The history of Watlington Hill
Watlington Hill was originally part of the nearby Watlington Park, which originated as a medieval royal park. In 1632 William Stonor, of nearby Stonor Park, acquired the property, but it wasn’t until John Tilson bought the property in the 18th century that the current mansion house was built. In the mid-20th century, the Esher family donated Watlington Hill to the National Trust and it is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Watlington Hill was originally part of Watlington Park. Little is known of the early history of a medieval royal park, which was created here in the early 13th century by Richard, Earl of Cornwall. In 1632 William Stonor, of nearby Stonor Park, bought the freehold of Watlington Park from Charles I, who was selling Crown property to finance his personal government. A large house was built in the park by the Stonors. In 1654 the park was let for 21 years to John Dew of Didcot by William’s son, Thomas Stonor, but after the lease ended, Thomas lived there himself.
After Thomas Stonor's death in 1683 Watlington Park may have been occupied by younger sons of the Stonor family, but most of the time it seems to have been let to Roman Catholic tenants of importance. In 1753 negotiations were begun for the sale of the house for £1,500 to John Tilson, the son of the Under-Secretary of State, though the actual conveyance was not signed until 1758. Tilson built the present mansion in the fashionable Palladian style in the mid-1750s.
The Esher Family
The house appears to have remained virtually unaltered until the late 19th century when it was bought and enlarged by several owners. Oliver Brett, who later became Viscount Esher, purchased the property in 1920 and continued the work of enlargement and modernization. His son, Lionel Gordon Baliol Brett, architect and town planner, succeeded 1963 as the fourth Viscount Esher and decided to reduce the house to its Georgian dimensions by demolishing much of the recent 19th- and 20th-century extensions.
Acquisition of Watlington Hill by the National Trust
In 1941, a significant part of Watlington Park Estate was donated to the National Trust by the Esher family. In 1946, three large blocks of the Watlington Park Estate woodland were also given to the Trust (Howe Wood, Greenfield Copse and Lower Deans). A larch plantation, which includes what is now the National Trust car park was given in 1974 and the remaining part of Watlington Hill was bought by the National Trust from the Esher family in the early 1990s. The hill is now completely owned and managed by the National Trust. The National Trust also has protective covenants over significant other parts of the Watlington Park Estate.
In 1986, Watlington and Pyrton Hills were designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Approximately 80% of Watlington Hill comes within this designated area. This site supports a mosaic of chalk downland, chalk scrub, mixed broadleaved and yew woodland habitats, with areas of leached and more acid grassland and scrub on the upper slopes. The site supports some of the most floristically diverse grassland in the Chilterns and is also notable for its lower plant flora and butterfly populations, with twenty species recorded.