Berkhamsted: Wikis


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Coordinates: 51°46′N 0°34′W / 51.76°N 0.56°W / 51.76; -0.56

Berkhamsted is located in Hertfordshire

 Berkhamsted shown within Hertfordshire
Population 16,243 (2001 est.)[1](15,493 1991 est.)[2] (10,785 1951 est.)[3]
OS grid reference SP993077
District Dacorum
Shire county Hertfordshire
Region East
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Postcode district HP4
Dialling code 01442
Police Hertfordshire
Fire Hertfordshire
Ambulance East of England
EU Parliament East of England
UK Parliament South West Hertfordshire
List of places: UK • England • Hertfordshire

Berkhamsted (pronounced /ˈbɜ:kəmstɛd/) is a historic town which is situated in the west of Hertfordshire, between the towns of Tring and Hemel Hempstead. It is in the administrative district (and borough since 1984) of Dacorum.

The name of the town has been spelt in a variety of ways over the years, and the present spelling was adopted in 1937. Earlier spellings included Berkhampstead, Muche Barkhamstede, Berkhamsted Magna, Great Berkhamsted and Berkhamstead. The earliest recorded form of the name is the Old English Beorhoanstadde.[4] Historian Percy Birtchnell identified over 50 different spellings and epithets since the Domesday Book. It is believed the original refers to homestead amongst the hills (Saxon - bergs). The town is known locally and affectionately as "Berko".

It is also the home of the British Film Institute's BFI National Archive, one of the largest film and television archives in the world, which was generously endowed by the late John Paul Getty.



Arms of Berkhamsted Borough on Town Hall

Berkhamsted was the terminating point of the Norman invasion of 1066. Having defeated Harold II and the English at Hastings, William the Conqueror led the Norman invading army to circle London crossing the Thames at Wallingford making for Berkhamsted. Here he accepted the surrender of Edgar Aetheling (the English heir to the throne), the Archbishop Aldred, the Earl Edwin and the Earl Morcar. They swore loyalty to William and thus in Berkhamsted William of Normandy became William the Conqueror. However, he declined to accept the crown in Berkhamsted saying he would receive the keys to London in Berkhamsted and would have the crown in London. However, following the Norman Conquest Berkhamsted Castle became a favourite country retreat for the Norman and Plantagenet dynasties.

The entry for the town in the Domesday Book in 1086 describes Berkhamsted as being in the Tring Hundred and includes descriptions of vineyards, 26 plough teams and 1 priest. It was valued at £16 a drop of £8 since the Norman invasion.[5]

Berkhamsted received several royal charters. The first, granted by Henry III in 1216, freed the men and merchants of the town from all tolls and taxes wherever they went in England, Normandy, Aquitaine and Anjou.[6]

A second charter in 1217 recognised the town's oldest institution, Berkhamsted Market. Originally held on a Sunday it was changed to Monday, again by charter, when St. Peter's Church was built next to the High Street and the new rector objected to the noise. Other towns were forbidden to hold markets within 11 miles of Berkhamsted. Disputes with Aylesbury led to goods from both towns being banned from each other. The market is now held on a Saturday.

In 1618 James I granted the town a charter making the town a borough. But after supporting the Parliamentarians during the Civil War, Berkhamsted lost its charter at the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II.

In 1866 Lord Brownlow of Ashridge House attempted to enclose and privatise Berkhamsted Common with 5' steel fences built by Woods of Berkhamsted and thereby, claim it as part of his estate. Local hero Augustus Smith MP (1804) led gangs of local and hired men from London's East End brought out on the new railway on a specially chartered train to break the fences and protect Berkhamsted Common for the people of Berkhamsted. East End toughs and local Berkhamsted men and women fought that night against Brownlow's men in what became known nationally as the Battle of Berkhamsted Common.[7] Born in Ashlyns Hall in 1804 Augustus Smith constantly fought for the common man. He died having reformed working class education in the Scilly Isles and today is commemorated by the award of the Augustus Smith scholarship for state school students in Berkhamsted.




Berkhamsted experiences an oceanic climate (Köppen climate classification Cfb) similar to almost all of the United Kingdom.

Climate data for Berkhamsted
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 6
Average low °C (°F) 3
Precipitation mm (inches) 69.3
Source: [8] 23 May 2009


The walls of Berkhamsted Castle

Berkhamsted Castle is a ruined Norman castle, beside the railway station. Now in the care of English Heritage, this royal castle was once the home of Edward, the Black Prince and his wife, Joan of Kent. Geoffrey Chaucer was constable. Work first started on the construction of the castle in 1066.[9]

The original Saxon structure of timber and earthworks was replaced by a stone castle 1080s [10] and became a favourite home of Norman and Plantagenet monarchs. Simon Schama refers to Berkhamsted as being to the Plantagenets what Windsor is to today's Royal Family.

