Some thoughts on Peper Harow

I’m not going to present the following as a downloadable file – not yet at least. I was on a walk this afternoon and decided to divert through Peper Harow to see if the restoration work on the church had been completed after it was largely gutted by fire in Christmas 2007. It has and looks great for it:

Seeing it reminded me that the church has been hypothesised to occupy the site of the “pagan temple” apparently remembered by the second half of the place-name – from Old English hearg – possibly by Alan Bott in his church guide published a couple of years ago (I may be wrong on this last point). Whoever’s idea this was, it seems dubious given its juxtaposition with the neighbouring mansion that most likely occupies the site of a medieval precursor, thereby comprising a pairing frequently encountered both locally and nationally, and probably no earlier than the surviving twelfth-century fabric in the south wall of the church nave. What is more, the immense age sometimes attributed to the church’s attendant yew tree (e.g. on the village’s own website) has been qualified by dendrochronology, which suggests it is around 700 years old. So where was the hearg, and more to the point what was it?

Nationally, linguists and archaeologists have drawn a number of important conclusions about the circumstances in which hearg was used in place-names that have not been adequately applied to Peper Harow in spite of the name being mentioned in all of the relevant works. (This includes an article by Keith Briggs published in the 2010 volume of the Journal of the English Place-Name Society; I have skimmed through it but not read it in detail, but from the tone of this summary on the author’s personal website it doesn’t sound like the established interpretation of the term in the name Peper Harow requires modification.) David Wilson (1985, 181) accepted the observations of earlier scholars that hearg-names tend to be attached to hills, the inference being the eponymous religious focus (or foci) were sited on their summits. His main conclusion was that hearg was used to denote:

‘a special type of shrine or temple, one that occupied a prominent position on high land and was a communal place of worship for a specific group of people, a tribe or folk group, perhaps at particular times of the year.’

This view was challenged by Sarah Semple in a paper published in 2007, which acts as an entrée to her (?ongoing) project Temples and cult sites: long term religious traditions in Britain.  She argued, from a detailed analysis of three supposed hearg sites in Sussex, Oxfordshire and The Wirral, that they share an archaeological profile spanning several periods, but with early Anglo-Saxon (particularly post-sixth century) material in short supply – contrary to what would be expected of cult centres in use up until (if not beyond) the conversion of the locality to Christianity. Semple offers a number of interpretations of the age and meaning of hearg in these and synonymous place-names, some of which admit the possibility that it was used retrospectively to identify cultic sites no longer in active use, which would represent a major semantic overhaul of the understanding of the term in this regard.

Semple makes a solitary reference to Peper Harow in her paper (2007, 371), when she contends that it;

‘is situated in a locality without any distinctive natural rise.’

A couple of years ago I hit upon the idea that, contrary to Semple’s assertion, there is a hill in the environs of Peper Harow that fits the profile of a “hearg-hill”. The hill in question is Warren Hill, less than a kilometre/half a mile to the north-east of the present-day village. I’ve kept schtum about this up to now because I thought this could turn out to be Surrey’s answer to Yeavering; maybe it can, but in light of Semple’s research there seems no harm in publicly floating the idea for others to mull over and develop. According to the local OS Explorer Map, Warren Hill rises to a height of 87 metres AOD at approximate grid reference SU925444. A spot height a little to the east at grid reference SU928445 is 73 metres AOD, while another to its south-east very close to Somerset Farm (approximate grid reference SU923441) is a mere 47 metres AOD. These differences are evident in the following two photographs of Warren Hill I have taken in recent weeks:

(1) Warren Hill from south-east, taken at approximate grid reference SU933443

(2) Warren Hill from the west, taken at approximate grid reference SU921442 (stood atop a WW2 gun emplacement)

In her discussion of Harrow Hill in Sussex, Semple places particular emphasis on the way it is ‘hidden within a curtain of hills’ (2007, 373) as if the resultant dramatic effect contributed to its importance. The same could be said of Warren Hill, although the element of surprise would have come from passage along the Wey valley as well as when viewed from the higher ground to the north. The photos below were taken looking south-east from the Hillbury ridge (approximate grid reference SU914466); The hill in the middle distance can only be Warren Hill – even if my attempt to confirm this by taking a compass bearing ended in befuddlement. (I have still to confirm whether the prominent hill on the horizon in the left of frame is Leith Hill or St Martha’s Hill.)

UPDATE: Closer scrutiny of a photo I took during my visit to the site of “seven ditches”, which I have posted as part of my reconsideration of the lost earthwork(s) from which the name stemmed, has revealed Warren Hill is visible from atop the Hog’s Back ridge (visible in the middle distance just to the left of centre of the photo). The functional significance of this is unclear – indeed, it may be completely irrelevant – but it does reinforce the relevance of Semple’s interpretation of hearg hills as being simultaneously locally prominent but largely invisible at greater distances.

The archaeological side of things need much closer scrutiny than I am able to provide here. The HER gives nothing of relevance from the vicinity of Warren Hill, but an article published in the Surrey Archaeological Collections summarising the finds made by metal detectorists in the county includes two artefacts – an unlooped Middle Bronze Age palstave and part of a Romano-British brooch of unusual hybrid form – found during a metal detector rally held ‘at Peper Harow’ in March 1999 (less relevant, but no less interesting, are a strap end and stirrup mount respectively of tenth and eleventh-century date found at the same event: Williams 2001, numbers 1, 25, 53 and 57). No grid references are given, so it is to be hoped that the finder(s) and/or recorder(s) of these artefacts made careful note of their precise find-spots, as they may show some affinity with Warren Hill. Finds made since 1999 may be listed on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website, but I couldn’t find any relevant entries from a Google search I made just now using the name Peper Harow.

If the place-name Peper Harow does refer to a site of continued or repeated sanctity across what Semple terms the long durée of a number of pre-historic eras, rather than just the early Anglo-Saxon period, then it has important implications for the direction future archaeological research into the matter should take. Any future development on Warren Hill or in its immediate surroundings should be the subject of a watching brief, and the recording of metal-detected or field-walked artefacts from the area must involve the accurate reporting of their find-spots to allow for the plotting of such data on a distribution map. It seems improbable that the name Warren Hill is a corruption of Harrow Hill, but manorial records may help to identify when the warren was established on (or close to) it, and could conceivably contain references to (Peper) Har(r)ow Hill or Down. Whatever still awaits discovery in the soil or in the documents, it is clear that the indications are already strongly in favour of a cultic site of enduring importance in the pre-Christian locality.


Sarah Semple, ‘Defining the OE hearg: a preliminary archaeological and topographic examination of hearg place names and their hinterlands’, Early Medieval Europe, 15.4 (2007), 364-85

David Williams, ‘Finds from Surrey 1997-9’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, 88 (2001), 309-331

David Wilson, ‘A Note on OE hearg and wēoh as Place-Name Elements Representing Different Types of Pagan Worship Sites’, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, 4 (1985), 179-83

One Response to Some thoughts on Peper Harow

  1. Pingback: Mapping the Medieval Countryside | Surrey Medieval

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