Industrial Chilterns

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


Iron smelting took place in the later prehistoric and Roman periods at places like Cow Roast on the Bulbourne and at Cholesbury in the Chess catchment.


From the Roman period through to modern times Chiltern rivers have been home to abundant mills (more than 90!) which both written records and archaeological remains attest to, processing a range of materials from turning grain into flour, rags into paper, and even a brief flirtation with milling silk and polishing diamonds! 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


Another major stream-reliant industry was the 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)


The woodlands that now cover a quarter of the Chilterns AONB have also seen many types of industry over the centuries.

In medieval times, from 1000 – 1400AD, 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. Many woodlands were more open than they are today, with trees of different sizes and ages. The most open areas contained grassland and were used for grazing.

By the 18th century Chiltern woodlands had grown in economic importance and were being managed more closely. 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 like sawyers and charcoal-makers made their living entirely from the woods.

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 though the local furniture-making industry was taking off, and this 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 which 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.

Chairs were assembled in factories but some of their components like 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. A few bodgers continued working in the woods, some could be found on the Hampden Estate near Great Missenden into the 1950s.

Read more about chair making and other Chilterns crafts as discovered by our Woodlanders Lives and Landscapes project


During the 20th century conifers became a lot more commonplace in Chiltern woodlands because they grow quickly. In the last few years though a trend has begun to remove conifers from sites which are considered to be ancient woodland (areas which have been continuously wooded since at least 1600).

The economic value of timber from Chiltern woodlands has fallen greatly in recent decades, as the majority of timber in the UK is now imported from abroad and the local furniture industry has declined. Woodlands have become important as places for people to enjoy green spaces, fresh air and exercise and to re-connect with the natural world. Woods are still managed, but as much for their amenity and wildlife value as for timber production. Use the interactive map to find great woods to visit for recreation.

The great beechwoods of the Chilterns are ageing, and the decline in the timber industry means that there is little re-planting. Species such as grey squirrels and deer are also causing damage in woods and are proving a challenge to control.

It is clear that factors like climate change are going to have quite an effect on our woodlands and their wildlife over the next few decades. The prediction of hotter, drier summers, wetter winters and more extreme weather in the future will influence what types of trees, plants and animals do well in our woods and what may become less common or disappear. Despite these possible changes, Chiltern woods should still be tranquil, green spaces in which to relax and get close to nature.

Pit sawing

Other industries

Other industries included a vibrant hat making trade centred in Luton, brush making in Chesham, brick making in Cholesbury and Nettlebed, and lace making in Stokenchurch.

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Stokenchurch lace school

Although many of these industries are no longer economically viable or have faded into obscurity, the skills required to produce some of these wonderful products are being kept alive. Read more at Living in the Landscape.

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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.