Watlington is reputed to be the smallest town in England and has a very long history. The Icknield Way, also known as The Ridgeway National Trail, is a pre-Roman track which was one of the principal roads of England, passing within 500m of the present-day town and it undoubtably led to the development of the settlement. A bronze axe and Roman gold coins have been found and it it is known that a Roman road followed what is now Couching Street. It is thought that troops of soldiers would have marched along it, possibly towards Verulamium, now called St Albans, 30 miles away. Certainly an Anglo-Saxon settlement existed by the 6th century and it is probable that the original site was closer to the location of St Leonard’s Church where the original Manor House was located. The first Anglo Saxon villages were named after their chieftain and contain the letters ‘ing’ meaning of the people of and others contain ‘ton’ which means an enclosed village or manor. So the word Watlington derives from an enclosed village or manor of the people of Waecal.
The Domesday Survey of 1086 records 54 households putting it in the highest 20% of all recorded settlements in the country with 3 owners and 2 mills. It became a market town in 1252 with a Wednesday Market and a Saturday Market was granted in 1302 with a yearly fair on 24 August. It is probable that much of present street pattern was in existence by then but the poor state of the local roads and lack of a navigable river led to the eventual closure of the market in the mid-19th century. This was a prosperous Medieval farming area with sheep on the chalk hills of the Chilterns to the East and arable crops on the clay to the West. The wheat and barley were used in the brewing industry and 17th century records reveal the weaving of fine cloth, lace making, milling, candle making, carpentry, shoemakers, tanners, gloves and drapers. The Compton Census of 1676 records 760 names so Watlington was clearly a prosperous and successful town.
The beautiful Town Hall was built by Thomas Stonor between 1664 and 1665 at the junction of the 3 main streets and until the 1870’s the upper part was used as school rooms and an occasional court house. Today the Undercroft sells locally grown produce several days a week and social events and meetings are held upstairs. Many of the buildings in the town were built around the 16th and 17th centuries but external alterations have meant that the oldest features are now not easily visible. Brewing became the dominant 18th and 19th century business and there were at least 8 pubs and 11 beer houses. Take a walk around the town and see how many you can find as the architecture and house names often indicate the previous use.
Wisteria Cottage was probably built around the mid-19th century as it features on the map surveyed in 1876. At this time it was on the edge of town with fields to the South and West. The footpath linking Britwell Road and Cuxham Road and the Marlbrook are clearly significant local features as well as many springs and wells. Water was clearly plentiful!
Just outside the town is Watlington Hill which rises to about 250m above sea level. This is now owned by the National Trust and has a very distinctive feature facing West in the shape of an obelisk cut in 1764 on the orders of the local rector, Edward Horne, who reputedly was disappointed that St Leonard’s Church had a tower. This ‘spire’ cut in the grass slope is known as the White Mark and measures about 60m by 10m. Local volunteers keep it free of vegetation. It is a very interesting walk to try and locate it.
The population of the town is now just under 3000 and you will notice how friendly and welcoming everybody is. Nowadays most people commute to Oxford, High Wycombe, Aylesbury and London to work, assisted by the M40 junction 6 just 3 miles away. The Watlington and Princes Risborough Railway Company did build a line in 1859, later taken over by GWR, but it closed in the mid-20th century and little evidence remains of the old station buildings or track. The nearest stations are at Princes Risborough, High Wycombe, Henley and Cholsey, all about 11 miles away.
The town features in several episodes of the popular tv series ‘Midsomer Murders and there is a walking trail around the town which you can follow looking at filming locations. Whilst doing so, you will notice some excellent local shopping opportunities so please support them. The butchers, delicatessen/bread shop and chocolatiers are highly recommended!