In prehistoric times, the area we now know as Leigh lay entirely within the great forest of Andreaswald that is known today as the Weald. This forest was not as impenetrable as is sometimes thought. Long before the village and parish of Leigh existed the area saw plenty of activity, with Mesolithic hunters and later Iron Age people making trackways through the forest. In particular, routes from Oldbury hill fort (near Borough Green) to the one at Dryhill (near Marsh Green on the Kent/Surrey border) and also to Castle Hill above Tonbridge were carved out by Iron Age people crossing the river where they could find dry ground. These and the other Iron Age trackways were later used and upgraded by the Romans. The Roman road between London and Lewes is a case in point, possibly reusing part of the trackway from the hill fort at Squerries in Westerham to Dryhill.
In the Leigh area, a ‘stane street’ is recorded in 1231 in the Kent Feet of Fines indicating a probable Roman paved road, although its location in Leigh parish is unclear. The bloomery at Cinderhill in the parish bears evidence of Roman (and possibly Iron Age) iron working.
When the Jutes arrived in Kent, they followed these trackways and old Roman roads into the Wealden forest, using and naming the features that they found there. They created the ‘dens’, the pig pastures that were such an important part of their domestic economy and way of life.
Several of these dens lay in the area of Leigh as may be inferred by names such as Hollanden, Haysden, and Moorden. These dens originally would have been claimed by the king as belonging to the royal upland manors and those of the great nobles far to the north. There is mention of ‘Kyngelond’ in Leigh parish in medieval charters. Later, the dens would take on their own independent existence.
As the Jutes moved into the forest, one of the places they would have named was the open space, or glade, by the river, a place now called Leigh. There are various explanations of this word ‘leah’ or ‘ley’ ‘lea’ or ‘lyghe’. One is that ‘leys’ occur where boggy ground interrupts the forest cover. This could well be the case for Leigh, situated beside the Medway which is very prone to flooding. Another explanation for a forest clearing is that it was a stock pasture; not a ‘den’ for pigs but an area created by browsing animals like cows or sheep or goats. Riverside meadows would be good for cattle. Thus the area where Leigh village now stands could have been recognized from long before even the Jutes arrived to name it.
The Jutish droveways coming from the northern manors (see books by Witney and Everitt mentioned at end) and crossing what is now Leigh parish linked up along their way various dens belonging to manors such as Kemsing and Seal. They also created lateral droves along the river banks between river crossing points when flooding made such crossing difficult. One such lateral trackway ran between Leigh and Bough Beech.
Once Christianity had become established in the eighth and ninth century and Minster churches – the very earliest mother churches – had been founded, daughter churches were placed at focal points in the areas of scattered dens which were beginning to develop from seasonal and temporary shelters into more permanent settlements.
There is a possibility that St. Mary’s at Leigh was a daughter church of Kemsing , the manor whose dens lay in this area.
Everitt in his book ‘Continuity and Colonisation’ (see below) discusses the high proportion of early church foundations in Kent dedicated to female saints, with St. Mary the Virgin as the most frequent. It could be that well before the Norman Conquest there was already a church dedicated to St. Mary at Leigh. If so, it is likely to have been built of wood with nothing of it left today. Around the church the village would have grown up to serve the needs of those who lived in the settlements and hamlets that grew out of the original dens. When the parish of Leigh was created to bring some form of civic and church organization to the area, the scattered nature of the original dens could be seen in the detached portions of Leigh parish: Hollanden, the two Haysdens and a small portion by Hale Oak.
Once the Normans arrived, the parish of Leigh and its church would become intimately bound up with its big neighbour, Tonbridge.
Sources for reference
I. Margary, Roman Ways in the Weald
A. Everitt, Continuity and Colonization
K. Witney, The Jutish Forest