Bradenham Beech Woods, Bunkers and Ballrooms
This is a 4.4 miles (7.0 kilometres) walk taking you from the pretty Chiltern village of Bradenham into the Bradenham Estate, which consists of woodland and farmland. The landscape is a classical Chiltern blend of hills topped with beech woodlands, and gently rolling valleys with a mixture of grazed and ploughed fields divided by hedgerows. The walk offers a verity of glimpses into the deep and varied history of this part of the Chilterns, ranging from ancient earthworks to war-time bunkers and ballrooms.
Start at the National Trust car park in Bradenham village near the cricket pavilion, Grid. Ref. SU827969
From the car park, head away from the village green, following the track that runs alongside the wall to Bradenham Manor’s garden. The track turns left at the corner of the wall. Follow the track uphill. After it bends sharply to the left again, the track forks; take the left fork, parallel to the Manor House garden wall. Where the track curves right, go straight ahead on a footpath, ignoring any joining paths. The path soon starts to climb, and eventually it levels out. After 8 minutes (400 metres), you will come across some large pieces of rock that resemble pieces of weathered concrete; these are puddingstones and they are entirely natural.
Continue along the path until you reach a distinct crossing path. Here, turn left then immediately take the left fork towards a footpath sign by a road. The road possibly follows the line of The Queen’s Gap or Ride cut through the woods here for the visit of Queen Elizabeth 1 to Bradenham Manor in 1566.
Puddingstones and sarsens
These comprise very well-rounded, flint pebbles in a very hard silcrete matrix. The flints originate from ancient chalk rock that was weathered and eroded away when sea levels rose in the Palaeocene (66-56 million years ago), leaving behind tough flint nodules. Some of these flints were subsequently rounded into pebbles on ancient beaches associated with shorelines that extended across Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. The matrix of the rock is sandy, and it is cemented together by silcrete, which formed under the same warm, semiarid climate around 20 million years ago. None of the puddingstones is in the place it was originally formed, although they have probably not moved far. Further along the path, just before you reach point 2, you will find another piece of puddingstone, part of which appears smoother and finer grained. This is an unusual piece of rock, which is part puddingstone and part sarsen stone. The sarsens represent an ancient river deposit, but they have been cemented into hard sandstone by silcrete in much the same way as the puddingstones. You will see more puddingstones and sarsens later on the route.
Cross the road with care, and then continue along a bridleway. The path takes you in a more-or-less straight line through beech woods and across the head of a small valley that dips to your left. In the late spring, this area is carpeted with bluebells. Ignore any downhill paths on the left. After the path bends to the right, you come to a fork in the path with a marker post in the centre. Take the right fork, initially keeping parallel to the chain link fence on your right. After passing a log jump for the Bradenham Bolt run on your right you come to junction of three paths. Take the middle path, straight ahead and just to the left of a small marker post. Follow this path round to the right. About 100m after passing a white footpath marker on a post you reach a fork. Continue slightly right ahead towards a second marker post. Just past this post you cross a causeway over Grim’s Ditch.
Bradenham bluebells in the spring
Bluebells can take a long time to get established, so if you come across a thick swathe of them it’s often a sign that you’re walking through ancient woodland. Bluebells, which are inedible members of the asparagus family of plants, are perennial bulbous herbs with flowering stems. They spend most of the year as bulbs underground and emerge to flower from mid-April onwards, although they are usually at their peak in the first two weeks of May, depending on the spring weather.
Continue in the same direction for about 150 metres to reach a T-junction with a wooden fence ahead.
Grim’s Ditch is a section of earthwork that consists of a ditch and low upstanding rampart; it is a scheduled ancient monument. The name is given to a number of prehistoric bank-and-ditch earthworks found in various places across the chalk uplands of southern England. Archaeologists believe Iron Age people built the earthworks around 300 BC. The purpose of these earthworks remains a mystery, but they may have served to mark the boundaries of territory as they are too small to have served military purposes. Even the origin of the term Grim, isn’t clear, although the word was commonly used by Anglo Saxons to name features of unexplained or mysterious origin. The word may be derives from the Old Norse word grimr meaning devil or mask, and one of numerous nicknames given to Odin (or Woden), the God of war and sorcery.
