A Short History of Naphill and Walter's Ash (Part One)

Extracted from Rex Leaver's book Naphill and Walter's Ash - Looking Back at Village Life, written in celebration of the second millennium and reproduced here with kind permission of Betty Leaver. The book is now out of print but if you ask around you may be lucky enough to find someone who has a copy and would lend it to you - it is a fascinating read and contains lots of photographs together with maps and many memoirs of local people that have not been reproduced here.

Introducing Our Community

This is a history without battles, disasters or famous men. It describes how ordinary people have lived, worked and played on a hilltop in the Chilterns for half a millennium or more. It is about a place that had no official identity for most of that time. Yet those who say they live in Naphill and Walter's Ash have a common understanding of what they mean. Put a map in front of any of them, and, give or take a house or two, each would draw the same boundary line around the place that they call home. They think of themselves as a single community, looking to one village hall and playing field for their local social and recreational activities, and reading the Naphill Gazette to see what their neighbours are up to.
Rex Leaver - 1999


Administratively the community contains two distinct places; Naphill and Walter's Ash. Official maps have never precisely matched the boundaries that the community defines for itself. The current administrative boundary of Naphill ward in Hughenden Parish comes close but it excludes some of Walter's Ash.

Before 1948 there were no wards sub-dividing Hughenden Parish and before 1933 the stretch of land that we now call Naphill Common was in the Parish of West Wycombe. Before 1894 most local historical records relate to the ecclesiastical parish and the manor. It seems that the earlier inhabitants of Naphill and Walter's Ash linked the two places together when, side by side, they looked out on the "foreigners" from Bradenham, Downley, Lacey Green, North Dean and Kingshill.

The Bounds of Hughenden Parish in 1774 were describes as being:

  • along Tinker's Lane to Downley Common 5 furlongs
  • continue by the Lower and Upper Common Woods and to the end of Hobbs Scrubs being 6 furlongs
  • and from thence along the Common by Mrs Ives' trees and through David's Hole to Walter's Ash being one mile 5 furlongs and 20 poles
  • turn and go through Mr Janes' late Lane's barn - cross his orchard and through his pond - along by Northfield, Nelly Grove...

Before 1738

Before 1738 it is difficult to isolate historical information about Naphill & Walter's Ash from such records that survived for Hughenden and the other parishes of which today's village forms a part. More or less random clues to life in those distant times come from a few other sources.

The man owning and occupying Great Moseley Farm around 1700 was of sufficient substance to play a part in public affairs both inside and outside the parish. However Great Moseley is a rarity with surviving deeds going back to 1636.

Archaeological fieldwork on the Bradenham side of Walter's Ash has revealed a medieval homestead and a possible game park from the same period. The find suggests a degree of luxury in the life of the occupants and dating of AD 1200 - 1400 was indicated by a coin and by "fiddle nail" horse shoes. The homestead and the more recent "park Wood" and "Park Farm" all lie within a large circuit of ditches and this enclosure has many of the characteristics of a medieval deer park. Most parks were enclosed between 1200 and 1350 AD so it is possible to interpret the site as a park lodge.

In situations where records are few or non-existent, historians have increasingly looked to the countryside itself for clues to its own history. One method used is to analyse the species found in hedgerows to provide indications of their age. Trevor Hussey, a resident local historian, has conducted interesting studies developing the original technique to make it more widely applicable. These support the idea that the initial woodland clearance was fairly large scale, to form big fields with woodland relic hedges left chiefly along lanes and tracks.

Grim's Ditch, Grim's Dyke or Grim's Bank is a name shared by a number of bank and ditch earthworks, examples of which are found across the chalk uplands of southern England. Today Grim's Ditch forms a section of The Ridgeway. The origins of Grim's Ditch is unknown but long boundaries of this kind are now recognised as parts of planned landscapes dating back to more than 1000 BC. It suggests that the site of the present village was just inside or just outside an area of some importance.

1738 - 1853: Custom and the Common

Hughenden Manor

In 1738 Charles Savage bought the manor of Hughenden from the fourth Earl of Chesterfield. He was succeeded by his brother Samuel in 1763, followed by his nephew John Norris in 1771, his niece Lady Conyngham in 1786 and a second John Norris in 1816. After his death the estate was sold to Benjamin Disraeli. All these lords of the manor resided at Hughenden and so were likely to have more impact on life in Naphill & Walter's Ash than their predecessors who lived elsewhere and looked at Hughenden merely as a source of income.

