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History of the Chilterns Countryside

Path leading to the Boer War memorial at Coombe Hill, against a blue sky
The Boer War memorial at Coombe Hill | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

The Chiltern Hills are formed by an outcrop of chalk, overlain by clay-with-flints, on the north-western side of the London basin. The countryside around the hills is steeped in history, ranging from Iron Age hillforts to Elizabethan mansions, and areas of common woodland worked by local families.

The geology of the Chilterns

The chalk rock of the Chiltern Hills started forming around 145 million years ago in shallow subtropical seas far from land. Around 65 million years ago, these soft sedimentary rocks started to be compressed and uplifted under huge tectonic forces, and they emerged from the sea. Subsequent weathering and erosion have shaped the gently rolling landscape.

The history of Coombe Hill

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

One of the oldest features on Coombe Hill is the visible earthwork remains of a late prehistoric cross-dyke. The shallow ditch is on the west facing slope about 400m south of the monument. It was probably dug to defend a route or to mark a territory.

Boer War Memorial

Coombe Hill Monument is one of the first and largest examples of a war memorial built to honour the names of individual men who fell whilst fighting for their country, rather than celebrating victories.

The monument was built in 1904 in memory of 148 men from Buckinghamshire who died during the Second Boer War. It was almost totally destroyed by lightning in 1938, and again in the early 1990s. It now has lightning conductors to stop this from happening again. On 21 October 2010, the monument was re-dedicated after it underwent substantial restoration work.

Potted histories

Discover snapshots of the past with a quick look at the histories of Watlington Hill, Low Scrubs and the fort on Pulpit Hill.

Path on the South East side of Watlington Hill in the Chilterns during winter
Explore Watlington Hill | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

Watlington Hill

Watlington Hill was originally part of the nearby Watlington Park, an early 13th century royal park built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall. In 1632 William Stonor, of nearby Stonor Park, acquired the property, but it wasn’t until John Tilson bought it 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.

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The history of Bradenham

The Bradenham Estate is centred on the 17th century manor house (not open to the public). In the 1956, the estate was acquired by philanthropist Ernest Edward Cook, grandson of travel entrepreneur Thomas, who donated it the National Trust.

The earliest known settlers in Bradenham were Anglo-Saxon, and the village name originates from this time. The name means 'broad enclosure', referring to village’s location in a broad valley. Bradenham was mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086 when it had just two households.

Most of the remaining buildings in the village date from the 18th century. The area around the village green has been designated a conservation area, containing 18 listed buildings.

Bradenham Manor

In 1505 the Bradenham estate was acquired by Andrew Windsor, who was knighted Lord Windsor by Henry VIII in 1529. His son, William, built the original manor house and when he died in 1558, the house passed to his son Edward. Edward entertained Queen Elizabeth I ‘in great splendour’ at Bradenham in 1566, on her return from visiting the University of Oxford.

The manor remained in the Windsor family until 1642, when it was acquired by Sir Edmund Pye, who commissioned the rebuilding of the house. For well over a century the property continued in the Pye family until it was sold in 1787 to John Hicks of Bath. On the death of John Hicks in 1825, the ownership was contested, and a long legal battle began.

The D’Israelis move in

Whilst the ownership of the manor was being debated in the courts, it was leased to various tenants. The best known of these tenants were Isaac and Maria D’Israeli, whose son Benjamin would later become Prime Minister. The family relocated to Bradenham from a smoky and polluted London in 1829 after worries about Benjamin and Maria’s health.

The 17th-century manor house at Bradenham seen through an ornate gate
The manor house (not NT) at Bradenham | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

Archaeological findings on the estate

Archaeological surveys of the area have given a fascinating glimpse into Bradenham's past. In arable land to the north of the village are Bronze Age barrows, which show up as seasonal crop markings. There is also evidence of late Iron Age or early Roman field systems known as 'lynchets', which are indicated by step-like features in Park Wood. Iron slag, a by-product of iron smelting has been found, proving there was industry here in Roman times.

Grimm’s Ditch

Two sections of a mysterious earthwork known as Grimm’s Ditch appear in Park Wood and Beamangreen Wood, close to the village of Walter’s Ash. The feature is a scheduled ancient monument consisting of a ditch and low upstanding rampart.

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 been military.

Bradenham during the Second World War

In the late 1930s plans were drawn up for the RAF High Command Headquarters at Walter’s Ash (now RAF High Wycombe). Building started in 1938 and the base was occupied from 1940. The site was selected for its remoteness and for the opportunity to hide and disguise buildings in the dense beech woodland.

The military buildings were designed to look like a town hall, church, haystacks, village houses and a manor house when viewed from the air, with hidden tunnels between the blocks. Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris was commanding officer from 1942 and from here planned the famous Dambusters’ raid.

Track through gates at Bradenham Estate during the summer

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