much sounds as if it has no chance of preserving the status quo and remaining headquartered at Castle Arch, but the future of Guildford Museum and the Castle Arch building. The news reports state Cllr Davis met with Museum staff early this month in order that they could be ‘briefed about developments’, though understandably the details of this meeting have not been made public. There is no reason to disbelieve Cllr Davis when he writes that Guildford Borough Council is ‘committed to Guildford Museum’, but is this as an institution, or the present museum in the present museum building?

I may not make myself universally popular when I say that Guildford Museum in its current form is a long way from being a perfect museum. Leaving aside sentimental attachment to a place where from a young age I have quenched my thirst for knowledge about the history and archaeology of the area in which I lived and still love, many of the gallery spaces have a tired and somewhat uninspiring air about them. Partly this must be attributed to the building in which it is housed. Castle Arch is a Grade 2* listed building incorporating fabric from the 13th, 17th and early-20th centuries; only the last was designed specifically for its role as a museum, and this was 100+ years ago. Plus, there is a considerable area of publicly-inaccessible and hence grossly under-used “garden” (mostly tatty rough grass) between the museum and some of the standing remains of the adjacent Guildford Castle.

I’ve often thought the Museum would do well to extend into this open space – or at least make much more of it – when looking out at it from the staircase up to the Surrey Archaeological Society’s excellent library. It seems I have not been alone in this, as better access between Museum and Castle Grounds (presumably using this pivotal open area) was at the heart of ambitious plans which were the subject of two failed bids to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF): one for £4.2 million at a national level in 2013, and a second for £1.9 million of regional cash earlier this year. Without any big external cash injection, this scheme could not go ahead giving the current public sector funding climate.

If the artefacts owned by Surrey Archaeological Society currently on display are removed from Guildford Museum, this would leave Guildford Borough Council with less to display but more rooms in Castle Arch to find a use for. The fifth response to the initial Guildford Dragon NEWS article mentions Guildford Borough Council’s art collection, most of which apparently languishes in storage and out of the site of the public. The town’s designated art gallery, Guildford House, has pottered along for years without a galvanising sense of purpose (or least that’s what it feels like to me – it compares unfavourably with Woking’s dynamic new(ish) Lightbox, for example). I wondered therefore if there might be a move to reconfigure Castle Arch as a museum-cum-art gallery in order to get more of the Borough collection on display.

But things may very well not be as straightforward as that. Many of the rooms in Castle Arch are small and low-ceilinged (especially the ones currently occupied by the Surrey Archaeological Society), or have too many windows and too little wall space, making them even more ill-suited to displaying art than Guildford House. Internal modifications to create up-to-date gallery spaces (if these were even possible within a listed building) would potentially cost a considerable amount of money, which again returns us to the issue of cost and who would foot the bill for such capital expenditure.

If ‘all the options’ for Guildford Museum are to be considered once Surrey Archaeological Society has left the building towards the end of January next year, as Cllr Davis indicates they will, then I would suggest there are three main possibilities for what happens next. The first, and dare I say it least likely, is that Guildford Borough Council stumps up an HLF-sized wad of cash to pay for the improvements needed to take Guildford Museum into the 21st century on its present site. I’m sure this would be an outcome preferable to many in Guildford or who have an interest in the Museum but, given the times we live in, I’d be surprised if a pot of money was found to achieve this.

The second is the polar opposite: Guildford Museum vacates its current premises for a new site, leading to the sale of its former home. In some ways this would make more sense. To turn a previously-outlined scenario on its head, Guildford Museum might be moved into some or all of Guildford House, which after all occupies a plum site on the High Street perfect for increasing footfall. Where this would leave its visual arts offering, meanwhile, I don’t know. Similarly, I have no idea about Guildford Borough Council’s town centre property portfolio and what capacity there is for rejigging current occupancies to accommodate Guildford Museum elsewhere (presuming the intention is/will be for it to remain in a central location).

Conceivably, a new space could be bought or leased for the purpose. In the 21st century, it’s worth asking what can or cannot act as a museum space. Most local town museums around Guildford (Farnham, Godalming, Haslemere) are repurposed old town houses, yet there is no overriding reason why Guildford Museum must operate in an historic building. Modern premises, purpose-built or otherwise, could offer better environments and greater flexibility. At least one letter writer to Guildford Dragon NEWS has articulated his own reasons for seeing a brand new building as a positive.

The third and final option is for Guildford Museum remains in its current home, but in reduced form (possibly reorientated towards being a true “town museum”), thereby freeing up space within the building to be converted into other uses. This would most likely require the injection of private capital, possibly via the sale of some of the Castle Arch site. Turning the site into a mixed-use “campus” could even realise the ambitions for connecting the Museum with the Castle Grounds which were thwarted by the rejection of the bids to the HLF. Of course, this would involve the conversion of part of the existing building – and perhaps insertion of new structures – for commercial premises (cafes/restaurants/shops/offices) and maybe even housing. Done well, a mixed-use redevelopment could bring many benefits to Guildford, its residents and visitors.

The willingness of Guildford Borough Council to sell 48 Quarry Street indicates a desire on its part to monetise some of its assets in this part of the town centre. This would tie in with the fact that back in September 2014 the Borough Council was planning to tackle a predicted budgetary shortfall of £6.5 million in part through ‘better use of property assets’. Earlier this summer, I visited The Novium, Chichester’s civic museum. It’s a whopping great contemporary building which cost a reported £7 million to construct (and that was a few years ago). The project has been (or will be) bankrolled by a spot of property speculation on the part of Chichester District Council; the scheme was designed with a block of apartments for private sale to the rear of the museum. I’m not the biggest fan of The Novium as a building (and even less so of the associated housing) but as a model for delivering a museum facility for a town in this day and age, it’s undoubtedly succeeded on several scores. The circumstances prevailing in the creation of a new Guildford Museum would be considerably different, however, unless the Borough Council has something big up its sleeve involving the development of an equivalent surface car-park (and at this stage who’s to say it doesn’t).