Benjamin Disraeli spent much of his youth at Bradenham Manor where his father was a neighbour of the second John Norris at Hughenden Manor. Naphill Common is the most likely place between the two for meeting on horseback.

The court records of Hughenden Manor survive between 1774 and 1847. These record that about half the tenants live in Naphill. None of them paid rent to the owner of the estate as a landlord, but only a quit rent to him as Lord of the Manor. Quit rents were an echo of the tenants medieval duty to pay for his holding by giving up so many days to work on the land farmed directly by his Lord.

Encroachment on the Common

Encroachments onto the Common were made by squatters of the time who hoped to gain permanent rights to the bits of the Common they fenced off. To do so they had to remain undisturbed for 20 years and cases were picked up in all six of the manorial courts held between 1774 and 1847. There were some 50 in this 73 year period and the culprits were fined in court.

Throughout this period mention is made of only four new cottages built on these plots. Those who built them paid a one-off charge of £10 and an amercement of one shilling and were allowed to keep them.

The Drovers

Rose Cottage was first bought by one of the old drovers who used the "Clumps" on the Common. The Clumps, whose remains can still be seen over near the Bradenham entrance, were corrals or stockades to hold cattle when Naphill Common was a well-known stop on one of the great trade routes of England, which only ended with the coming of the railways. They came from Wales and the lush pastures of Wiltshire, with sheep from the Berkshire Downs, all destined for the growing metropolis. They travelled the old green roads like the Icknield Way, turning off at Bradenham and then up to the sweet grass on the Common to recuperate.

Ladies Mile

The path on the Common edge used to be quite clear and wide from The Black Lion to the Blacksmith's Arms on the corner of Downley Road. This path was called the Ladies Mile. It is believed that ladies of pleasure plied their trade between the two pubs for the benefit of the drovers, who on their return journey were free form care of the animals and had their pockets full of money. It seems likely that the annual visits of the drovers brought an exotic element into local life for several hundred years before the railways killed their trade.

1853 - 1863: Enclosure of the Common

These ten years probably changed the appearance of the village more than any other decade in its history. Benjamin Disraeli bought the Hughenden Estate in 1847 with the aid of a mortgage. Enclosure of the Common over which he had Lordship was aimed to increase its value and was supported by other large landowners who also hoped to benefit from it. The process took nine years and must have been disruptive for the inhabitants while it lasted. In the longer term enclosure gave the village its present overall shape and took away the grazing and other common rights from the majority of its inhabitants.

Enclosure does not seem to have damaged long-term relationships between squire and villagers as it did in some places.

Before Enclosure, Main Road had common land on both sides of it. If the common were to expand again to the extent it had in 1853, more than half the present village population would be homeless.

The Enclosure Process

An enclosure was supervised by Commissioners who had to ensure that it was wanted by a majority of landowners, but the majority was measured in acreage owned rather than by counting heads, so that a small number of larger owners easily outvoted a large number of smaller ones. In February 1853 an application was made to enclose some 380 acres of common land in a large part of Hughenden including the section of Naphill Common lying within the parish. As Assistant Commissioner held a local enquiry and reported back quite quickly, but the Act of Parliament authorising the Enclosure was not passed until July 1856. A valuer was immediately appointed to make a ward which allotted plots to various parties in compensation for the loss of their former common rights. He was ready to hear objections to his initial proposals at the end of 1859 and the award was confirmed in 1862.

The valuer based the allotments or shares of the common to be given to each proprietor on the value of his existing property and on the possession of ancient messuages (houses or cottages) which had commoning rights attached to them. Before he made these calculations part of the common land was sold to offset the costs of the enclosure process. About 81 acres were allotted to existing proprietors in Naphill. Some proprietors, either for their own advantage or in response to requests made by others, put some of their original land into the general pool for reallocation, and the calculations included compensation for this. The final value of the allotment due to each proprietor was then translated into the acreage of specific plots on the ground. Surviving working papers show the valuer took account of requests for favoured locations for the plots - mostly to be next to existing property or next to the main road.


Fencing alongside public roads and round public allotments, like those for the labouring poor, was undertaken by the Valuer at general expense. Quicking was planting a hedge of quickthorn (hawthorn). It is sometimes said that, although the small plots allotted to cottagers were scant compensation for the loss of their commoning rights, at least enclosure was beneficial to the poor by providing local employment in fencing, making roads etc.