Turn left at the T-junction. The cleared area you pass for the next 80 metres on your left is the site of a cluster of buildings built and used by the RAF during the Second World War. Explore this area while taking care on the uneven surfaces before continuing along the path. About 150 metres beyond the RAF site turn left on to a downhill track away from the boundary fence. After about 200 metres turn right uphill on to a crossing path next to a footpath marker. Then, after another 50 metres, turn left at a T-junction. Follow this path around to the right and downhill until you join a wide track coming uphill from your left. Just 15 metres after joining this track, another path forks left away from the track. Almost opposite on the right is a cylindrical green pillbox dating from the Cold War.
RAF Site in the Woods
In 2019, a team of National Trust rangers and volunteers worked with the RAF and National Trust archaeologists, to clear the vegetation that has grown over the foundations of old Second World War RAF buildings close to the RAF High Wycombe compound at Walters Ash. The buildings once included a large mess hall that was sometimes used for ballroom dances. On special occasions, coaches were laid on to bus in young women from High Wycombe as dance partners for the RAF personnel.
Take the left fork, following a path uphill. This soon levels out, becoming a track that meanders through Park Wood. Pass a footpath sign on a post and, after 400 metres, look out for a shallow circular depression in the ground just over a metre deep, immediately to the right of the track. This is the remains of one of the many sawpits, associated with ‘bodgers’ and the High Wycombe Chair industry. These were a common sight in the 19th century. After the sawpit, continue to a fork in the track just next to a small depression on the right, and marked by a white marker ahead of you on a post set back from the right fork.
Second World War pill boxes
You are now very close to RAF High Wycombe at Naphill. During the Second World War, this site 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. A stairway led 17 metre down to the large concrete box that was the Operations block: the key building in the complex. The roof slabs alone were over 1.5 metres thick overlaid with ballast, another 60 cm of concrete covered with a 1.3m cushion of earth and another 1.5 metre layer of reinforced concrete extending way beyond the walls of the building. This “burster slab” would ensure the detonation of any bomb in the event of a direct hit. Last of all came a considerable depth of earth mounding, on top of which were laid grass turfs. There are very few surface features, other than a series of cylindrical pill boxes built at the corners of the plot. From the first pillbox, if you walk about 20 metres up the track parallel to the fence, to a second pillbox, you may glimpse the green doors, which are the entrance to the wartime bunker. Return to the first (lower) pillbox to continue the walk.
At the fork in the track, turn right past a more open area on the right containing a pond (This may be concealed by vegetation the summer months). Pass to the right of the marker post then continue for 30 metres to another white marker post. Here, turn right onto a much narrower footpath, which wanders through trees eventually turning left over a small fallen tree and gently downhill. As it curves right again, you will cross a deep ditch. Soon after the ditch you reach a T-junction.
Archaeological Surveys undertaken in Park Wood have revealed a fascinating past for this quiet area of deciduous woodland. Lynchets 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. Much of 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 sawpits, tracks and charcoal burning platforms.
At the T-junction, turn left following the path downhill for 11 minutes (550 metres). On reaching a junction in front of a wooden kissing gate that leads into the conservation area at Small Dean Bank, turn right, following a sunken path uphill. The path curves to your left and follows the inside the edge of the woodland, with Small Dean Bank on your left. After 3-4 minutes (180 metres) you will meet a crossing path leading to a gate on your left. Go through the gate and cross Small Dean Bank on a steep downhill path that leads through a gate to the small National Trust car park.
Small Dean Bank
Adjacent to the carpark, is an area of permanent grassland rich in flora and fauna, which is now in the care of the National Trust. The Trust successfully re-introduced the rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly here in 2011 (full name: His Grace the Duke of Burgundy Butterfly, Hamearis lucina). Considerable work has been done to ensure the habitat at these sites is suitable for the butterfly's lifecycle. This is a great local conservation success story for a species which on a national scale is one of the most rapidly-declining butterflies in the UK.
