How London's Hills Got Their Names

By M@ Last edited 91 months ago

Last Updated 28 October 2016

How London's Hills Got Their Names
Primrose Hill, by M@.

Continuing our series exploring London's name origins.


Rising east of the now-buried River Walbrook, the City of London's Cornhill is the site of the Royal Exchange. The name Cornhill refers to the medieval corn market that once occupied its slopes.

Crouch Hill

This and nearby Crouch End have nothing to do with squatting. The term 'crouch' is a corruption of 'cruch', meaning 'cross'. You may have heard of Crutched Friars in the City, which has a similar origin. The cross referred to is lost to history, but may have been a boundary marker. First recorded in 1593.

Denmark Hill

Named in honour of George of Denmark, husband of Queen Anne, who owned property here. Nearby Dog Kennel Hill once contained his kennels. Champion Hill, part of the same mound, comes from the wonderfully named local landowner Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny.

Dollis Hill

Thought to be named after a family of landowners called Dalley. Oddly, the Dollis Brook has a different etymology, probably derived from the Middle English word 'dole' meaning common land. As a footnote, nearby Neasden got its name from the Anglo-Saxon for 'nose-shaped hill'.

Forest Hill

Simply named after the Great North Wood, which once covered much of the terrain hereabouts, and still survives in pockets. The various nearby Norwoods tell the same story.

Gants Hill

This corner of Ilford with a gorgeous tube station has two possible etymologies. Some say it's named after the le Gant family, who were stewards of Barking Abbey. A more evocative explanation (with little evidence) has it as a corruption of gnats hill, after the bitey insects that presumably once favoured the area.

Gipsy Hill

Unsurprisingly, the hill, once covered in trees, was a well-known haunt of Romani people up until the 19th century.

Harrow Hill

View from Harrow Hill, by M@.

Somewhat intriguingly, the name is thought to come from the Old English for 'heathen temple'. Its remains may well stand beneath St Mary's church, whose spire can be seen for miles around.

Herne Hill

Folklorists would draw a connection with Herne the Hunter, but the truth is that nobody really knows which Herne is commemorated here. Which is odd, because the name only dates back to around 1800, when the first houses were built in the area. It was originally spelled as Hearn Hill.

Highgate Hill

You can probably guess this one. Anybody who's ever climbed this prominence, in the time-honoured tradition of the pantomimic Dick Whittington, will attest just how high Highgate is. The 'gate' part is also literal, refering to a long-lost access route into the Bishop of London's deer hunting grounds on top of the hill. There is an alternative theory, elegantly described on Hidden Highgate, which puts the 'high' part of the name as a corruption of the Saxon word haeg, meaning hawthorn. So Highgate could refer to a gap in a hawthorn boundary.

Horsenden Hill

Commanding spectacular views of Wembley, Horsenden Hill has a history that predates the foundation of London. Signs of an Iron Age settlement from 2500 BC have been found on and around the hill. Its present name can be traced back to Saxon times and probably refers to a hill fort controlled by a chap called Horsa.

Ludgate Hill

The famous rise in the City of London, surmounted by St Paul's Cathedral, takes its name from the ancient Ludgate, a western entrance into the medieval city that stood close to the present St Martin's church. Ludgate, you might think, honours King Lud, mythical founder of London. Probably not. A more sober etymology traces the name to the Saxon term hlid-geat, commonly used to denote a swinging gateway into a city. Yet another theory has Ludgate as an evolution of Flud-gate — a barrier to the combined flood waters of the Rivers Fleet and Thames.

Maze Hill

One stop beyond Greenwich and we're in the largely residential area of Maze Hill. Some have speculated that the area is named literally, after a labyrinth associated with a nearby manorial house. More prosaically, the road, area and station are probably named after local gentry Algernon or Robert May, who lived nearby in the 17th century. The area is labelled as Moys Hill in a 1745 map.

Mill Hill

View from Mill Hill, by M@.

First recorded in 1547 as Myllehill, nothing more than a hill with a windmill can be said of this place name. We found some goal posts on top.