1863 - 1894: Between the Old and the New

This period is an interlude between the old and the new. In the world that was being left behind those who lived in the village worked in the village, and most of them in something to do with agriculture. Local affairs were governed locally under the general supervision of the local gentry sitting in Quarter Sessions. In this period non-agricultural trades such as chair-making and lace-making flourished in a phase before centres of employment lured the majority of villagers into commuting for a living. The parish vestry operated much as it had done for three hundred years but it had already lost some of its responsibilities for the poor to the Board of Guardians, and national government "interfered" more and more in the years leading up to the Local Government Act of 1894.

The Education Acts of 1870, 1876 and 1880 introduced compulsory education up to the age of 10, when a child could obtain a certificate and leave, but if their attendance or performance was unsatisfactory then had to stay on until they were thirteen.

In these times the Vestry was responsible within the parish, not only for church affairs but also for civil administration. The parish officers included Guardians of the Poor who, using rates paid by property-occupiers, gave financial relief to those who were unemployed or sick. They could be empowered to employ the poor on public works within the parish.

Saunderton Workhouse had been built to serve the Wycombe Union which was formed by combining.

1894 - 1937: From Squire to Parish Council

In 1893 Coningsby Disraeli arrived at Hughenden to take up residence at the Manor. A committee of tenants had organised a welcome that included flags and banners in Hughenden Road. The day ended with a seven course dinner at the Manor House for the socially important and a "well-catered meat tea" in a marquee for three hundred people described as cottage and allotment tenants. Benjamin Disraeli had died in 1881 and his nephew was legally a minor when he succeeded to the estate. For twelve years Naphill and the rest of Hughenden has been without a resident squire to speak for them in local affairs or to respond to their requests for help.

In 1894 new Parish and District Councils took on the local administration which since Elizabethan times had been conducted under the watchful eye of the Lord of the Manor, or Squire. County Councils (created in 1888) had already taken over other functions performed in the old system by Justices in Quarter Sessions, who were mostly larger landowners. These changes meant that the residents of Naphill & Walter's Ash now had elected representatives to look after their interests, although in practice the change was gradual and at first the squire was still approached to use his influence on their behalf.

A lady called Mrs Oakeshott later became Chairman of Wycombe District Council and a Magistrate. She and her husband, Major Oakeshott, were leading figures in the village between the wars and they were remembered in the naming of Oakeshott Avenue.

Roads and Transport

Before the First World War there was so little traffic passing through the village that Naphill Brass Band sat in the middle of Main Road to practice. Roads were maintained with cartloads of stones roughly rolled in. After heavy rain there was no surface left on Coombe Hill except a track about two feet wide down the right hand side. Suck traffic as there was used this same track, both up and down, which was how an early motorcycle enthusiast met with Naphill's first fatal traffic accident. As road traffic grew it became more and more obvious that Coombe Lane was both too narrow and too steep and in 1899 the Parish Council discussed with Coningsby Disraeli a possible alternative route to Wycombe taking the line of Church Lane. He would consent to it only if the Parish agreed to the stopping up of several existing rights of way across his lands. Negotiations broke down and the council thereafter concentrated their efforts on improvements to Coombe Lane.

In July 1937 a meeting between the County Highways Committee and local Parish Councils discussed a proposed new road across the Common to Downley after both Hughended and West Wycombe passed resolutions in favour the previous year. The war intervened before anything was done and the idea has not been revived since.

World War One

The war touched the village through official instructions sent to the Parish Council to take measures to boost food supplies, including the payment of rewards for killing rats and sparrows, and the distribution of leaflets on the health risk from flies. The contracts between the civilian's and soldier's experience is starkly shown on the village War Memorial which bears ten names for the First World War compared with two from a larger population in the second. The memorial's stones came from Walter's Ash and the cairn was intended to imitate those raised on the battlefield by the soldiers themselves.

By 1917 the War's impact at home had increased. Children were absent from school being sent by their parents to Wycombe in order to purchase provisions which were increasingly difficult to obtain. Ion the same year the boys began to grow potatoes on a school Victory Plot. The School's Inspector approved and apparently organised the picking of blackberries in school hours, presumably to make jam for the troops. The children's record was achieved in 1918 when 323lbs of blackberries were picked in a single week.

Village children were involved in the Boer War too as well as young men. A row of six cottages in the village became known as The Barracks because a volunteer enlisted from every one of them.

1937-1947: The Arrival of Bomber Command

Bomber Command

The great event between 1937 and 1947 was the arrival of Bomber Command at Walter's Ash. This did so much to shape the present village that the decade spanning the Second World War is worthy of special attention. A minor building boom in the late 1930s was interrupted only to resume at a faster rate in the post war period.

The first indication to the village that something was afoot was the arrival of a well-dressed townsman asking for lodgings. The stranger came as a consequence of a random remark made the previous year by Wing Commander Oakeshott, whose father lived in Naphill. The Wing Commander was at an Air Ministry meeting charged with finding a permanent site for the new Bomber Command, when he asked "why not hide it among the beech woods of the Chiltern Hills?" Later the area near Walter's Ash was found to be not only suitably wooded, but suitably remote and lacking in features readily identified from the air.

Over 150 acres were acquired in two sites in Bradenham Woods and north east of Main Road. Building work commenced in November 1938, employing 80 specialists and a labour force of 400 men. Each building was planned separately for its own particular location and special care was taken to preserve and protect surrounding trees. Exposed structures were designed to give the appearance of civilian buildings when seen from the air, and the end sloped roofs of some airmen's blocks were meant to give the appearance of haystacks.

Bomber Command took over its new Headquarters in March 1940. In the interests of security the Air Ministry named it "Southdown" and banned all future mention of Walter's Ash. The command's nerve-centre was the Operations Block - a large concrete box fifty feet below ground level which was reinforced against aerial bomb attack. The excavations for this were in an area which had been famous locally for its bluebell woods before the war. All quarters that were built in this first phase of building were used during the war either as offices or as single accommodation. Late in 1946 the first of these quarters were taken over by service families, heralding the large increase in the civilian population of the village that the RAF was to bring in later years.

Other Developments

In 1939 a number of bungalows were built in Coombes Lane and the upper part of Stocking Lane but from 1940 building was continuing, but at a much slower rate.

The villages prepared themselves for air raid precautions and were asked to give any spare blankets as part of the government's evacuation scheme. Some German POWs were stationed at "Bomber" awaiting repatriation. Some of them were glad to do gardening jobs in the evening and enjoy a cup of coffee in an English home.

In September 1939 the school was closed for two weeks and the Headmaster was assisting in the reception of children evacuated from London. The school became a First Aid Point in case of air attacks, darkening the Infant Room for blackout purposes. When it re-opened it was also used by Western C of E LCC School from Marylebone which evacuated to Naphill. A double shift was worked, with Naphill School having the school in the mornings and Western School in the afternoons. Later the Village Hall was brought into use and full time education resumed.

Large crowds continued to attend the weekly Tennis Club dances, with the number of uniforms present increasing. In April 1940 there were twelve Naphill men serving the forces and the [proceeds of a dance in the village were shared out to send them five shillings and sixpence each.

During the war Naphill Common was used as a tank testing ground when tanks were repaired at the Broom & Wade factory in High Wycombe.

1947-1999: Growth

To picture the village half a century or more ago we have to remove more than two thirds of today's houses and strip from the remainder their extensions and double-glazing, take down their television and satellite aerials, dig up early all the footpaths along Main Road, restore its hedges and reduce motor traffic to a few well used buses and a handful of pre-war cars running on rationed petrol. With the trebling of the population came most of the side roads in the village and the closing of extensive gaps between the houses along Main Road that has existed since the earliest times.

RAF Expansion

Numbers also grew on the neighbouring RAF sites. Married quarters build at Bradenham Beeches during the war were not used as such until after it ended. In the 1950s and 1960s the numbers on this site more than doubled and new estates were built at Greenwood, Parkwood and Templewood. Huts that had housed the WAAF were replaced with more permanent accommodation and the quarters in Woodcock Avenue increased from 15 to 89. The creation of Strike Command in 1968 brought further expansion, most significantly to the village perhaps because it created the expectation that 200 additional children would need school places.

Personal Transport

A large factor in the housing development of post war years has been the growth in car ownership which enabled people to live further from their place of work. While in 1947 there were already many who worked outside the village, in the main they commuted on foot or by bus to Wycombe and other places nearby.

Social and Sporting Life

The large number of "incomers" who came to live in the village after the war joined a community well used to providing its own amusements. Long established sports clubs were based on the Village Playing Fields and thriving social clubs were centred on the Village Hall. Many of the new residents were introduced to this social life by their first experience of the annual Fete which raises money for the maintenance of these two village assets, and they soon swelled the membership of the organisations using them. In this half-century improvements have helped the Village Hall to cope with its increased use and to match the increasing standards of comfort found in villagers' homes. The latest and the largest was an extension to the rear which absorbed the old cricket pavilion and the scout hut into a single enlarged complex.

1991 Census

In the parish of Hughenden in the Population Census of 1991 84% of households had at least one car. 97% of households had central heating and 84% of houses were owned by their occupiers. No homes had more than one person per room.

Read more about the history of Naphill and Walters Ash in Part Two.

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