From 1155 until 1165 the Henry II's favourite Thomas Becket was appointed constable. The surviving flintwork walls remain from his building plans. However, according to Percy Birtchnell, one of the reasons for Beckett's fall from grace and assassination was his overspend on Berkhamsted Castle which stretched the kings finances. Despite this records show that a chamber was always named St. Thomas's.

Henry III and Richard III are two monarchs who spent much time here. A tower of three storeys in the castle was built to commemorate birth of Richard's son Edmund in 1249. This potential future king died as an infant. His mother, Henry's wife Sanchia of Provence also died in the castle in 1260.

In 1309 King Edward II granted Berkhamsted to his lover Piers Gaveston. For the sake of honour Piers married Margaret de Clare, the grand daughter of King Edward I in Berkhamsted Castle. However in 1312 he was assassinated and the castle returned to the crown.

However, it was to Berkhamsted in 1353 that Edward brought his most celebrated prisoner, John II, King of France. As a royal prisoner he could not be taken to anything other than a royal residence.

More happily the Hero of Berkhamsted, Edward Prince of Wales, the Black Prince spent his honeymoon here with Joan, the Maid of Kent in 1361. The entire court celebrated for five days to celebrate the marriage in Berkhamsted and on Berkhamsted Common. Aged only 16 he was the hero of the Battle of Crecy. His lieutenants included Berkhamsted men such as Everard Halsey, John Wood, Stephen of Champneys, Robert Whittingham, Edward le Bourne, Richard of Gaddesden, and Henry of Berkhamsted. At the Battle of Poitiers Henry saved the Prince's baggage and was rewarded with 2d a day and was appointed porter of the royal castle at Berkhamsted.

It remained a Royal Castle until it was abandoned in 1495. Much of the stonework was plundered for building materials for the town and nearby Berkhamsted Place (demolished in 1967) but the impressive earthworks and two of the original three moats remain. Half of the third was lost when the London to Birmingham railway line was built.

During the 2nd World War much of London's statuary including the statue of Charles I now found at the top of Whitehall on Trafalgar Square, were relocated to the grounds of Berkhamsted Castle.

The English surrender to William and royal links with the town are probably the source of the local legend that Berkhamsted is the "real" capital of England.

Having noteworthy earthworks raised above the surrounding valley floor (flooded by chalk stream aquifers - at the most Northern extent of the London Basin), it is likely the castle's site has been of some significance since man first populated the area.

Other notable buildings

Berkhamsted's parish church is St. Peter's, one of the largest parish churches in Hertfordshire. It was consecrated in 1222 by the Bishop of Lincoln, although parts of the church are believed to be older. At the back of the church lies a marble tomb of a knight and his lady. It is thought to be that of Henry of Berkhamsted, one of the Black Prince's lieutenants at the Battle of Crecy. The poet William Cowper was christened in St. Peter's.

The town is home to the oldest extant shop in Great Britain, dated by dendrochronology of structural timbers to between 1277 and 1297.[11] Evidence has been found that it may have been a jeweller or goldsmith. The shop, at 173 High Street, until recently Figg's the Chemists, is currently (2006) in use as an estate agent which has proved controversial as some residents of Berkhamsted think the site should be preserved.

Berkhamsted's first station (1838) on the London and Birmingham Railway with the Grand Junction Canal to the right-hand side.[12]

The Grand Junction Canal from the Thames at Brentford to Berkhamsted was completed in 1798 and all the way to Birmingham in 1805.

The Old Town Hall

The Town Hall was built at public subscription from Berkhamstedians, and designed by Edward Buckton Lamb. It comprised a market hall (now Brasserie Chez Gerard), large assembly hall and rooms for the Mechanics’ Institute. When Berkhamsted joined Hemel Hempstead and Tring in Dacorum the new Borough Council in Hemel Hempstead drew plans to demolish the site. But following a 10 year citizens' campaign during the 1970s and 80s, which eventually ended at the High Court, the site was saved for the people of Berkhamsted.

The site now occupied by the Pennyfarthing Hotel dates from the 16th Century, having been a monastic building that offered accommodation to religious guests passing through Berkhamsted or going to the monastery at Ashridge.

