Historic Chilterns

Prehistoric settlements came and went, but the Romans brought changes that reflected a new permanence to human ways of life.

For thousands of years, the fields and forests were the pages that held the stories of life in prehistoric times, and the earthworks and artefacts left behind were the words on those pages. Eventually, people began to record more formally their endeavours; the break between the prehistoric and historic periods of time is defined as the point when people created these written records. In the Chilterns, prehistory ended around the 1st century AD when Roman writers begin to document their interactions with the people of Britain in some detail.

There are lots of great places to experience the history of the Chilterns National Landscape. Wander around Medieval barns and a traditional working farm at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, discover the remains of a 12th century castle at Berkhamsted, or delve into the long history of Stonor Park. Visit our interactive map to discover even more family days out and historic adventures across the Chilterns.


Enter the Romans

As prehistoric times gave way to the historic era, new influences from the continent, in the form of the Roman Empire, brought a wave of changes, notably a type of urbanism not experienced in Britain before. Today’s major settlements in the area – St Albans, Hemel Hempstead, Chesham, Wycombe and Amersham – are all built upon the foundations of earlier activity, in many instances inextricably linked with the presence of waterways. Chalk streams, for instance, were not only desirable locations for settlements because of their supply of drinking water and food resources, but also for their motive power; watermills began to appear as early as the Roman occupation (43-410 AD).

Roman settlements have been recorded all over the Chilterns, from relatively humble farmsteads to ornate villas with elaborate mosaics and indoor heatingField systems identified in LiDAR surveys hint at the importance of the Chilterns for growing crops, which would have supplied the wider Roman Empire.

This dramatic landscape also provided inspiration for spiritual and religious activity, and Roman shrines and temples were built on the Ver and Hamble Brook. Later, many of these places still held significance for people, often becoming the focus for Saxon and Medieval churches – a prime example being the Roman mausoleum discovered at a confluence of small waterways near Stoke Mandeville, which lay under various Saxon, Norman and post-Medieval religious structures.

LiDAR – how it helps us to see the past

LiDAR stands for ‘Light Detection and Ranging’ and is a remote sensing method that uses pulses from a laser to collect measurements to examine the Earth’s surface. These measurements can be built up to create a 3D model of an area, mapping the ground beneath the airborne platform (usually a plane or helicopter) used to scan it. It can show us features of the landscape that have long been forgotten, whether Roman field systems lost to farmland, or a World War I training trench deep in a woodland. The CCB’s Beacons of the Past  project recently commissioned the largest high resolution LiDAR survey ever flown for archaeology in the UK.

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Land of the Chiltern dwellers

The Roman Empire fell and its influence waned, ushering in the Early Medieval or ‘Dark Ages’ (410-1066 AD). During this time, the use of the land for farming and settlement continued to expand as population density increased – a fact suggested by recent discoveries of Saxon funerary sites. The first mention of the Chilterns as a geographical location appears in a 7th century document, where the Cilternsaetna landes refers to ‘the land of the Chiltern dwellers’. It is during this period that the establishment of ‘hundreds’ and parishes began; a system that still is visible in the administrative arrangements of the Chilterns today.

During the Medieval Ages (1066-1485 AD), woodlands were the biggest natural resource of the Chilterns. They provided construction materials for houses, carts and fences, as well as all the fuel and heating needed by peasants and their feudal lords. Wood was not the only valuable product – woodlands provided clay for bricks and tiles and food for livestock.

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Woodlands from a bygone era

In the Medieval Ages, many woodlands were more open than they are today, with trees of different sizes and ages. The most open areas contained grassland, or ‘wood pasture’, and were used for grazing, although very little of this survives now. Some woodlands originated in the Medieval Ages, either privately owned by manorial lords or created as common land. Regardless of origin, woodlands that have been on the same site continuously since the 1600s are now considered ‘ancient’ and are wonderful for wildlife. Find out more about the Chilterns’ woodlands.

