Discover the hidden history of the Chilterns Countryside

The Chiltern Hills are strewn with remnants from history. As the weather is warming and the days are lengthen, now is an excellent time to discover some of the traces of times past, ranging from long forgotten Iron Age hill forts, through woodland relics from the Chiltern furniture industry, to vestiges of the Second World War and the Cold War.

Human occupation of the Chilterns dates back to at least the late Stone Age (Neolithic) period. Little remains from these times but there is enough evidence to show that the Chiltern Hills were important to the local people, such as the Neolithic burial mound at Whiteleaf Hill.

Evidence from the Iron Age, is not immediately obvious, but it includes the Iron Age hill fort at Pulpit Hill. This consists of pronounced ditches and earthworks standing on a steep-sided natural spur, which once commanded extensive views across the Vale of Aylesbury. Another similar Iron Age feature can be found on West Wycombe Hill.

Iron Age ramparts at Pulpit Hill
Iron Age ramparts at Pulpit Hill

The Icknield Way is now part of the Ridgeway long distance footpath, which runs along the foot of the Chiltern Hills. It is part of an ancient trackway in southern England that goes from Norfolk to Wiltshire. It is thought by some to be one of the oldest traceable routes in Britain, however, this has been disputed, and the evidence for its being a prehistoric route has been questioned.

The earliest mentions of the Icknield Way are in Anglo-Saxon charters from the year 903 onwards. The charters refer to several locations that span a distance of 40 miles from Wiltshire to Buckinghamshire. Other Anglo-Saxon routes can be found in the Chilterns, such as Hollandridge Lane, near Christmas Common, which formed part of the spine road of the twelve-mile long ancient strip parish of Pyrton.

Icknield Way at Aston Rowant
Icknield Way at Aston Rowant

The 18th Century has also left its mark on the Chiltern Hills. In 1764, the local squire Edward Horne gave Watlington a more unusual talking point. He felt that the Norman parish church of St. Leonard, when viewed from his home, would be more impressive if it had a spire. To create the illusion, he designed the 270 foot steeple-shaped Watlington White Mark, which he had cut into the chalk escarpment of Watlington Hill, perfectly placed to complete his view.

White Mark at Watlington Hill
White Mark at Watlington Hill

For many centuries, perhaps dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, Low Scrubs, which is adjacent to Coombe Hill, was part of common woodland where anyone could collect fuel. Under the 1805 Enclosure Act, the present roughly 40 acre area was assigned to Ellesborough Parish for the poor of the parish to collect and take out wood fuel. This usage continued until the Second World War.

Low Scrubs
Low Scrubs

Archaeological Surveys undertaken in Park Wood near Bradenham have revealed a fascinating past for this quiet area of deciduous woodland. Lynchets (a kind of terrace) and banks within the woods give evidence of ancient field systems which may date back to the late Iron Age/early Roman period (or they may be medieval). In the beech woodland opposite the pond is evidence of a late thirteenth/early fourteenth homestead in the woodlands and in Tudor times (1485 – 1603) the woodland was a deer park. Like many Chiltern woodlands, Park Wood was converted to beech woodland from the late 18th until the early 20th century to cater for the High Wycombe furniture industry. Associated features include remains of sawpits, tracks and charcoal burning platforms.

Park Wood, Bradenham
Park Wood, Bradenham

The wars of the 19th and 20th centuries have also shaped the Chiltern landscape.  At Coombe Hill, the Boer War Memorial was erected in 1904, dedicated to the 148 men from Buckinghamshire who gave their lives in the South African War (1899 – 1902).

Coombe Hill Boer War Memorial (not NT)
Coombe Hill Boer War Memorial

The disused Rifle Butts on the lower slopes of Pulpit Hill were used for target practice by the British armed forces in the 1940s up and until the 1970s. At Beacon Hill near Chequers, there are the remains of an anti-aircraft gun emplacement, located here to protect the Prime Minister’s official country residence in Second World War.

Looking up at the Rifle Butts
Rifle Butts at Pulpit Hill (Not NT)

During the Second World War, RAF High Wycombe at Naphill, near Bradenham was chosen by the War Ministry as a secret location for Bomber Command. In addition to a range of surface buildings, which were designed to look like a country village from the air, a network of underground tunnels was constructed allowing staff to move between buildings without surfacing. The remaining surface features that can still be seen, includes a series of cylindrical pill boxes built at the corners of the plot.

By the 1970s the original Bomber Command bunker was becoming too small to host modern communications and information systems, and was inadequate to give protection against modern conventional bombs, let alone the nuclear, biological or chemical threats that existed during the Cold War. In 1979 it was decided to build a completely new facility, designed to withstand large shock loads, and to enable 'closed down' for several weeks. This new Strike Command Operations Centre, colloquially known as 'The Bunker', is hidden underground on land leased from the National Trust near Bradenham.

Second World War Pill Box at Bradenham
Second World War Pill Box at Bradenham

Discover Hidden History for Yourself

To discover some of these hidden histories for yourself, please try our downloadable walks, which provide you with walking directions and information about each location.