Ashlyns School, a large building built in 1935 which contained the former The Foundling Hospital, which relocated from London in the 1920s. It contains stained glass windows, especially around the Chapel, a staircase and many monuments from the original London hospital founded by Thomas Coram in 1740. The School Chapel housed an organ donated by George Frederick Handel. The school was used a backdrop to the 2007 comedy, Son of Rambow.

Berkhamsted School, a minor public school was founded in 1541 by Dean Incent and attended by the celebrated author Graham Greene, whose father was headmaster there.

The Rex, is an example of a typical suburban 1930s art deco cinema, its interior features decorations of sea waves and shells. Designed by architect David Evelyn Nye for the Shipman and King circuit[13] and opened in 1938, it closed its doors in 1988 but reopened in 2004 after an extensive redevelopment.[citation needed] The cinema has been restored to become one of the most popular and sought after entertainment attractions in the area, often selling out entire performances. It was the first 1930s cinema to be restored and opened since 1975. The site also regularly hosts guest presenters from the cast or crew to introduce the films.

Nearby Ashridge House was the home of the Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, affectionately known as the Father of Inland Navigation. His canals sparked a rush of canal building nationwide. His climable monument stands in a grove of native broadleaf woods on a Chiltern ridge Ashridge. From 1797 when the Grand Union Canal was cut through Berkhamsted, Castle Wharf became a hub of inland water transport and boat building activity. It is still known as the Port of Berkhamsted. The town also stands on the River Bulbourne.

To the northwest of Berkhamsted stand the ruins of Marlin's Chapel, a 13th century chapel standing next to a fortified farm. The walls and moat surrounding the modern farm still remain and are reputed to be haunted.[14]

Famous people

Famous people born in Berkhamsted include the English novelist Graham Greene (1904–1991), whose father was headmaster of what was then Berkhamsted School, which Greene attended. One of Greene's novels, The Human Factor, takes place there and mentions several places of interest of the town, including Kings Road and Berkhamsted Common. In his autobiography, Greene says, that he has been moulded in a special way "through Berkhamsted". Greene's life and works are celebrated annually during the last weekend in September with a festival organised by the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust.

Other notable Berkhamstedians include the poet William Cowper (1731), the influential soldier Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien (1858), the actor Michael Hordern (1911) and the television presenters Esther Rantzen, and Nick Owen. John Cleese lived in Berkhamsted, and the town was the girlhood home of Clementine Churchill, wife of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It is also the birthplace of singer Sarah Brightman and the home of retired premiership footballer Denis Irwin and of Len Dunderdale,[15] Striker for Watford and Leeds United. Berkhamsted was also home to Thomas Stevens the first person to cycle around the world. Well-known actor Tim Bentinck, 12th Earl of Portland lived here during his childhood.

Other notable residents included Charles de Gaulle, in exile during World War II and composer James C Butterfield, born in Berkhamsted in 1837, most famous for writing the music for When You and I Were Young, Maggie, and Alice Spooner, keyboard player in grime band Hadouken!, and James Smith, vocalist in the same band. Manchester United and England Goalkeeper Ben Foster was raised in Berkhamsted. Robin Knox-Johnston attended Berkhamsted school.

Fictional characters

BBC Radio 4 character Ed Reardon is a Berkhamsted resident, and many of the stories in the show are based there.

Twin towns

Berkhamsted is twinned with Beaune, France and as part of Dacorum with Neu Isenburg, Germany. The town also has an informal relationship with the town of Barkhamsted in Connecticut, United States.



  1. ^ Population 2001 census
  2. ^ Population
  3. ^ 1951 Population
  4. ^ British History online - Berkhampstead St Peter Retrieved 26 june 2009
  5. ^ Birtchnell P, A Short History of Berkhamsted, p.12, Clunberry Press 1972
  6. ^
  7. ^ Birtchnell, P: A Short History of Berkhamsted, Clunbery Press, 1972.
  8. ^ "Averages for Berkamsted". 
  9. ^ Berkhamsted Castle Timeline
  10. ^ Bitchnell, P: A Short History of Berkhamsted, Clunbury Press, 1972.
  11. ^ Restoration boost for oldest shop, BBC, 26 February 2003,, retrieved 1 December 2008 
  12. ^ Roscoe, Thomas (1839). The London and Birmingham Railway; with the .... etc., Pub. Charles Lilt. London. Facing P. 64.
  13. ^ Classic movie theaters designed by David Evelyn Nye
  14. ^ Birtchnell, P: A Short History of Berkhamsted, Clunbery Press, 1974.
  15. ^

External links


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