Acleah, that is, Junction 7 of the M25? Part 1: Farthing Downs

I know what you’re thinking, that there’s a pretty crazy title, so allow me to commence with some retrospection by way of orientation. A little under a year ago, I wrote a post which went to great lengths to discount a proposal made by Richard Coates that the lost 851 battle site of Acleah is commensurate with Oakley in Hampshire. Part and parcel of this was the presentation of a body of evidence which could be considered supportive of the battle site being in the vicinity of Ockley Wood in south-east Surrey. In the intervening months I can’t claim to have paid the matter much attention, though as you will learn nor have I neglected it altogether.

What I did do, back towards the start of this calendar year and in a considerably less positive frame of mind, was to get myself worked up so much that I fired off a 30-going-on-13-year-old diatribe against what I perceived to be certain staid, uninspiring aspects of medieval research. One of the few redeeming features of this torrid little rant was the list of methodological approaches I wanted to try for the first time or else bring to the fore in my research. Among the more realistic (and lower budget) intentions was to strive to base more of what I write on detailed observations gained through direct experiences of the places in question. No longer compelled to spend every day writing my dissertation, and with a couple of weeks of downtime before I started a new job, lately I have had the time to get back into the habit of doing things for Surrey Medieval. Thus, I put my best foot forward and went for a walk heading out from the outermost limits of suburban South London on the trail of Acleah.

Orientation plate capping trig point atop Farthing Downs - extra credit for the Old English place-name quotation, but instantly forfeited for giving the wrong date (from a highly spurious charter to boot)

Orientation plate capping trig point atop Farthing Downs – extra credit for the Old English place-name quotation, but instantly forfeited for giving the wrong date (from a highly spurious charter to boot)

I came back with so much material that, for the sake of readers’ attention spans, what was going to be one long post has been split into a brace of more manageable offerings looking at the two main sites of interest. Here, I will set the scene and then discuss a set of monuments which provide indirect but arguably very important evidence, and leave recounting my experiences of the hypothesised site of the battle for a second post. Even so, to avoid presenting you with a wall of text and occasional photo, I’ve paginated this post and encourage you to click on the numbers below to progress through it.

Health warning! What follows is not thoroughly phenomenological in the same way as, say, this paper I read the other week, which frankly is probably as much of a blessing as it is a letdown – I often get the sense authors over-egg descriptions of minutiae and lose sight of the bigger points they set out to convey. At no point during my walk did I attempt to put myself in the mind of a member of a seventh-century burial community or mid-ninth-century Viking war-band as well as in their footsteps. I did, however, have my eyes and ears wide open, my notepad in one hand, and smartphone with camera set to Pano mode in the other, and so acquired a range of visual, verbal and aural information (the last mostly traffic noise unfortunately) to analyse afterwards.


About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Annals, Archaeology, Barrows, Charters, History, Landscape, London, Old English, Phenomenology, Place-Names, Surrey, Viking, WPLongform and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Acleah, that is, Junction 7 of the M25? Part 1: Farthing Downs

  1. Pingback: Acleah, that is, Junction 7 of the M25? Part 2: Ockley Wood and environs | Surrey Medieval

  2. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #8 | Doug's Archaeology

  3. UPDATE: I have become aware of an article which makes a far more convincing case for an Early Anglo-Saxon routeway along Farthing Downs than the sum of my own afternoon’s worth of observations. The article is Brian Hope Taylor, ‘Celtic agriculture in Surrey’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, 50 (1949), 47-72, which is freely available at The gist of his analysis – which is presented in a separate appendix (pages 62-64) – is that all of the barrows, and in particular the northern cluster (which he describes as the largest grouping), show significant affinities in their siting with the probable line of a contemporary track. Track and barrows both occupied the crest of the ridge, aside from the northernmost barrows, which sit adjacent to a “bivallate fieldway” of probable Roman date or operation. It’s not especially easy to follow Hope Taylor’s argument (or maybe I’m being dense) but careful plotting of his suggestions on a map could then be retraced on the ground with an eye – or two – on the viewshed and how prominently the barrows feature.

  4. That is a pretty disturbing artist’s reconstruction, I’m having waking nightmares now… Enjoyed the article very much!

  5. Pingback: Another Surrey candidate site for the battle of Acleah? | Surrey Medieval

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