From the car park, turn left, following the narrow lane downhill. This is usually a very quiet lane, but please keep a look out for traffic. After 5 minutes (250 metres), you will reach the buildings of Small Dean Farm. Here turn left following a footpath sign. Follow a track past some farm sheds on your right until you reach a field. Here turn left and follow the path along the left field boundary for 14 minutes (700 metres).
After Small Dean Farm, the route enters agricultural land which is managed by the National Trust’s tenant farmer. Along the eastern edge of the field is a broad conservation strip between the cultivated field and the field boundary. The conservation strip contains a wide variety of wildflowers, which attract butterflies, beetles, bees and other pollinating insects. The strip is a wildlife haven, but it also helps to reduce soil erosion and it enhances the pollination of agricultural crops. The fields here are also nesting sites for ground nesting birds such as skylarks.
As you reach the end of the woodland on your left, you will see the Art Deco buildings of The Residence ahead of you, although this may be obscured by trees in summer. Here turn left, once more following the left field boundary. Pass through a gap in the trees, turn left uphill then immediately right and continue following the left field boundary for another 400 metres.
Saunderton's Industrial Past
The large Art Deco building ahead of you was formerly the offices of a pharmaceutical company, but is now being converted into apartments. The site was once occupied by a brick and flint workhouse, built in 1843, with accommodation for 450 inmates. The workhouse was founded in the 18th century, and by the Victorian era it became the main workhouse for the Union of High Wycombe. The workhouse was one of the most secure houses in the region and regular absconders from other workhouses were often moved here because of its remote location. Only one small white building from the workhouse remains today. In the field between you and The Residence, archaeologists have found the remains of a bloomer: a type of furnace once widely used for smelting iron.
As you approach the corner of the field, turn left uphill along a short, wide avenue towards an area of tall, mature woodland (part of Park Wood). As you approach the woodland turn right and continue downhill along a clear path, following the left field boundary. After 8 minutes (400 metres) you will meet a crossing track.
Cross the track, and now with a fence on your right, continue along the field’s edge towards Bradenham. After another 8 minutes (400 metres), pass through two gates to a track which emerges into Bradenham Village by the former youth hostel’s car park by the village pond.
Cold War Bunker Construction Road
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 situated on land leased from the National Trust beyond the Second World War bunker that was mentioned at Point 5. Considerable care was taken to replace natural flora and to continue existing hedgerows over the completed earth covered site. Work was started on the site in May 1982 using a temporary access road through Park Wood from the widened A4010 north of Bradenham village. The track you are about to cross is all that remains of that temporary access road. The RAF began using the bunker in January 1989.
From the carpark, cross the road. Here you will see further examples of sarsens and puddingstones along the edge of the village green. Keeping the churchyard wall on your left, head along the edge of the village green past the Parish Church of St. Botolph.
The Parish Church of St Botolph
The church was restored in 1863 by G.E. Street, although the south door dates from the early Norman period and is reputedly the oldest church doorway in Buckinghamshire. The earliest part is the nave, dating from 1100. The remainder of the building dates from the fourteenth century onwards, the north chapel being added in 1542. In the medieval tower hang two of the oldest bells in England, which were cast in about 1300. The Church contains a tablet to Isaac D’Israeli and his wife, both of whom lie at rest here. The building stones are local, consisting of flint with some sarsen stones and Portland Limestone (from North Bucks).
Continue past the gate to Bradenham Manor House. After a few more metres, you will arrive back at the carpark where you began your walk.
Bradenham Manor (Not open to the Public)
There has been a manor house at Bradenham since the 13th century, when it was a property belonging to the Earl of Warwick. In 1566 Queen Elizabeth I was entertained here by Lord Windsor. The current manor house was substantially built in the 17th century with tall sash windows, steep roofs and slim brick chimneys. In the 19th century it was the home of Isaac D'Israeli who died here in 1848 and is buried in the church. His son Benjamin Disraeli, who became Prime Minister, lived here for much of his early life. Disraeli spent much of his adult life at the nearby Hughenden Manor, which is also a National Trust property. Hughenden Manor is open to the public throughout the year.
National Trust car park in Bradenham village near the cricket pavilion, Grid. Ref. SU827969
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