The history of Coombe Hill

View from Coombe Hill

The majority of Coombe Hill was once part of the Chequers Estate. It was presented to the National Trust by the United Kingdom government when they were given the Estate in the 1920s.

Late prehistoric (Bronze Are or Iron Age) cross-dyke at Coombe Hill
Late prehistoric (Bronze Are or Iron Age) cross-dyke at Coombe Hill
Late prehistoric (Bronze Are or Iron Age) cross-dyke at Coombe Hill

One of the oldest features on Coombe Hill is the remains of late prehistoric (Bronze Are or Iron Age) cross-dyke, which is a visible earthwork. It consists of a shallow ditch about 8.5m across and 0.5m deep which runs from southwest to northeast on the west facing slope about 400m south of the monument. It was probably dug to defend a route or to demarcate a territory.

Coombe Hill from below
Coombe Hill from below
Coombe Hill from below

The Chequers Estate

The current mansion was built around 1565 by William Hawtrey. Soon after its construction, Hawtrey was asked to act as custodian at Chequers for Lady Mary Grey, the younger sister of Lady Jane Grey and great granddaughter of King Henry VII. Lady Mary had married Thomas Keyes, without her family's consent and was banished from court by Queen Elizabeth I, and kept confined to ensure that she had no descendants. Keyes was imprisoned in the notorious Fleet Prison in London. Lady Mary remained at Chequers for two years from 1565 to 1567, and the room where she slept is still kept in its original condition.

Chequers and Coombe Hill
Chequers and Coombe Hill
Chequers and Coombe Hill

The house passed through several families from the 16th to the 18th century. In 1715, the then owner of the house married John Russell, a grandson of Oliver Cromwell. The house is well known for this connection to the Cromwell family, and it still houses one of the largest collections of art and memorabilia pertaining to Oliver Cromwell.

Chequers
Chequers
Chequers

In the 19th century, the now the Greenhill-Russell family employed Henry Rhodes to make alterations to the house in the Gothic style. The Tudor panelling and windows were removed and battlements with pinnacles installed. Towards the end of the 19th century, the house passed through marriage to the Astley family and between 1892 and 1901, Bertram Astley set about restoring the house to its Elizabethan origins.

A gift to the Nation

In 1909, the house was taken on a long lease by Arthur Lee and his wife Ruth. The Lees bought the property in 1912 after the owner died, and began restoration. During World War I the house became a hospital and then a convalescent home for officers. After the war, Chequers reverted to a private home.

In the post-World War I era, a new breed of politician arose who, unlike their predecessors, did not necessarily own country estates where they could entertain foreign dignitaries, or temporarily retreat from the affairs of state.

After long discussions between the Lees and the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Chequers was given in trust to the nation as a country retreat for the serving Prime Minister under the Chequers Estate Act 1917. The gift included a library, historical papers and manuscripts and a collection of Cromwellian portraits and artefacts. From then on, Chequers was to be used as the official residence and retreat of successive British Prime Ministers in perpetuity, enabled by the Chequers Estate Act 1917. The Lees left the property in January 1921, and Lloyd George was the first Prime Minister to use the property.

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Chequers and Pulpit Hill from Coombe Hill
Chequers from Coombe Hill
Chequers and Pulpit Hill from Coombe Hill

Coombe Hill was part of the Chequers Estate until the 1920s, when it was presented to the National Trust by the United Kingdom government.

Boer War Memorial

Until the 20th century, war memorials were erected to commemorate great victories; remembering the dead was a secondary concern. Coombe Hill Monument is one of the first and largest examples of a war memorial erected to honour the names of individual men who fell whilst fighting for their country.

Boer War Memorial Coombe Hill
Boer War Memorial Coombe Hill
Boer War Memorial Coombe Hill

The monument was erected in 1904, by public subscription, in memory of 148 men from Buckinghamshire who died during the Second Boer War. The monument was almost totally destroyed by lightning in 1938 and was rebuilt in the same year. It was again badly damaged by a lightning strike in the early 1990s and spent several months in repair. It is now equipped with lightning conductors to prevent this from happening again. The monument and a few square metres of surrounding land are owned by Buckinghamshire County Council, not the National Trust.

On 21 October 2010, the monument was rededicated after substantial restoration work by Buckinghamshire County Council with funds raised by the Coombe Hill Monument Appeal Committee.

Boer War Memorial Coombe Hill
Boer War Memorial Coombe Hill
Boer War Memorial Coombe Hill

Second World War

During the Second World War, the Boer War Memorial had to be camouflaged it to avoid it being used as a sighting landmark by enemy aircraft. To service the site, a brick service road was constructed between the entrance gate and the monument. The brick road still underlies the gravel access track that leads to the monument.