The Stories behind Place Names

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Place names are perhaps as interesting as they are overlooked when it comes to pockets of history that are constantly around us. It’s so easy to forget that within place names are years and years of history – often dating back to the earliest of any given place – and that names now used so freely once emerged from very precise and deliberate meaning. The names of places in and around Harrow are no different in this regard – and uncovering the truths behind these places, these names, yields interesting insights into the earliest histories of the borough.

Let’s start with the biggest name we have – even if it is one that we have looked at before, albeit months ago now. The name Harrow derives, like many in the borough, from the Anglo-Saxon language and the word “hearg” – meaning temple, more specially a heathen temple, one that historians believe was located on Harrow’s famous hill, where St. Mary’s Church now stands. The Harrow name, then, speaks to the centrality of the hill in the local area – even centuries back – and its prominence in local society. In many ways our hill is still Harrow’s defining landmark, and so it’s fitting that the hill has such a prominent place in the name.

Yet there are more interesting histories behind local place names – ones that are just as visible to this day as our hill. Take Wealdstone, for example. The name, so frequently used in our conversations, actually has a very particular nature to it – that being the sarsen stone, ancient, stone blocks found across the UK, which used to mark the boundary between the parishes of Harrow and Harrow Weald. In this, the Wealdstone name speaks to its straddling existence, and how it has always been this way. This sarsen stone can still be found to the day on High Road in Harrow Weald.

Pinner is another place name that reflects its local environment – though perhaps more subtly. The first appearance of the Pinner name dates back to 1232 with “Pinnora,” taking its name from Anglo-Saxon word “Ora,” meaning bank or edge. What this reflects is not only the importance of Pinner’s steep landscape to its origins, but also the centrality of St. John the Baptist’s church to the village, which sits on the very bank that gives the place its name. Just as Wealdstone grew out of its sarsen stone, Pinner in many ways grew out of this church that was, records indicate, one of the first buildings to have been set up in the village. This also speaks to how close the Pinner and Harrow localities have always been, with St. John’s initially having been a subordinate chapel to St. Mary’s on the hill, until it gradually grew into autonomy by the eighteenth century.

The “Pinn” part of Pinner’s original name may reflect another feature of part of the local environment – in this case the brook that runs through the local area called the Pinn. Whilst it is difficult to confirm for sure whether it was this way round – it may be that it was the village which gave the stream the name as opposed to the other way – Pinner would not, if this is the case, be the first local place to have been informed by the stream’s presence. Ruislip, though technically part of the borough of Hillingdon, is a nearby place that takes its name from the Pinn – with Ruislip also deriving from the Anglo-Saxon language and the word “Rislepe,” meaning to a ‘leaping place on the river where rushes grow,’ in this clearly speaking to the Pinn which runs through Ruislip, and which was once a good fishing stream for the local area.

There are other names still that can be unpackaged and used to give insight into the local past. Some that we have already looked at, such as Grim’s Dyke and how its name speaks to the use of the land during the period of Roman occupation, or others that we have touched on repeatedly – such as Rayners Lane, whose name reflects the pre-eminence of the Rayner family in the nineteenth century, and which was cemented as the name by the arrival of the train-lines in the twentieth.

Safe to say, each and every place name has a story to it, a story which, if uncovered, can shed much light on the conditions that the place grew out of, to the very history that has led to this present. These are big narratives to be pondered, especially when they are contained in things as small as street or village names – but they may be worth thinking about when next you see a place name, whether in Harrow or beyond it, and wonder how such a name came to be: they are readily available doors to the earliest of pasts.

If you know of any stories behind local place names not mentioned in this article, be sure to leave them in the comments below.

 

Written by Harry Turner.

Image Credit: geograph.org    

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