Do you ever glance over the tube map and wonder: "How did that station get its odd name?".
It's easy enough to look these things up, but the answer is often educated guesswork. Most places in London picked up their names in medieval times. We don't have bits of paper to confirm that Mr Wemba really was the landholder of what became Wembley, or an Anglo-Saxon lord called Kenna was the nominative fountainhead of Kennington.
Wealdstone is different. This northern district of Harrow is of much more tangible origins. Indeed, you can sit on its namesake.
The unmarked, turd-hued rock, pictured above, stretches across the pavement like a lithic sea-lion. You'll find it outside Bombay Central, a former pub on the High Road.
Hundreds of people no doubt walk past every day without giving it a second thought. After all, nobody pays attention to random rocks and stuff.
An old wall? A protective bollard? A trip hazard? Who cares?
But this is no ordinary stone. It branded an entire district. Its name is sung from Torquay to Gateshead, thanks to a semi-professional football team. It even appears on the tube map. For this is the Weald Stone.
So what exactly is the Weald Stone?
The stone-cold facts
The rock is a sarsen stone, the same stuff used at Stonehenge and Avebury. Sarsens are rare in London, but not unknown. The Coronation Stone in Kingston is another example. We can't rule out that the Weald Stone was carried here by human hands for some long-forgotten purpose, but it may have simply been dumped here by a glacier, long ago.
The "Weald" part of the name is an Old English word meaning wooded hill or high land — so the Weald Stone is the stone from the wooded hill. The rising ground to the north of the stone is indeed still heavily wooded.
The Weald Stone stands outside what is now the Bombay Central restaurant, but was formerly the Red Lion (also known at other times as The Weald Stone and The Sarsen Stone).
Historic England gives the stone a Grade II listing and notes that its age is unknown.
The rocky theories
Not only is the age of the stone unknown, but its purpose is also uncertain. It may be an ancient boundary marker. The stone supposedly lies on the border between Harrow and Harrow Weald, though I can't find a map that will verify this.
Another theory posits that the stone marks the site of a chieftain's final resting place. It's a possibility, but zero evidence backs this up.
Quite possibly, the sarsen has lain in the area since ancient times, carried here by a glacier. In time, a farm and house grew up close by and took their names from the unusual stone (both appear frequently in the newspaper record). Later on, these buildings nucleated a small village, also called Wealdstone. By 1897 Wealdstone was large enough to merit the renaming of Harrow station to Harrow and Wealdstone.
The stone is occasionally mentioned in historic documents and newspaper columns. Here are some key dates.
1508: Richard Buckberd of Harrow is ordered to "cleanse his ditch" between "le stone" and "le weld". It is the first written record of the stone.
1523: The stone is mentioned in the rolls of the Manor of Harrow as sitting on the land of Thomas Toumor, who in this year was ordered to widen a runnel (stream) immediately beside the stone on Harrowe Lane (what is now the High Road). This is the strongest evidence to support that the modern stone is indeed the ancient landmark.
1547: The last mention of the stone in Tudor records, when a William Page was fined for not clearing his ditch from "le stone" to "Woodfeld Corner".
The stone then disappears from the records for centuries. It perhaps fell into the neighbouring stream or sank into the marshy ground.
1757: The name Weald Stone appears on John Rocque's map of Middlesex beside a cluster of buildings.
1834: The stone is rediscovered and excavated by workmen building the foundations for the Red Lion inn (the second of that name on the site). It was placed outside the inn and (according to press accounts) occasionally used as a mounting block.
1934: According to Historic England, the stone was transferred to its present setting at this date. This coincided with the building of a third Red Lion.
So is this the ancient Weald Stone?
Ultimately, we cannot be 100% certain that the lump of rock outside Bombay Central (the former Red Lion) is the same stone that gave Wealdstone its name. However, its location on the High Road matches up persuasively with the Tudor rolls. A 1948 study by the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society puts the connection "beyond all reasonable doubt". That's good enough for me.
Despite the recognition by Historic England as a Grade II-listed "building", the stone sits on the pavement without any form of plaque or interpretation board. That's a pity, but it also adds to the enigma of this curious piece of stone.
All images by the author.