Seen from the Vale of Aylesbury the reason for Wendover’s existence becomes obvious. It is set into a cleft in the Chiltern Escarpment providing a natural route through the hills at a point where the ancient Anglo Saxon Icknield Way which runs from the Wash to Salisbury bisects the route from London. It is framed on either side by over 7,000 acres of mature woodland criss crossed with bridle ways and footpaths including the 84 mile long Ridgeway which follows part of the old Saxon road. Nestling in a gap in the Chiltern Hills there is much to enjoy in and around Wendover with its historic buildings, many restaurants and country walks which attract visitors from London just 45 minutes away by train. On the direct rail route from Aylesbury to London Marylebone and with easy road access, Wendover is in the Metropolitan Green Belt and Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is well situated to give the city-tired visitor a peaceful interlude in the pleasant Home Counties. Wendover is situated in the Chiltern Hills just a few miles from the county town of Aylesbury. It is on the A413, 3 miles from the A41 and 17 miles from the M25 making the village easily accessible by road.
Wendover offers much to both local people and visitors with the countryside around being very popular with walkers, cyclists and horse riders. Apart from the Ridgeway Path, the National Trail that passes down the main High Street of Wendover, there are 33 miles of public rights of way and bridleways criss-crossing the parish. These paths will take you over the open chalk downland of Coombe Hill with its impressive monument to the Buckinghamshire men who died in the Boer War, or to the shaded Wendover Woods on Boddington Hill belonging to Forest Enterprise. There is a short two mile walk to the pretty hamlet of Dunsmore and in the spring you can enjoy the carpet of bluebells, or enjoy the shaded woods on Boddington Hill belonging to Forest Enterprise. Here the visitor can enjoy specially prepared cycle routes, all ability walks, barbecue sites as well as play areas for the children.
Wendover was first mentioned in the Doomsday Book in 1086 where it was referred to as “Wendovre”. Before then, it was also mentioned in 970 in the will of the Aeldorman of Wiltshire and Hampshire. Wendover was initially a very small market village which was mainly a base for agricultural industry. The market has been held since 1199 during the reign of King John, and is still held every Thursday. Other forms of work in Wendover would include lace making and straw plaiting. Wendover is a town full of buildings of historical interest which appear to have hardly altered over the years. Many of these can be found in the streets surrounding the High Street. The Cold Harbour cottages which exist on the Tring road date back to Henry VIII when he gave them to his wife Catherine of Aragon.
Wendover is renowned for its Public Houses which are scattered throughout the town, and seem almost disproportionate to its size. During 1577, an inventory was made of all of the public houses and Inns, and Wendover is recorded as having one tavern and eight Inns at that time. This could be due to the fact that the town was placed so strategically close to London, and yet far enough for those travelling via coach or horse back to need to stop and refresh. One of the oldest Public Houses in Wendover is the Red Lion, originally named the Lion. Records date it back as far as 1670 although it is likely to be very much older. Initially it was used as a fine Coaching Inn and as a meeting point for the local councillors. Another ancient coaching Inn is The George & Dragon which was recorded in 1578 and is placed near the centre of the town was another popular place for people to stay on their way into London.
In common with the Celtic village plan seen in much of Buckinghamshire the Church is outside the town as with plague and fever victims it was considered better to have the church and graveyard just outside the built up area. St Mary’s is steeped in history and church has been at the centre of the community for over 700 years. Although it is certain that a church has existed on the site since the 12th Century, the present building dates mainly from the early and later parts of the 14th Century. It consists of a tower, nave, chancel, North and South aisles, North and South porches and chancel aisles (the North side now being St Mary’s Centre). The building was restored in 1838-39, 1868-69 and in 1914. The fittings are mainly Victorian with some excellent examples of stained glass. More recent improvements include new glass doors, a bell ringing floor and lighting. In mediaeval times the rood cross was venerated as a place of pilgrimage. During the Civil War, Cromwell’s troops camped in the church (you can still see the graffiti!) and in 1799 the first penny savings bank in the country was started in the church vestry. For generations the church has participated in the main events of life – babies are baptised, young people are confirmed and couples are married and at the end of their lives they are laid to rest in the churchyard. One pleasant tradition appreciated by visitors and walkers on the Ridgeway is tea and homemade cakes which are served in St. Mary’s on summer Sundays to raise funds to repair this venerable old church – what you pay is left to your discretion.
