Industrial Chilterns

Industries of all types have thrived for years along the riverbanks, in the woodlands, and on the hills of the Chilterns.

The Chilterns AONB has provided people with ways of making a living for many hundreds, even thousands, of years. In Prehistoric and Roman times, iron-smelting took place at sites like Cow Roast on the Bulbourne, and Cholesbury in the Chess catchment. This iron was used for tools and weapons, cooking and building materials, and it enabled humans to forge ahead with technological advances.

From the Roman Period onwards, mills popped up along the Chilterns’ rivers, harnessing the power of the water and processing a range of materials from turning grain into flour, rags into paper, and even a brief flirtation with milling silk and polishing diamonds!

Yet, it was the rise of the Industrial Revolution that really brought change across Britain and the Chilterns was no exception. Look for the evidence all around you: view the famous Brunel bridge that spans the Thames from Hartslock nature reserve; take a trip on the railways to explore our delightful Market Towns; or explore our Victorian heritage at the Pitstone Green Museum (seasonal opening). Visit our interactive map to find even more family days out and industrial adventures across the Chilterns.

Georgians and Victorians usher in a new age

The Industrial Revolution started during the Georgian Era (1714-1837 AD), brining with it innovation, technology, employment and growth. Transport routes and toll roads were constructed and improved across the Chilterns, making it easier to pass through the hills, and markets and trade expanded. Waterways were heavily used and the Grand Union Canal was constructed in the late 18th century to connect London and Birmingham and enable the transportation of bulky and heavy goods.

By the 1800s, the demand for firewood from Chiltern woodlands had fallen because more and more people were using coal for fuel in their homes. At the same time, the local furniture-making industry was taking off, which required a regular supply of wood. Chair-making became an important industry, especially around High Wycombe. The woods began to change in appearance as tall, narrow trees were grown to produce timber that could be handled easily by woodland workers. Some areas were planted with beech, which were often felled when they reached 40 years old. The high beech forest that we know today began to appear.

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Sitting down on the job!

Chairs were assembled in factories, but some of their components, such as legs, spindles and back supports, were made in the woods by craftsmen known as ‘bodgers’. These men worked in the woods every day, building small huts for shelter. The chair industry thrived for over a hundred years, but declined at the end of the Victorian Era as foreign timber began to be imported in large quantities. Our Woodlanders Lives and Landscapes project shines a light on chair-making and other Chilterns crafts.

Harnessing water and steam

Along the rivers of the Chilterns, the Industrial Revolution saw Victorian mills for flour, cloth and paper multiply, using the water to power wheels and machinery. Today, only a handful of mills are still in regular operation: at Ford End near Tring, at Redbourn on the Ver, and at Pann Mill on the Wye in Wycombe.

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Pann Mill, High Wycombe

The Victorian Era was the age of steam, when powered machinery and railways took off, the world opened up to travel and trade, and anything seemed possible. The Great Western Railway company operated across the Chilterns, the line running from London to Bristol. Its chief engineer was the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose flat-arched bridge at Maidenhead was a feat of technology designed to keep the railway gradients at a minimum.

Railways lines expanded across the Chiltern Hills, many of the routes used today coming quite late in the period. Perhaps the most famous line, however, is that of the Metropolitan Line, which ferried day-trippers and holidaymakers from London into the fresh air of the countryside.

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Come with us to Metroland

Thus ran the slogan of the Metropolitan Railway, carrying Londoners into the countryside beyond. Today, you can still take a ride to Chesham and enjoy this ‘Walkers are Welcome’ town. This scheme encourages towns to provide information, offer and maintain attractive walks, and promote tourism. Fuel-up ready for your explorations in a choice of cafés and pubs, or enjoy the markets and shops of this pleasant town. Find more rail-friendly places to visit in our Market Towns section.

One major steam-reliant industry was watercress ‘farming’, which led to a range of watercress beds through the network of chalk streams. Sadly, these are nearly all out of operation, although you can see how the beds looked at the Chiltern Society’s Ewelme centre.

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Ewelme Watercress beds (image Chiltern Society)

Moving on

As the century turned, so the Chilterns changed once again. Two World Wars ravaged both people and the land, eventually leading to a fervour of development and intensified farming methods. During the 20th century, technological advances made it quicker and more efficient to produce food, sometimes at the expense of the wildlife and landscape that characterised the area. Woodlands were planted with conifers because they grow quickly and the economic value of local timber fell as imports from abroad took over; thus, the local furniture industry declined.

Today, our wild spaces, landscapes and ancient towns have become places to enjoy, get away from it all, or take the world at a slower pace. They are places we can reconnect with nature and each other, enjoy fresh air and local produce, and recognise the value of both modern life and the ways things were. Read more in our Places to Visit section and find your perfect spot for relaxation, merriment or discovery.

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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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Upcoming events

Find out what's on in the Chilterns - walking or biking, food & drinks, serious trekking or a picnic on the flat - the possibilities are endless.
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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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