Living in the landscape
For thousands of years, people have been living in the Chilterns, making changes to the landscape and in turn being changed and inspired by it.
We can see the traces of what ancient people were doing, left behind in earthworks, ruins, holloways, and artefacts. But it is only in the last thousand years or so that we can rely on written records and begin to put names to some of the inhabitants and visitors to the Chilterns. The past comes to life when we not only experience the heritage around us, but also imagine the people who were walking in these hills and valleys before us. Archaeologist, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, put this well:
“…archaeology …must be ‘seasoned with humanity’. Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows”
From famous artists to world-renowned authors, eminent politicians to kings and queens, the Chilterns has long been associated with famous (and infamous) people from the pages of British history.
Follow the threads of history below and discover the people that lived in the landscape of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), working or farming it, gaining inspiration from it, or ruling it.
Explore our map to discover notable historical figures and places in the Chilterns.
Berkhamsted’s connections with kings and queens through the ages stem largely from its royal castle, built by William of Normandy’s brother following the conquest of England. The castle passed through many royal hands between the 11th and 16th centuries including Henry II, Edward the Black Prince, Henry V, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Nowadays this picturesque ruin and green space in the centre of Berkhamsted is the ideal location for a picnic. Why not spend some time in a space once occupied by feasting kings and queens?Royal connections to Berkhamsted
The market town of Hitchin in Hertfordshire, at the northern tip of the Chilterns AONB, was frequented by King Henry VIII, who enjoyed hunting in the surrounding countryside. In his youth, he was quite an athlete, and it is said that he once tried to pole vault across the River Hiz! However, having become heavier than he realised, the pole snapped from underneath him, and he fell into the river, much to the amusement of his servants. This event was, until recently, commemorated on the sign of the Bucks Head pub in nearby Little Wymondley.Royal connections to Hitchin
The Manor of Risborough was owned by royalty for more than 600 years. Its most famous royal owner was Edward, the Black Prince, whose name is now attached to the bustling market town of Princes Risborough. After his death, the Manor was handed down through successive generations until, in 1628, Charles I sold it to the City of London in part repayment of his large debts.
Royal connections to Princes Risborough
Chenies Manor, near Amersham, is a Tudor manor house, built around 1460. Henry VIII is said to have been entertained here. Queen Elizabeth I visited several times; in July 1570, according to an entry in a wardrobe book, she lost some small gold fastenings called ‘aglets’ from her dress. There is a huge oak tree in the grounds of the Manor, known as Queen Elizabeth’s Oak, under which it is thought she lost the jewellery. You can visit the house and its beautiful gardens, which have been restored by the current owners.Royal connections to Chenies Manor
The beautiful, medieval village of Ewelme, near Wallingford, is known for its historic school (the oldest Church of England primary school in the country), almshouses and restored watercress beds. Centuries ago, the village also contained a royal manor house, which was visited by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Sadly, the house is no more, but the village is still well-worth visiting – the church contains magnificent medieval monuments and the author Jerome K. Jerome, who wrote Three Men in a Boat, is buried in the churchyard.Royal connections to Ewelme
Dame Clara Butt
The famous contralto singer, Dame Clara Butt, was born in Southwick, Sussex, but eventually moved to North Stoke near Wallingford. She became famous for her rich voice from an early age, winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1890 at 18. She was sent to Paris to study with composer, V. A. Duvernoy, the cost of which was being met by Queen Victoria who had heard of her talent. She debuted on 7 December 1892 at the Royal Albert Hall, taking on the role of Ursula in Sullivan’s The Golden Legend. She became very popular, and, by 1898, she was living in London and performing at all major festivals; Edward Elgar composed the Sea Pictures song cycle for her for the Norwich Festival and conducted the performance. She married the baritone, Robert Kennerley Rumford in 1900, and they gave many successful concerts together. During World War I, Butt organised several charity concerts and was awarded the DBE in 1920 for her efforts. She died in North Stoke in 1936; her grave can be visited in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church there.