Muswell Hill

By contrast to the above, Muswell Hill has a far more interesting history. It dates back to the 13th century when a superfluity of nuns (that is, apparently, the collective noun) established a chapel here dedicated to 'Our Lady of Muswell'. The 'muswell' is thought to have been a mossy well with healing properties somewhere in the area. The Scottish king Malcolm IV is said to have benefited from its waters. The mossy well not only gave its name to the area, but also to the Moselle River, which rises on the hill. The location of the well is unknown, but today you can drink beneficial liquids of a different nature the The Mossy Well pub, part of the JD Wetherspoon chain.

Notting Hill

From Notting Hill Gate station, not much of a hill is apparent. But head north and you'll soon see the slopes. People used to stand on the hill of Notting Hill and watch horses gallop around a long lost racecourse. The origins of the word 'Notting', first recorded as Knottynghull in the 14th century, are a little bit mysterious, with no hard evidence for any of the several theories (which include links with Cnut, a nut wood and a Saxon chieftan called Cnotta). Let's pretend that the area is named after the 1999 romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.

Parliament Hill

View from Parliament Hill, by M@.

The famous kite-flying hill on Hampstead Heath was known in ancient times as Traitors' Hill, perhaps due to an execution site. It took on its present name in the mid-17th century, when Parliamentarian forces occupied the hill during the English Civil War. You can see the modern Houses of Parliament from its summit. Rumours that the hill has a connection with the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament are intriguing (especially given the former name of Traitors' Hill), but unsubstantiated.

Primrose Hill

Primroses not pictured, by M@.

Primrose Hill, to the north of Regent's Park, boasts one of the most famous views in London. Its name comes, quite simply, from the botanical specimens found on its slopes. We've often seen it written in trivia books that the mound was once known as Greenberry Hill and that, by a stunning coincidence, a high-profile murder was committed on the hill by three men known as Green, Berry and Hill. We suspect it was the other way around, and the hill was briefly dubbed Greenberry Hill as a dark jest after the murder.

Shooters Hill

This vast geographical feature rises over south east London like an intruder from another county. Its weaponised name probably harks back to medieval times, when its rich woodlands were a favoured site for archery practice. The hill has maintained its shooty links over the centuries. The former dockyards and munitions factories of Woolwich abut the area. Its most famous landmark, Severndroog Castle, is named after a military engagement off the coast of India. The main road was long the haunt of armed highwaymen. Anti-aircraft guns on its summit protected south east London during the second world war, and it would have served as a last line of defence for the capital if the Germans had attempted a land invasion. More recently, a bank of rapier missiles were stationed on the hill during the 2012 Olympics. Shooters Hill might just be the most appropriately named hill in London.

Shoot-Up Hill

Turn left out of Kilburn tube and you'll encounter this curious name, which covers the stretch of the Edgware road between the station and Cricklewood. It has nothing to do with drug abuse, nor gun crime, but is thought to be a reference to the way the old Roman road shoots suddenly upward just after the station. We're not 100% convinced by this, but other theories are hard to come by.

Stamford Hill

The north London suburb, now strongly associated with the Orthodox Jewish community, has its roots in Medieval times, when it was a small hamlet on the Roman road north from London. Its name is thought to refer to a sandy ford over the nearby Hackney Brook, which over time got corrupted to Stamford.

Sydenham Hill

The slopes of Sydenham Hill from Dulwich and Sydenham Golf Course, by M@.

There's some argument over this one. Our favourite origin story has Sydenham taking its name from the Anglo-Saxon word Cippas, to mean 'drunkard's settlement' — somewhat aptly given the number of excellent pubs round the corner in Crystal Palace. Alternatively, if less evocatively, it may derive from the medieval term 'syp', meaning sheep. Others think it simply comes from a personal name, such as Cippa.

Tower Hill

An ancient place of execution, Tower Hill unsurprisingly gets its label from the nearby Tower of London. Evidence of human activity stretches back much further than the Norman fortress, all the way to the Bronze Age.

Tulse Hill

Named after a landowning family who lived here in the 17th century. One of them, Henry, went on to become Lord Mayor of London.

What no Stave Hill? Where's Fish Street Hill? I'm shocked you missed Blythe Hill! How come you've not included Sudbury Hill? Obviously, this list could be extended into hundreds of entries, but we'd be facing an uphill battle were we to try and be comprehensive. Instead, our selection favours the more famous hills, including those with well-known rail or tube stations.

See also