My sentiments about Surrey Archaeological Society being given notice and the implications for the future of Guildford Museum have developed over the past few days, from initial disbelief and instinctive opposition to partial acceptance and cautious optimism. (This is separate to the fate of the Surrey Archaeological Society’s collection of artefacts. I have had in mind to produce a piece of work involving at least one find from the Guildown Anglo-Saxon cemetery, but this assemblage has been specifically mentioned as one that will be withdrawn from display as things stand. If a deal cannot be struck, it will of course make my research a good deal harder to undertake, and I’m certain other researchers would be affected by the same issue.)

Allow me to explain why of all things I feel a modicum of optimism. Although I don’t understand quite why Guildford Museum (and Heritage in general) should fall within the portfolio of economic development, I do believe there is someone with relevant expertise heading up the initiative. According to the Guildford Borough Council register of interests, Cllr Davis has a professional background in quantity surveying and commercial property, so should be versed in making optimal use of buildings. To keep things more or less as they are may be one of the options countenanced by Cllr Davis and his team next year, but a half-empty museum will not benefit Guildford in the longer term. Something needs to change.

I’ve laid a few cards on the table, so let me show the rest of my hand. From West Sussex to Dorchester, there is no shortage of examples of public sector cuts at local government level having an impact on provisions for the historic environment. I don’t think the changes to Guildford Museum which seem to be in the offing should be grouped with them – not yet, anyway. Maybe it’s the innate optimist in me, and I’ll be let down in time when the options are announced, but I think whatever comes next should be viewed as an opportunity rather than something to be resisted at all costs.

To capitalise on this opportunity in a rounded way, three issues strike me as being important above all others. Firstly, Guildford Borough Council should do more than “closely liaise” with Surrey Archaeological Society regarding the future of those elements of the present Guildford Museum displays owned by the latter. It must offer practical help to the Society to find a new home for its offices, library and collections. For its part, I hope the Society can impress upon Guildford Borough Council the benefits of keeping Surrey’s foremost popular organisation for archaeology in the county town. To see it go elsewhere after being based in Guildford for so long would be a real shame.

The second is the town vs. county museum question. Present-day Surrey’s a funny beast: the County Council headquarters have been outside the administrative county since 1965, the main county cricket ground even longer. The county name may retain a certain cachet, at least for places long subsumed by London politically, but few would claim Surrey has an especially strong county identity. This being the case, the interests of the historic county can all too easily play second fiddle to more local concerns. It is quite understandable that Guildford Borough Council will always put the interests of town and borough first, and likewise that it wants to make more of its estate. But I would argue it is contingent on the Borough Council not just to do right by Guildford, but Surrey as well. I wouldn’t maintain a website named Surrey Medieval if the county’s history was not a rich and varied one, and Guildford is in many ways the best location for a museum to reflect this.

Thirdly and finally, I would urge Guildford Borough Council and all other interested parties to be bold and imaginative in drawing up and evaluating the options for the future of Guildford Museum. Guildford is a conservative kind of place, small c and large, but overcautiousness and a feeling that things should stay the same (or as good as) must not be allowed to prevail if this means Guildford Museum – with or without the Surrey Archaeological Society’s collection – emerges from the process little improved or even degraded, occupying a leftover space in a bigger Council building.

Cllr Davis’ statement mentions the Borough Council is committed to ‘providing a cultural offering’ for Guildford, and it would be indefensible were this to emerge worse off after the implementation of the chosen option other than in terms of a quantifiable cost saving. You may not think it from what you read and hear, but there is so much more to Guildford than the picturesque shopping destination that is its High Street. As several comments to the Guildford Dragon NEWS articles underline, matters of culture and heritage go beyond questions of cost efficiency or profit; their benefits cannot and should not be measured only in financial terms. It is to be hoped that Cllr Davis and his colleagues recognise this now and throughout their evaluation of the tabled options for Guildford Museum.

One letter to the Guildford Dragon NEWS on the subject, written by a correspondent who I know has been well-placed to see the build-up to the present situation, lends credence to the impression that Guildford Borough Council has up to now taken a less-than-unblinkered attitude towards the purpose and future of Guildford Museum. Whatever the extent to which the departure of Surrey Archaeological Society from Castle Arch goes against the assertion that Guildford Borough Council will be ‘looking at all the options’ in due course, for better or worse, things have happened or will happen which cannot be reversed. It’s where we go from here – and particularly from early 2016 – that is important now.

There are too many instances of major development projects in Guildford that have failed to make headway or look as if they will disfigure the urban environment rather than improve it. Arguably, the town centre has entered a period in which its fabric will undergo the most profound changes since the 1960s, and from my position as a casual observer, there are worryingly few reasons for optimism that it will emerge more beautiful than the place Eric Parker once commended. But G Live shows Guildford can get it right (eventually), while the renovation of Guildford Castle’s keep is a superb example of the careful treatment of one of the town’s main historic monuments. Whether together as a refurbished museum or separated, better futures for Guildford Museum, its current collection, and the Castle Arch building, must be secured. And, in the shorter term, I hope the Surrey Archaeological Society is able to make a successful transition to a new home.

(I’ll add some photographs to the above so it’s not so “texty” next time I’m in Guildford, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing you probably read the rest of the post!) 

Posted in Guildford, Museum, News, Politics, Surrey | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments