Buckinghamshire’s heritage has traces of human activity dating from the Ice Ages to the present day. Our rich landscapes include scattered farms, settlements of hamlets, villages and towns; the grasslands, arable fields and wooded uplands of the chalk Chiltern hills; the lowland farmland of the clay vale and mid-vale limestone ridges and the river terraces of the Thames and Colne valleys with their London fringe suburban housing and clusters of country house estates.
Buildings and building materials
The county’s built heritage is characterised by the locally available building materials of timber, flint, chalk, and clay, with some relatively poor quality limestone found in north Buckinghamshire. A particularly hard sarsen stone, called Denner Hill Stone, was used throughout the county and beyond for paving and occasionally in buildings. Vernacular buildings, both urban and rural, were historically timber-framed with locally made brick and tile increasingly common from the 16th century. In the Chilterns brick and flint buildings dominate, whilst the Vale of Aylesbury has a unique building material in witchert; a clay, straw and limestone mix which results in characteristic thick-walled and round cornered buildings. Buckinghamshire is on the boundary between the western cruck-framed and eastern box-framed building traditions and has an important concentration of surviving late-medieval cruck buildings.
The heritage of medieval town-planning is still evident in the layout of the county’s towns with their marketplaces and burgage plots. The 18th century saw a process of 'gentrification' in the larger towns with many of the timber-framed buildings re-fronted in brick.
Buckinghamshire is notable for the number and quality of its country houses, both large and small. The county was an attractive rural retreat with plenty of good hunting but conveniently close to London and the royal court at Windsor. Unique amongst these are the Victorian mansions built for the Rothschild banking family. Many buildings which were ancillary to these country houses, such as lodges, farms and worker’s housing, and even a few estate villages, still survive. The generocity of wealthy owners often extended to the provision of community facilities, such as village halls, schools and reading rooms.
Parish churches range in date from the medieval period to the 20th century. Most have been altered over the centuries, particularly in the 19th century. Towers rather than spires are the norm. The strong tradition of non-conformity, particularly in the Chilterns, has left a legacy of chapels and meeting houses, many of which have been converted to houses.
The 'pull' of London has remained a constant factor in the growth and development of the county. The spread of the railway network in the early 20th century resulted in the construction of 'Metroland' housing for commuters. These early houses, often designed by noted architects, were generally in 'Arts and Crafts' or vernacular styles, with some important International-Modern houses appearing in the 1930s.
Both World Wars had a significant impact on the county. Many country houses were requisitioned for medical or military purposes, but details of this heritage only came to light in recent years after the Official Secrets Act ceased to apply. Some military bases, such as RAF Bomber Command, now Air Command at Walters Ash, remain as do vestiges of the later Cold War. After World War II new housing estates were created to accommodate Londoners who had lost their homes in the London blitz.
Established in 1945, the County Architect’s Department was responsible for the design of innovative public buildings. The 1960s saw much demolition in towns, mainly for slum-clearance and road-building. The quality of some modern houses and non-domestic buildings has been recognised not only by listing but by award schemes such as those run by RIBA and the Chilterns AONB.
Parks and gardens
Buckinghamshire’s historic parks and gardens include examples of the work of many of the most iconic British landscape designers, including George London, Capability Brown, Humphry Repton and Gertrude Jekyll. The county has a surprising number of surviving Tudor and Stuart earthworks gardens and there may be more waiting to be recognised.
The parks at Stowe, West Wycombe and Hartwell are amongst the most influential and outstanding examples of Georgian designed landscapes in Europe, embodying contemporary political allegiances and layers of hidden meaning in the choice of decorative garden ornaments and structures. Thames valley properties within easy reach of the court at Windsor, the City of London and government at Westminster were particularly popular with the ruling elite and wealthy merchants whilst ongoing research into smaller parks and gardens is revealing a wealth of little gems, often with links to interesting historic figures.
