In another episode of what’s fast turning into a series of medieval-tinged free activities in London, yesterday I joined a team from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers’ London Regional Office on a “rescue mission” to finish a three or four-year project clearing trees, scrub and ivy (perhaps the most annoying plant known to Man) at the site of the medieval moated manor house at Northolt. (Future volunteering opportunities arranged by the office can be found here – get involved!)
Although I had never set foot in or laid eyes on Northolt before, I had a rough idea of what would be like. In part I was proved right, even if I didn’t see the eponymous airfield that is perhaps its biggest claim to fame (its status as the setting for dire tv sitcom My Hero doesn’t count). What I hadn’t bargained on is that here, deep in suburbia, exists a remarkably well-preserved medieval church-manor grouping. The first indication of its existence was the sight of the little whitewashed church peeking up from behind a hedge on a low ridge not far from the A40 Western Way, facing the fantastical mega-mottes of Northala Fields on the other side of the road. The church looks like it belongs in the countryside (which it was up until the 1930s), and it is still stands clear of modern development, albeit the village green and the fields to the south have a bit of a sanitised – or should that be suburbanised? – look about them these days. I was lucky enough to be walking past the church when the door was open (a workman inside was doing something with the alarm – break-ins are a massive problem), and saw that the simplicity of the exterior was matched by the interior. Unusually, it has no chancel arch; the east end was replaced in the sixteenth century to create a continuous space (at least after the removal of the rood screen). The workman told me local legend has it some of the beams are reused ships timbers.
Immediately north-east of the churchyard is the site of the manor, now represented by earthworks of the moat (mostly dry on the day of my visit). The interior of the moat was excavated between 1950 and 1974, and must rank among the best understood manorial sites in south-east England. Evidence from the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman period was found. The first post-Roman evidence was in the form of three furnished inhumation burials, dated to the late-seventh or early-eighth century (though this seems unusually late given the nature of the grave goods). Within a century or so the cemetery site (presuming the interments represent part of a larger burial ground) had become a settlement site, dubbed the first village of Northolt. This existed – apparently more or less continuously – until around the start of the thirteenth century, when the first manor house was established on the site, in the process causing the relocation of the village to its present position at the foot of the hill to the west. There followed a succession of manor houses on the site, especially during the fourteenth century when the manor changed hands a number of times; it was at this time that the moat was created. Aside from a brief attempt by Westminster Abbey to revive it in the 1530s, one promptly curtailed by the Reformation, the site was not reoccupied after the manorial complex was demolished in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
It doesn’t look as if the excavations were ever published in full, but fortunately there are a couple of interim reports available online, and a number of other websites give further morsels of relevant historical information. What is more, Northolt is fortunate to have many of the key facts repeated on a series of information panels scattered around the village green, church and manor site; I would go so far as to say they’re the best ones I’ve ever seen.
- The first formal published account of the excavations was J G Hurst, ‘The Kitchen Area of Northolt Manor, Middlesex’, Medieval Archaeology, 5 (1961), 199-211
- A summary published the year after the completion of excavations is Robert Lancaster, ‘Northolt Manor’, The London Archaeologist, 2.13 (1975), 339-42
- The finds from the excavations – including a notable ceramic assemblage – are held at Gunnersbury Museum
- For more information on the history of Northolt, see A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 4, pages 109-113
- There are some good locally-produced historical summaries to be found on the Old Northolt blog and the Northolt Village Residents website
- Details of a walk around the key points of interest in the Northolt area can be found here