Historic Chilterns

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

The fields and forests were the pages, and the earthworks and artefacts left behind the words on those pages. By the 1st Century AD, new influences from the continent, in the form of the Roman Empire, brought a wave of changes, notably a type of urbanism not experienced here before. The major settlements (St Albans, Hemel Hempstead, Chesham, Wycombe, Amersham) we see today are built upon the foundations of earlier activity, in many instances inextricably linked with the presence of the waterways.  Chalk streams not only being desirable locations for settlement for their supply of drinking water and food resources, but also for their motive power, and even from the Roman period (AD43-410) watermills began to appear.


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

Beyond the pragmatic, this landscape also provided for spiritual and religious activity from Roman shrines and temples on the Ver and Hamble Brook, to the subsequent relationships between Saxon and Medieval churches at ‘holy wells’ and near the rivers and streams – a prime example being the now-famous Roman mausoleum at a confluence of small waterways near Stoke Mandeville which lay under various phases of Saxon, Norman, and post-medieval religious structures.

The post-Roman period saw continued expansion of landuse and the density of population is 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 begins, a system that still is visible in the administrative arrangements of the Chilterns. Medieval sources show that fields were being created by woodland clearance, a process known as ‘assarting’. Other hedged fields were created by piecemeal enclosure of medieval open field arable. Some woodlands originated in the medieval period either as the private woods of manorial lords or as common woods where the local community held grazing rights. Very little wood pasture survives, although it was once widespread.

Most of the Chilterns historic settlements probably originated between the 10th and 13th centuries from which time they gradually developed into their 19th century form. Many retain at least a few examples of late medieval and post-medieval historic building characteristics. The most distinctive landscape types of the 18th and 19th centuries are fields created as a result of Parliamentary Enclosure Acts which sought to improve land for farming. Parliamentary Enclosures in the Chilterns form two distinctive groups. In a band running along the Oxford and Aylesbury clay vales abutting the Chilterns scarp the fields were enclosed from medieval open fields. By contrast, south of the Chilterns scarp the medieval open fields had already disappeared and instead parliamentary enclosure focused on creating fields from common land.

Within the AONB, newly founded 18th and 19th century settlements are largely confined to Victorian farms. The majority of hamlets and villages in the Chilterns underwent some rebuilding, although in most cases not enough to significantly alter their form. These centuries  also marked the heyday of parks and gardens in the Chilterns. Increasing wealth allowed the establishment of country 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 and thus there are more to be found in the eastern half of the Chilterns.

This period also saw the demand for wood increase, initially to provide fuel for London then later as a source for the furniture making, one of the many industries that found a home in the Chilterns.

Chilterns ANOB
Chilterns ANOB

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!
Chilterns ANOB

Visit the Chilterns

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