Important archaeological remains range from Ice Age sites such as the stream side habitats excavated in a chalk quarry at Marsworth, which produced the first evidence for an interglacial (warm period) between the last two Ice Ages and the earliest remains of woolly mammoths in the UK, to prehistoric flint tool-making sites and temporary camps to Neolithic causewayed enclosures and a Thames-side Neolithic midden at Dorney. A huge Bronze Age timber circle was recently excavated near Wendover during work for the HS2 railway and HS2 continues to reveal exciting new discoveries, as do other development-led excavations.
Buckinghamshire has an unusual concentration of Iron Age hillforts, the most recent of which was discovered as a cropmark in 2002 and confirmed by geophysics and trial trenching in 2015. Grim’s Ditch, a late prehistoric earthwork boundary stretching along the Chiltern scarp between Bradenham and Berkhamstead is thought to be Iron Age or possibly earlier, as are the shorter cross ridge dykes that survive in the Chilterns. A succession of Iron Age timber bridges across the River Thames were excavated at the Dorney rowing lake site and are thought to be the earliest bridges in Europe.
During the Roman period Buckinghamshire seems to have been a quiet place of agricultural farms, villas and local markets, crossed by major and minor roads. The small town at Fleet Marston near Aylesbury has had major investigations over the last 10 years which is revealing lots of new evidence about the layout of the settlement and its cemeteries.
There is a documentary reference to Aylesbury early in the Anglo-Saxon period and several early cemetery sites are known in the county but the most extraordinary was the excavation in 1883 of the princely burial chamber in the barrow at Taplow, the richest Anglo-Saxon burial prior to the discovery of the royal ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, in 1939. Later in the Anglo-Saxon period our familiar patterns of villages and towns, churches, markets and field systems were established, and administrative reorganisation resulted in the creation of parishes and the county of Buckinghamshire. There is an unusually dense concentration of minster churches in central Buckinghamshire, which might reflect its location at the edges of separate kingdoms and regional territories. Buckinghamshire has outstanding survival of medieval earthwork remains, including some of the most extensive and best-preserved ridge and furrow earthworks in the UK, representing the classic open-field systems and associated settlements, churches and moated manors that typify northern Europe in the Middle Ages.
Being a predominantly agricultural county, Buckinghamshire isn’t famous for its Industrial remains, but has a long history of small and medium-sized industries exploiting the available natural resources. Pottery and tile works were using the local clays in the Roman and medieval periods: the medieval Brill and Boarstall pottery-making kilns were regionally important sources of pottery, and in the 14th century decorated floor tiles from Penn were shipped in large quantities along the Thames for use in public buildings, churches and the royal palaces including Windsor Castle, Westminster Palace and the Tower of London. In the 19th and 20th centuries the population boom created demand for new housing that stimulated large-scale brick works, cement works, sand and gravel extraction and furniture manufacturing. In Buckinghamshire this resulted in huge brickworks at Calvert and Newton Longville, sand and gravel pits along the Thames and Colne valleys, chalk quarries and cement works at Pitstone, and the chair and furniture factories that are such a feature of High Wycombe and the surrounding area but which are rapidly being lost to redevelopment.
River, canal, road and rail transport became increasingly important from the late medieval period onwards and Buckinghamshire’s location on major through routes heading north and west out of London ensures a share in engineering innovations. These include the world’s first railway branch line and the Brunel designed-bridges on the Great Western Railway in particular the skew bridges and of course the daringly wide elliptical spans of the Maidenhead Bridge across the Thames between Taplow and Maidenhead, the setting of Turner’s great painting ‘Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway’ of 1844.
Explosive propulsion is reflected in the Westcott rocket testing facility on the former World War 2 RAF airfield which was pivotal to the development of Cold War missile technology and continues to be important to the space industry; whilst creative industries also figured in the twentieth century with the establishment of film studios at Denham, Pinewood and Beaconsfield and the National Film and Television School.
Public Art such as statues, sculptures, murals and war memorials are fairly modest, as the county lacks the large towns and cities which present opportunities for public commemoration and display, but artworks are beginning to appear in public parks and other often unexpected locations in the countryside, adding an element of surprise and delight.