Medieval sources also show that fields were being created during this time through woodland clearance – a process known as ‘assarting’. Generally, Medieval field systems were large and open, with workable strips allocated to the tenants of the manor. Hedged fields were made by the piecemeal enclosure of Medieval open, arable fields.

Most of the Chilterns historic settlements probably originated between the 10th and 13th centuries, gradually developing into their 19th century form. Many retain at least a few examples of Late Medieval and post-Medieval historic building characteristics, such as the towers of Norman churches (for instance, Holy Cross Church in Sarratt village) and the black-and-white timber frames of houses and inns.

Farming changes forever

The most distinctive landscape features of the 18th and 19th centuries were the fields created as a result of the Parliamentary Enclosure Acts, which sought to improve land for farming. Parliamentary Enclosures in the Chilterns formed two distinctive groups: the first group resulted from the enclosure of the Medieval open fields that ran along the Oxford and Aylesbury clay vales abutting the Chilterns scarp; the second group, south of the Chilterns scarp, focused on creating fields from common land as the Medieval open fields had already disappeared here.

Enclosure was one of the biggest changes to farming at the time. It broke up larger pieces of land owned by groups into distinct units, fenced or hedged off from one another, and owned by one person. Farmers could keep livestock safe, but communities lost their rights, and many became unemployed as a result.

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Common land

Many commons were enclosed as part of the Enclosure Acts, but people fought to save their rights. For instance, the Commons Preservation Society of the 19th century successfully fought and saved Berkhamsted Common through direct action. Eventually it was agreed that two-thirds of commoners must agree to land being enclosed, resulting in the survival of some commons to this day. Find out more about our common land in the Chilterns and the value it now holds for nature.

The rise of stately homes

Within the Chilterns, 18th and 19th century settlements are largely confined to Victorian farms. The majority of hamlets and villages in the Chilterns underwent some rebuilding, but for most it was not enough to significantly alter their form.

Perhaps one of the most obvious changes of these centuries in the Chilterns that can still be viewed today is the rise of country houses, parks and gardens. Increasing wealth allowed the establishment of such houses and parks by the landed elite as expressions of status and power. The proximity of the Chilterns to London and Windsor added to its attraction, so there are more to be found in the eastern half of the Chilterns.

Step back in time

The great, the good and the not-so-good have all made their homes in the Chilterns. Many of their finest houses are now open to the public, so you can surround yourself in the opulence, extravagance and intrigue of how the other half lived and still lives today. Find out more about these special places to visit.

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This period also saw the demand for wood increase and the economic importance of the Chilterns’ woodlands grew. It became necessary to manage woodlands more closely as they were an important source of firewood for London and local towns. Firewood was cut from the smaller trees, while other trees were allowed to grow tall to provide timber for construction. Beech was more prevalent than before, but oak, ash and cherry were also grown for timber. Some people, such as sawyers and charcoal-makers, made their living entirely from the woods.

Later on, these woodlands became a source of wood for furniture-making, one of the many industries that found a home in the Chilterns.

Moving on

As people were moved off newly enclosed land, they relocated to towns and cities. Here, they fed the Industrial Revolution’s growing need for a larger workforce. Settlements in the Chilterns grew, factories expanded, and both people and landscape changed irrevocably.

Find out about what happened next in our Industrial Chilterns

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Discover the timeline of the Chilterns

There has been a rich and varied geology and history in the Chilterns – from the Cretaceous Period, when shallow seas laid down the distinctive chalk of the area, right up to today’s working landscape.
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Volunteering hub

Find out more about volunteering in the Chilterns - indoor, outdoor, practical or desk based there's something for everyone, whatever age or stage! Use our interactive volunteering hub to find the perfect opportunity for you.
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Featured walks

A selection of some of the best walks in the Chilterns, from short easy strolls to all day walks, and all through beautiful scenery. The best way to shake off the cobwebs, enjoy tranquil surroundings and burn a few calories!
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Visit the Chilterns

Quintessential English countryside, an impressive selection of pubs and restaurants, and historic market towns, the Chilterns AONB has it all.
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