SMMEFNW 2: le Spych

The second field-name to get the SMMEFNW treatment is actually the first to appear in the copied charter text that is the sole testament to all three being analysed. The key information is provided by the following phrase:

unu[mp[as]tu[ram] … q[uamvocat[umle Spych‘ = “A pasture called le Spych“.

The text goes on to state that it was enclosed (‘i[n]cludu[n]t[ur]’) from the common named “Whitebrook” (‘com[m]unam vocata[m] Whitebrouk‘), probably the stream which feeds Cutt Mill (and the string of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century lakes above it). This is a uniquely specific reference to the origin of a field in Puttenham parish, although I will show that its name offers clues which point to pretty much the same thing.

Without having any tales of international travels to burnish this account, let us turn straight away to the online Middle English Dictionary for help in identifying the root word. One MED entry in which use in surnames and place-names is highlighted is that for the noun spik, “animal fat, lard”. Its use in a simplex name formation is hard to credit, but help is at hand in the identification of its ancestry as OE spic. The Thesaurus of Old English Online, an excellent resource I don’t make nearly enough use of (perhaps because I bought the two-volume printed version last year) identifies three attested senses: ‘fat, suet, lard’ (as per the above translation of ME spik), ‘(cuts of) pork’ (cf. Modern German speck), and ‘brushwood’. The first of these can be ruled out in the case of le Spych, while the second is best seen as limited to dithematic place-names (e.g. Spitchwick in Devon, Spixworth in Norfolk – the specifics may represent related bynames: EPNE, 2, p. 137, CDEPN, p. 565).

This leaves us with ‘brushwood’. PNS contains a good account of OE spic (the ME cognate is not specified) as part of the entry for the minor place-name Fastbridge in Alfold, a parish in the mid-Surrey Weald (PNS, pp. 222-23). When I first looked into the meaning of le Spych a few years ago, the development of Fastbridge from Farnspiche 1342, Farspych 1410 > Vastpechebrigge 1506 had me convinced ME spich(e), spych signified some kind of not very bridge-like brushwood causeway across watery ground. After all, the same work interprets the synonymous Ridgebridge Hill in Wonersh (la Risbrigge 1259) and Ricebridge Farm in Reigate (Risbrig 1198) as signifying ‘bridge or causeway made of brushwood or the like’ (PNS, p. 255, 306). Surely brushwood is brushwood and use in causeway structures wasn’t restricted to particular types of the material?

The notion of a “brushwood causeway” hard by le Spych and crossing the Whitebrouk/Cutt Mill stream has much to recommend it topographically. There were few possible crossing points along the length of the stream, with the slopes on its eastern bank being too steep and/or high to permit easy access and egress. These get lower and shallower in the Cutt Mill area, and the advantages these provided for those wishing to traverse the stream is evidenced by the series of up to 10 parallel holloways in the area of grid reference SU 91284570 (Currie 2001, 2, p. 79, unconvincingly interpreted them as quarrying-related ‘parallel linear banks’). The lack of reference to a ford here in the Old English charter-bounds of the Farnham estate (S 382, probably a tenth-century composition albeit later than its purported date of 909) hints that it may not have come into existence until after the date at which they were composed. The causeway could have been constructed as a deliberate improvement to the route between Puttenham and Elstead, both of which emerge into recorded history in the twelfth century.

The 1816 copy of the 1765 Puttenham Parish Map (SHC 5143/1) shows the Cutt Mill stream before the creation of the lake known as The Tarn, and the enlargement of Cutt Mill Pond. The site of the former is shown as a swampy area, much the same length as the present lake. Its formation may be attributed to the construction of a berm across its original course, not to form a lake above it, but to deflect the stream into a new artificial channel that today runs from the southern corner of The Tarn along the south-western side of the mill pond. Was this the bulked-up earthen successor to a brushwood causeway? (On my to-do list is sending an email to the Surrey History Centre asking if I can upload a photo I took of this particular portion of the map, which will make the thrust of this paragraph clearer.)

For all the topographical attractions of the causeway explanation, a simpler, less applied translation which nonetheless takes account of the local environment should probably be preferred. In other words, rather than see le Spych as deriving its name from an artificial landscape feature fashioned from brushwood, it makes more sense to understand it as meaning “(the) brushwood”. This brings it in line with the Liverpudlian place-name Speke (Spec 1086-1212, perhaps from a side-form OE spēc: CDEPN, p. 564), where incidentally you can see the handiwork of what I do for my day job in the neighbourhood health centre. Closer to home, it allows le Spych to be grouped with the likes of Speach Meadow 1838 in Worplesdon parish, Speechmore 16th in Farnham, and the unattributed le Heth voc. Spytche 1548 (PNS, pp. 222-23; cf. Smith 1990, p. 206, for spic as a ‘typically south-eastern’ word). Finally, it finds no shortage of analogies in the field-names along the eastern boundary of Puttenham Common from ME firs(e), ‘furze’, and hēth, ‘heath’, which I have made a stab at mapping. I can’t say the auto-refutation of a long-cherished theory about a rudimentary medieval causeway isn’t a little disappointing, but in this case I consider the glimpse the improved interpretation gives of the Middle English regional dialect to be more than adequate compensation.


Currie, Christopher K., An archaeological and historical survey of Puttenham proposed Area of Special Historic Landscape Value (ASHLV), 2 volumes [Volume 2 here], unpublished report to Surrey County Council and Surrey Archaeological Society (2001).

Gover, J. E. B., A. Mawer and F. M. Stenton, The Place-Names of Surrey [PNS], English Place-Name Society, 11 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934).

Smith, A. H., English Place-Name Elements, Part 2 (Jafn-Ytri) [EPNE] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956).

Smith, A. H., ‘Place-Names and the Anglo-Saxon Settlement’ in British Academy Papers on Anglo-Saxon England, ed. by E. G. Stanley (Oxford: Oxford University Press for The British Academy, 1990), 205-226.

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


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 Documents, Field-names, History, Landscape, Latin, Middle English, Place-Names, SMMEFNW, Surrey and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s