High Wycombe is a large town on the Oxford to London route which has been around for roughly 1,000 years, but for much of its time was quite a small village, until the 17th century when the paper industry arrived.
The local chalk hills that surround the town give the waters a chemical composition that makes them ideal for bleaching pulp. Those same hills richly forested were however to give the town its main claim to fame — chair making. Throughout the 19th century, High Wycombe was essentially THE place to make chairs in the UK.
As such, the town should be rich in Victorian heritage, but High Wycombe today is the town that would have happened if the Germans had missed Coventry — a rather uninspiring town centre, with a few gems that are worth seeking out.
Slum clearances in the 1920s saw a lot of shabby homes torn down, but also very good Georgian era buildings in the wrong places torn down, then in the 1960s, in came ringroads, covering up of rivers and demolition of what little was left of the old town centre.
In a way, it’s backwards – most towns as old as High Wycombe have lots of heritage in the centre, with modern additions, and 1960s/80s developments on the outside. High Wycombe has most of the modern development in the centre, and most of the heritage around the edges.
So, a visit confined to the town is uninspiring, but head out to the edges, and have fun.
The museum of chair making
I wasn’t entirely sure if this museum existed, as the website is basic, I couldn’t find it on street view, but in a light industrial estate, is a small museum, and it’s really quite good.
Not the museum, that’s a small room with a lot of hand tools and photos of the last generation of chair makers. As I went in, I fully expected to spend 10-15 minutes here. I left 90 minutes later.
That can be put entirely down to the fact that a visit is to sit in a chair and hear a talk all about the chair making history of the town. It’s not a history of furniture, but of the furniture makers, and it’s utterly absorbing.
From the bodgers who cut down the trees, to the men who carved chair seats to the assemblers, the whole town was given over to a light industry of making chairs — at its height nearly 5,000 per day were shipped throughout the British Empire. Oddly though, they are mostly known as Windsor Chairs, for that’s where the dealers were based, but the more expensive chairs known as Wycombe Chairs included an early form of trademark that was often violently enforced.
If you’ve ever felt the need to be corrected as to what a bodge-job means, the origins of the phrase “upped sticks and moved”, or to learn about this one-town industry, then the £4 entry fee is excellent.
I didn’t see much, but I learnt a heck of a lot.
Not much to see here, and in fact, on my visit, having spent far longer than expected learning about chairs, it’s something I missed out — but this was an iron-age fort later converted by the Normans into something more impressive.
Today, nothing really remains other than a slight mound that’s covered in trees. Visit to say you visited, but there’s not much to see unless you like looking at trees.
This is probably the main reason people come to High Wycombe as tourists — to see the grand mansion house of the former Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.
Despite its size and ease to get to, once you arrive, a “way in” sign would be exceptionally useful, if you don’t want to wander around the car park, the busy cafe or the gardens trying to find the house.
It’s very much a National Trust property, a grand old house restored to how it looked when Disraeli lived here, so expect lots of moderately grand rooms – he wasn’t an aristocrat, so not that grand, but plenty of Victorian decoration, paintings and sculptures befitting the man and his social-climbing skills.
A modestly decent garden, but also a space off to one side that was unknown until just a few years ago — when the rooms were used during WW2 for map-making to be used by bombers.
The rest of the estate is large open fields and free to wander around — and if muddy they ask you to put on plastic covers when going in the house.
St Michael & All Angels
This is the parish church for Hughenden Manor, and although there’s been a church here since the 12th century, what we see today is full-on Victorian rebuild with an interior to match.
Do get up close to the Altar, as this really is quite something with full-blown Puginesque decoration, which is also easier to see if you go around the side of the altar to another room which gives a clearer view.
Around the back, and very obvious is the Disraeli burial plot.
This is candidly, a bloody difficult place to get to — either a long walk from Hughenden Manor, and then back again, or on my visit, as coming back from West Wycombe, through the back of 1960s estates to a gate in a field, through unmarked woods and then finally, to an open patch of grass.
The effort to get here is its own reward, for the monument is grand and impressive, but there’s not much else to see here. However, if like me, the idea of walking for miles to stand next to a lump of stone is your idea of a great thing to do, it’s worth the effort.
What is surprising to learn is that the monument isn’t to Benjamin Disraeli, but in honour of Disraeli’s father, and erected as a surprise by Benjamin’s wife.
High Wycombe town centre
A town centre that is mainly three shopping centres, a major road and a few lingering remains of the old town. A remnant of the original railway station before the current one was built currently has a mural on it to try and get some appreciation for its heritage.
There is however the surviving Guildhall, raised up like an old market building, and still with a market underneath, although the butchered meats have been replaced with clothes on rails.
Opposite is the 18th-century corn market, still with the old mile signs to London and Oxford. And around the corner, a very shabby looking 500 year old building, which signs say is on the verge of being restored, which will be wonderful news.
The Red Lion though, is an icon of the town centre, having stood outside this building for over 200 years, when the building was originally the… drumroll, Red Lion hotel.
It’s said that politicians used to stand on the ledge outside the hotel, next to the lion to give speeches. The current lion isn’t the original, they tend to wear out, so get replaced every so often.
A museum in an old house near the railway station, that’s mainly a local community cafe on the ground floor with a small collection of displays upstairs.
Not much to see really, some chairs (obviously), an older red lion, and a cluster of child-friendly rooms with smaller displays.
Hospital of St John the Baptist
This is a scheduled ancient monument, and the oldest surviving part of town. Built in around 1180 as a monastery offering help to the ill, it suffered from Henry VIII’s break with Rome, and was broken up.
It formally closed in 1548, but the lands were used for a school, and the old monastery survived right up to 1883 when the school was rebuilt, and what was left of the old building demolished.
Today what’s left is a few fragments, which if you squint a bit can look monastery like. At night they are floodlit to help show them off.
All Saints Church
This is the big church in the centre of town, with modern glass doors on the front, and making sensible use of the vast space inside, there’s a cafe. Do look for the font, with it’s richly decorated sides, and if you wander right to the back, hidden away is a huge memorial, the sort of thing usually reserved for a Cathedral — to Henry Petty, first Earl of Shelburne.
It’s about 30 minutes on the fast non-stopping Chiltern Railways line out of London Marylebone station to High Wycombe station.