Walking along the picturesque High Street visitors can be unaware that one of the most attractive features is the short half mile walk southwards on the many paths which emerge between the buildings on this ancient street. Head inwards towards St. Mary’s Church and you come across a charming area with a babbling brook, weirs and fine old houses peeking discretely over hedgerows where you can spend an unhurried afternoon strolling around Wendover taking in the 13th Century Parish Church of St Mary, Hampden Pond, Heron Path and the green parkland of the Witchell.
Walking to the far end of the High Street and over the bridge by the station over the railway line and the bypass which thankfully keeps the traffic out of the town you come to a forest path on the left for Coombe Hill. This is a hill in The Chilterns, located next to the hamlet of Dunsmore and overlooking Aylesbury Vale. It is not to be confused with another Coombe Hill on the flank of Haddington Hill, some two miles to the north-east. The majority of the hill (an area of 106 acres (43 ha)) once formed part of the Chequers Estate but was presented to the National Trust by the United Kingdom government when they were given the Estate in the 1920s.The summit of the hill is 852 feet / 259.7 m above sea level and is the highest point in the county of Buckinghamshire. Near the summit is a monument, erected in 1904, in memory of the 148 men from Buckinghamshire who died during the Second Boer War. The monument was almost totally destroyed by lightning in 1938 and was rebuilt the same year. The original bronze plaque and decorations were stolen in the 1980s and were replaced with a stone plaque and iron flag with the remainder of the decoration being created from bronze. For all its small height Coombe Hill provides an impressive viewpoint with Oxford visible on the horizon on a clear day.
See; A Day in Oxford
On its left flank you look across towards a church on a volcanic outcrop at Ellesbororough and an ancient Saxon fort known as Cymbeline’s mound. In the valley in between is a handsome Tudor House, this is Chequers, the country residence of British Prime Ministers which has received many distinguished guests over the years. Chequers is an Elizabethan mansion in the Chiltern hills near Wendover, and was given to the nation by Lord Lee of Fareham under the Chequers Estate Act 1917, which came into effect in 1921. Its estate contains about 500 ha/1235 acres of farmlands and woods. The mansion dates from 1565 or earlier, but was extensively altered by Lord Lee, under Reginald Blomfield. It contains a collection of Cromwell portraits and relics. Interestingly you can get a closer view of Chequers by walking the public footpath which goes through the grounds in front of the house, a slightly surreal experience as the “bushes” move as hidden cameras follow your stately progress!
On the far side of Wendover are the former woods of Halton House, once owned by the Rothschild family whose mansions surround Aylesbury Vale. Situated on the northern edge of the Chiltern escarpment this wood affords spectacular views across the Aylesbury Vale. It is owned by the Forestry Commission and managed by Forest Enterprise, an executive agency of the Commission. You can explore all of the 325 hectares of mixed coniferous and broadleaved woodland and each year it hosts a woodcraft festival where woodcraft traditions of willow basket and fence making, woodcarving, charcoal burning and bodgering (chair making) are showcased. On the far side of the woods is the Hale Valley where the vineyard owned by Anthony Chapman produces one of England’s best wines on the chalky south facing slopes which are similar to the topography of the Rhine Valley wineries.
Mayer Amschel Rothschild, a financial wizard, started as a penniless Jewish orphan in a Frankfurt ghetto. Between 1798 and 1821 he scattered his five sons (represented by his five arrows) into the major European countries. One remained with him at Frankfurt, but others went to Vienna, Paris and Naples. Nathan, the third son and the red haired genius of the family, came to England, and set up a London bank. Wherever the Rothschild’s settled, they flourished, making good reputations and huge fortunes for themselves – the English family being amongst the most successful. The land at Halton were inherited by Mr Alfred de Rothschild, Nathan’s middle son, who almost immediately set about creating what he called ‘An English Chateau modelled on modern French lines’ which was built by Cubitts and finished in 1883. It is interesting to compare the house with Waddesdon Manor.
See; Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire
Waddesdon was built at the same time by a second cousin, where the Rococo decoration on the interior walls is of wood, whereas here it is of plaster. Visitors here are often surprised lo learn that the mansion is only just over a century old Photographs are displayed in several places showing the house as it was in the late 19th century. Although praised for his taste, Alfred was a musician and a collector of paintings and objects of art many rooms appear to have been filled with a mixture of heavy, fussy, Victorian furniture, dainty gilt and tapestries eighteenth century pieces and heavy draperies and massive plants. A resident Hungarian orchestra was maintained and outside there was also a private circus, a skittle alley and skating rink to entertain the guests. Amongst who visited were Edward VII, the Shah of Persia, Patti, Melba and Lily Langtry. The Rothschild’s were the plutocrats of their day and Alfred Rothschild was famous for his house parties where he would travel by private train in the blue and yellow family colours having first withdrawn (from his own bank) £1,000 pounds in cash for expenses. The mansion is now the Officer’s Mess of RAF Halton and its impressive staircase served as the stairs of the “Presidential Palace” that Madonna descended in the movie “Evita.”
The Grand Union (formerly the Grand Junction) canal, as its name implies, was designed to be part of a system of canals linking with each other rather than a single canal. Indeed, many waterways make up the integrated Grand Union Canal as it is today, forming a main artery to link the prime routes from London and the south to Birmingham and the Potteries. The main line runs effectively from the River Thames at Brentford westward to Cowley Junction (access to the Slough Arm) then north and North West to the midlands.
The Grand Union Canal ascends some 380 feet from its junction with the River Thames until, after a climb of 56 locks in over 36 miles, it reaches the two and a half mile long Tring Summit. Here the descent northwards towards Braunston commences. The Tring Summit was completed in 1797, in advance of the main line to north and south. As this stretch of water was to supply the needs of the canal on both sides of the summit it became imperative to find sufficient water; the first Act of Parliament for the canal stated the need for a feeder from the north side of the Chiltern Hills behind Wendover to the summit level. The Wendover Arm became the first of several feeders to the summit level.
Work started on the construction of the Wendover Arm in the summer of 1793 and followed the 390 ft. contour line to join the summit of the Grand Junction Canal at Bulbourne Junction on the Tring summit level. After construction of the Arm had started, it was soon realised that little extra expense would be incurred in making the feeder navigable and authority to carry out this work, costing £13,000, was obtained in 1794. Although the Wendover Arm was primarily built to supply water for the locks at Marsworth and Cowroast it was served by many wharves along its length sending local produce to the London markets and also receiving coal, timber and manure for use on the land. Commercial traffic on the Grand Junction Canal increased very rapidly – the canal was the “M1” of its day – so much so that a great number of reservoirs were built in the Tring area to collect water for canal use.
But the life of the Arm was short. By 1802 there was a considerable loss of water through the banks and the canal was closed for repairs to be carried out. By 1841, 20 locks of water were being lost per day through leakage, and extensive repuddling over a length of four and a half miles was carried out. To no avail, however, as by 1855 some 25 locks of water were escaping. The Arm was closed in 1904. The reservoirs remain as nature and angling reserves and have the beneficial side effect that drinking water locally is Chiltern spring water.
One such reservoir about a mile from Wendover is Weston Turville reservoir which is fed by the Chiltern springs and is home to the Aylesbury Sailing Club and the Prestwood Anglers Club. The reservoir was constructed in 1795 to supply water to the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal. It is now owned by British Waterways and managed by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust. The reservoir contains reedbeds, which are scarce in Britain and are a very important habitat for water birds such as Shoveler and Water Rail. It is of national importance for the over-wintering Shoveler, and it is also the only site in Buckinghamshire where Water Rail regularly breeds. The reservoir was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1986.
Today, embraced by woodlands and with its atmospheric high street with thatched cottages and antique shops Wendover is an attractive and busy town which has much of interest and has maintained its sense of community. Just 45 minutes from central London it continues to be a fine place to live and to attract walkers and visitors to ramble over the hills, browse the shops and replenish themselves in the many restaurants and fine old pubs. And as you leave these establishments you may think you hear the wheels of the London stage coach and its weary passengers relieved to have travelled unharmed through the notorious highwayman infested Chiltern Hundreds and looking forward to bed and board in the coaching inns lining the High Street.