Dame Agatha Christie, the best-selling crime novelist of all time, lived at Winterbrook House, near Wallingford, from 1934 until her death in 1976. Born in 1890, she was largely home-schooled in Devon. She was initially unsuccessful at writing, until her first detective novel featuring Hercule Poirot was published in 1920. During both world wars, she served in hospital dispensaries. She also accompanied her second husband, the renowned archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan, on many trips to the Middle East. These experiences gave her plenty of fodder for her writing! Christie wrote many of her most famous novels at Winterbrook. Her works include Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, And Then There Were None, and The Mousetrap (a long-running West End play, which opened in 1952 and only stopped in 2020 due to the pandemic). She also introduced us to the beguiling detective, Miss Marple, across many shorter stories. Christie is buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Cholsey, under her married name of Mallowan. Wallingford Museum has a special display about her, as well as lots of exhibits on local history.
Perhaps one of the most famous children’s authors, Roald Dahl lived at Gipsy House, Great Missenden, from 1960, until his death in 1990. Born in Wales in 1916, he spent unhappy years at public schools in Wales and Derbyshire, until taking a job with Shell in London and Tanzania. During World War II, he served in the Royal Air Forces in Libya, Greece and Syria, where he was wounded; and later worked for British Security. His adventures in the RAF inspired him to write and he produced his first children’s book, The Gremlins, in 1943. Dahl eventually settled in Great Missenden and his career as a children’s author began in earnest. It was here, in a small hut at the bottom of the garden, that he wrote most of his unforgettable and best-selling stories, including James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, The Twits, The Witches and Matilda. In 1983, he received the World Fantasy Convention Lifetime Achievement award. Find out more about his life and works at the Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre, Great Missenden. Visit the Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery at the Bucks County Museum for lots of interactive exhibits.
The renowned poet, dramatist and literary critic, T. S. Eliot lived in Marlow from 1917-20. He is known for numerous works, including his poems The Waste Land, The Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday, and his widely regarded masterpiece, Four Quartets. His lighter work, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, was adapted into the record-breaking musical Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1981. Originally from St Louis, Missouri, he settled in England and became the literary editor, and later director, of publishing house Faber & Faber, producing the distinguished journal, The Criterion, from 1922-39. In 1948, he was awarded both the Order of Merit and Nobel Prize for Literature. Look for his house, the ‘Old Post Office’, at 31 West Street, Marlow, and a memorial in the churchyard of All Saints Church.
Graham Greene was born in 1904 and educated in Berkhamsted, becoming a housemaster at Berkhamsted School. He moved on to Balliol College, Oxford, where his writing began. He started as a journalist and reviewer, later, moving on to work on film scripts, such as the original screenplay for The Third Man. But it was as a novelist that he achieved his reputation as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, penning classics, such as Our Man in Havana, Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair and The Human Factor, which was partly set in Berkhamsted. During World War II, Greene worked for the secret service. He continued to travel widely, often in dangerous places, and spent much of his later life living and writing in Antibes in the South of France. Find out more from The Graham Greene Birthplace Trust, who hold an annual Graham Greene Festival of lectures and events in Berkhamsted. Or you can wander around Berkhamsted to see his old haunts – a trail is available from Berkhamsted Civic Centre on the High Street.
Best known as a First World War poet, Wilfred Owen worked as lay assistant to the Reverend Herbert Wigan in Dunsden Parish, just to the north-east of Caversham, near Reading, from 1911-13. Born in 1893, he was killed in action in 1918, just days before the armistice. During his stay in the Chilterns, he had already begun his interest in poetry; this interest developed when he met Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves in Craiglockhart Hospital, Edinburgh, while recovering from shell shock in 1917. He is best-known for works such as Anthem for Doomed Youth, The Sentry and Dulce et Decorum Est. Today, Dunsden Green remains a small, rural settlement; the church and hall in which Owen spent his time can be found in the village and there is a trail of places of significance.
