BAS Walking Tour Around West Wycombe

Sunday, 19th July 2022

Simon Cains led a small group around West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.  The aim was to suggest topics which BAS could show to the public in Berkshire, as part of the society’s Outreach initiative.   The village and hillside are owned by the National Trust (NT), but Simon included some topics not covered by the NT.

The group walked round the ditch of an iron-age “hillfort” at the end of a ridge, 4th or 5th century BC, within sight of the Desborough Castle hillfort 2km away.  Both of these forts had later occupation inside, which is unusual.  The hillfort is clearly visible on the detailed Lidar survey for the “Beacons of the Past” Chilterns project.  There was a Saxon settlement and church within the West Wycombe hillfort dated from 635 AD.  James Peddle identified many features on the present St Lawrence church, including scaffolder’s holes, some possible recycled Roman tiles and earlier blocked-up windows.  The church tower and interior were remodelled by the Dashwood family around 1763 including a large hollow golden ball on the tower which was used by Sir Francis Dashwood for private meetings and to signal by mirror to another tower 21 miles away.  There are some interesting building debris piles which would be worth checking in winter.

The churchyard should be part of any village tour for the historical narratives.  Simon pointed out some gravestone inscriptions in the West Wycombe churchyard, including a postman who had been hit by a train on the level crossing, and some Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWCG) stones.  Only servicemen who died in the UK could be buried in the UK, but there are also family memorials to soldiers who died abroad.  The CWGC have details of all the men who died, so these can be included in a guided walk.  The writing on many gravestones is rapidly fading but family history societies will usually have a full record. 

The West Wycombe hilltop looks down on the site of a large army encampment in 1905, including some 5500 men and 44 guns.  These manoeuvres were very common from 1850 to 1914, the later ones covered several counties.  Before 1900 they tended to be in Berkshire because it was near Sandhurst and planning for a possible French invasion of the south coast heading for London, so BAS could find more local examples of these in https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/

The group climbed a nearby hill where many Roman coins have been found, some now in a collection of Sir Edward Dashwood.  He is interested to know why so many coins are here, so he would likely support some geophysical work on his land.  The group briefly looked for any pottery or tiles in the fields here.   A Roman cemetery has also been found in West Wycombe, adding to the possibility of a Roman building nearby, but there is no sign of this on the Lidar data.  A possible Roman road has been suggested on the ridge passing south of the village, but the evidence for this road near Piddington was dismissed by the BAS group on that walk.

Simon took the group along West Wycombe High Street, relating some more modern history narratives.  The village is all owned by the National Trust, with mostly 18th century buildings.  There was a small Cavalier raid in the English Civil War in 1643, the commander left a very colourful account of this “beating up”.  The soldiers from the 1905 army camp came into West Wycombe at the weekend and unfortunately caused a great deal of damage while drinking every pub dry, the newspaper report of this went into great details.  But this was the only example of any bad behaviour in all the accounts of army manoeuvres over many years.

The oldest building in West Wycombe is the Church Loft, 1465, which includes a supposed kneeling stone for pilgrims. James was able to show many examples of additions and changes to this building.  There is also a small village lock-up. Simon showed the original site of the North’s furniture factory before it moved to Piddington and related the life of the first owner who grew up in absolute poverty.  The factory is only seen in 3 of 1,200 photographs of West Wycombe, so there are still some new discoveries even in such a well-documented village.  

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/west-wycombe-park-village-and-hill

https://www.wycombe.gov.uk/uploads/public/documents/Planning/Conservation-areas-and-listed-buildings/West-Wycombe-conservation-area-character-survey.pdf

https://www.chilternsaonb.org/news/480/19/A-tale-of-two-furniture-factories-Part-1-West-Wycombe.html   Simon Cains’ project on the North furniture factory

https://historicengland.org.uk/research/results/reports/6498/WestWycombeParkBuckinghamshireSurveyReport  mostly the park, but covers the wider area

https://heritageportal.buckinghamshire.gov.uk/api/LibraryLinkWebServiceProxy/FetchResource/47861/full_47861.pdf   Roman burials in West Wycombe

https://eprints.oxfordarchaeology.com/5863/1/WWTT17.pdf  Another useful summary of local archaeology

report by Simon Cains, Photo: Courtesy Keith Abbott

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire