varied buildings along the High Street.
In 1992 a large
team of archaeologists excavating along the route of the Berkhamsted
bypass before it was built, unearthed evidence of a sequence of
occupation from far earlier than had previously been thought.
Age, Iron Age and Roman finds showed that the Bulbourne Valley around
Berkhamsted had been peopled continuously for over 5000 years.
In Roman times Akeman Street gave access to several villas
in the area, and Roman remains in the form of coins, bricks, tiles
and pottery have been found at several sites in the town. Not much
evidence exists today of Saxon times, with one notable exception:
Grims Dyke, the great ditch, a section of which can still be found
on Berkhamsted Common. Another legacy of the Saxons is the name
of the town, the original meaning of which was probably ‘settlement
among the birches’.
Then one of the great events that made 1066 the best remembered
date in English history took place in Berkhamsted. Here the Saxon
leaders offered the crown of England to William the Conqueror after
his victory in the Battle of Hastings and his devastating march
encircling London. One of William’s first initiatives was
to set about fortifying his new kingdom with castles, and one of
these was built at Berkhamsted. Its first owner was William’s
half-brother, Robert, Count of Mortain, and until it was abandoned
Castle was mainly a royal residence. The first buildings were of
wood, but later it was rebuilt and enlarged in the local building
materials – flint, and soft limestone. Most of the castle
buildings were later demolished for the re-use that could be made
of these building materials, but the impressive earthworks and moats
have largely survived.
Great and the Royal
During the 400 years when the castle was occupied it had many notable
associations. In the 12th century Thomas a` Becket was Constable
of the Castle before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, then two
centuries later Chaucer was clerk of works here. In 1250 King Henry
III’s brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, lived in the castle,
and from here Richard’s son, Edmond, founded the nearby monastery
Castle was the favourite residence of the Black Prince. Here he
honeymooned with the Fair Maid of Kent, and from here he rode off
at the head of his troops, many of them Berkhamsted men, to fight
the battles of Poitiers and Crécy.
The last occupant
was the influential Cicely, Duchess of York, who lived in the castle
during the Wars of the Roses. Granddaughter of John of Gaunt, founder
of the House of Lancaster, she married Richard, Duke of York, head
of the rival House of York. She was the mother of two Kings of England
– Edward IV and Richard III, and grandmother of another, Edward
V, all of whom died in tragic circumstances; but she lived to see
the end of civil war and the establishment of the House of Tudor.
dating from 13th century.
The building of the castle gave impetus to the expansion of Berkhamsted
into a flourishing market town. From the beginning of the 13th century
substantial buildings, including what claims to be the second largest
church in Hertfordshire, Berkhamsted St Peter, were constructed
along the old Roman road, and there was a busy market.
At its peak
in medieval times Berkhamsted High Street was lined with houses,
shops and halls, parts of which still survive in several buildings.
During alterations to one of them as recently as 2003, experts from
English Heritage were surprised to find a section of a hall which
they dated as early as 1267, making it the oldest timber-framed
urban building in England.
But in the three centuries following the loss of its royal
connections Berkhamsted rather fell into decline. Its ancient charters
ran out and its market no longer had the monopoly it once enjoyed.
Berkhamsted would have become something of a sleepy backwater if
it had not been that the High Street continued to be one of the
major trunk roads from London. Such was the importance of this road
that it was necessary to set up a turnpike trust in 1762 to make
sure it was properly maintained. The coaches, wagons and cattle
being driven to the London markets brought income to the town, and
several old coaching inns can still be seen in the centre; but all
this was to change after the coming of the canal in 1798 and then
the railway in 1835.
At first these new transport routes were slow to affect
Berkhamsted’s economy; but as the 19th century went on full
advantage was taken of having them on the town’s doorstep,
for example in the expansion near the centre of Cooper’s,
the world-famous manufacturer of sheep dip. Berkhamsted grew fast
then, with new houses, churches, schools and shops. Improved train
services allowed clerks working in London business houses to live
in a pleasant country town and travel to work daily. Berkhamsted
became a commuter town: but it has always been much more than that.
High Street from St. Peter’s Tower - a straight Roman
Today Berkhamsted continues to change. There is an insatiable
demand from people wishing to live in the town, constrained as it
is from expanding by the Green Belt all round it. Most industry
has gone, the sites of old factories being re-developed for housing;
but other businesses have moved in. The opening of the bypass in
1992 brought relief from the continuous heavy traffic through the
town centre, and substantial improvements were made to enhance the
High Street. The heart of the town is a conservation area, with
a comfortable blend of the old and the new.
Many small and
medium-sized companies have chosen to have premises in Berkhamsted,
and there are purpose-built office buildings, both near the town
centre and in the industrial area. Several of the town’s historic
houses have been adapted as offices, notably Ashlyns Hall, which
is now the headquarters of a large international company. Although
the old industries of Berkhamsted may have disappeared, some light
industry flourishes, for example printing, in the industrial area
centred on Northbridge Road.
Berkhamsted has a real feeling of prosperity.