John Piper was a prolific artist of the 20th century, producing paintings and ceramics, and designing stage sets. He lived most of his working life at Fawley Bottom, near Henley. Born in 1903, he initially became a solicitor’s clerk, but eventually went to the Royal College of Art, becoming involved with the abstract movement and group which included Henry Moore, Ivan Hitchens and Barbara Hepworth. Over his lifetime, he produced an enormous volume of work, but his paintings of the destruction in Coventry and Bath during World War II made his reputation. He is also well-known for designing the stained glass windows of Coventry Cathedral, but you don’t need to travel that far to see his work – he also designed windows for several Chilterns’ churches, including St Paul’s in Bledow Ridge, St Mary’s in Fawley and St Bartholomew’s in Nettlebed. He died in 1992 and is buried at St Mary’s Church, Fawley. The River and Rowing Museum in Henley contains a mural by Piper, and an example of a set design he did for the Kenton Theatre.
Percy Bysshe Shelley & Mary Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley was a romantic poet and the husband of Mary Shelley, the author of the famous horror novel, Frankenstein. Both lived in Marlow from 1817 to 1818, having married in 1816. Mary had conceived the idea for her novel, Frankenstein, the previous summer and, during their time in Marlow, she completed it. It was published anonymously in January 1818. Later that year, the Shelleys moved to Italy. In 1822, Percy was drowned in a sailing accident, so Mary returned to London with her one surviving child and devoted much of her time to publishing her husband’s works, eventually dying in 1851. His most famous works include Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark, and the long masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound. The Marlow Society’s Marlow Town Tour is a circular walk that takes you past the now-named Shelley Cottages.
Sir Stanley Spencer was a famous painter of the 20th century. He was born in 1891 and lived most of his life in Cookham, near Maidenhead. As a child, he attended the Slade School of Fine Art in London, the country’s premier art school. During World War I, he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps and worked as an official war artist, moving back to Cookham in 1932. Spencer was greatly attached to Cookham, and was also deeply religious; his work, The Resurrection, Cookham, depicts biblical scenes set in the village with locals as biblical characters. He also painted the landscapes around Cookham and village life. He died in 1959, having been knighted and elected to the Royal Academy. The Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham showcases more than 100 of his paintings, or you can walk from the centre of Cookham to the Thames, taking in the locations of several of his works.
Dusty Springfield (real name Mary Isobel Catherine O’Brien) became famous in the 1960s and remains an icon of that era. As a schoolgirl, Springfield learned to sing, and would accompany herself and friends on acoustic guitar. From 1949-50, she attended St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Primary in High Wycombe, moving briefly on to St Bernard’s Convent School in High Wycombe. Dusty rose to fame with her brother, Tim Field, as part of the Springfields, whose folk-inspired music was very successful. After disbanding, Dusty became even more popular as a solo artist, performing hits like Son of a Preacher Man, Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Look of Love, and I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself. After the 1960s, her success waned, and she moved abroad, eventually returning to a house near Henley in the 1990s. She died in 1999, just after collecting an OBE. There is a memorial to Dusty Springfield in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Hart St, Henley-on-Thames.
Chilterns Historic Landscape Characterisation project
Although protected and designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), much of what we can see in the Chilterns is the result of centuries of human endeavour. In order to better understand and appreciate the historic value of this special landscape, the Chilterns Conservation Board, English Heritage and Buckinghamshire County Council completed a Chilterns Historic Landscape Characterisation project (Chilterns HLC) in 2009, covering the designated AONB and an area immediately around it.
The overall aim of the Chilterns HLC project was to improve understanding of the area’s historic landscape character and patterns. It resulted in a detailed report, describing the different landscape types found in the Chilterns with an analysis of how they have evolved over time. There are many maps and diagrams which help to explain how the landscapes we see today have come about. The project also published a booklet entitled ‘The Making of the Chilterns Landscape’ which is a summary of the main findings of the project presented in an accessible way.