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Berkhamsted (/ˈbɜrkəmstɛd/) is a historic town in England which is situated in the west of Hertfordshire, between the towns of Tring and Hemel Hempstead. It is also a civil parish with a designated Town Council within the administrative district (and borough since 1984) of Dacorum.

The town’s most prominent role in national affairs took place in early December 1066. Duke William of Normandy, having defeated the English army at Hastings, then crossing the River Thames at Wallingford. In Berkhamsted he was met by a delegation of the English establishment. He accepted the surrender of the English led by Aetheling Edgar (the heir to King Harold II’s English claim to the throne), Archbishop Aldred, Earl Edwin, Earl Morcar and the chief men of London who swore loyalty to William in return for good government. He was offered the crown there but instead said he would accept the keys to London in Berkhamsted but would accept the crown of England in London. Thus, in Berkhamsted, William of Normandy, William the Bastard, became William the Conqueror. On Christmas Day 1066 William was crowned William I of England in Westminster Abbey. A traditonal local legend refers to Berkhamsted as the real capital of England (if only for a few minutes).

Berkhamsted today is most well known for its castle, now in ruins but once a popular country retreat of the Norman and Plantagenet kings. Berkhamsted is also the home of the British Film Institute’s BFI National Archive at King’s Hill, one of the largest film and television archives in the world, which was generously endowed by John Paul Getty.

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. 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”.

Berkhamsted was the terminating point of the Norman invasion of 1066. Having defeated Harold II and the English at Hastings, William of Normandy led the Norman invading army to circle London crossing the River Thames at Wallingford making for the Anglo Saxon castle at Berkhamsted. Having laid waste to much of the south east of England he was met by Edgar Aetheling (the English heir to the throne), the Archbishop Aldred, the Earl Edwin and the Earl Morcar. who offered the surrender of the English establishment. In Berkhamsted they swore loyalty to William and offered him the crown of England. Thus in Berkhamsted William the Bastard, the Duke of Normandy became William the Conqueror. However, he refused to accept the crown in Berkhamsted saying he would receive the keys to London in Berkhamsted but would accept the crown in London. His coronation took place in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066 . Following his coronation William granted Berkhamsted to his Brother in law, Odo, who rebuilt the castle which became a Royal Castle and became the 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.

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. 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. 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 is located in the Chiltern Hills, Hertfordshire, in the wide valley of the River Bulbourne, to the west of Hemel Hempstead.

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.

The original Saxon structure of timber and earthworks was replaced by a stone castle 1080s  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.

in 1216 the castle’s defences were put to the test in the First Barons War, when the forces of the future King of France, Louis VIII, besieged the city in December.

Henry III and Edward I of England are two monarchs who spent much time here. A tower of three storeys in the castle was built to commemorate birth of Henry’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 manor house 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 and Birmingham Railway line was built.

During the Second 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.

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.

The Grand Junction Canal runs through Berkhamsted parallel to the High Street. The section from the River Thames at Brentford to Berkhamsted was completed in 1798 and the extension to Birmingham in 1805. The canal later became part of the Grand Union Canal in 1929. The town also stands on the River Bulbourne (non navigable).

With the advent of canal transport, Castle Wharf became a hub of inland water transport and boat building activity. It is still known as the Port of Berkhamsted. One former boat builders’ yard was located by the Castle Street bridge. In 1910 it was turned into a timber yard run by William Key and Son timber merchants and importers, and in 1963 the business was taken over by J Alsford Ltd, a family-run timber merchants from Leyton, east London. The timber yard has since gone, but the site is marked by a Canadian totem pole.

In the early 1960s, Roger Alsford, a great-grandson of the founder of the timber company, James Alsford (1841–1912), went to work at the Tahsis lumber mill on Vancouver Island. During a strike he was rescued from starvation by a local Kwakiutl community. Alsford’s brother, William John Alsford, visited the island, and in gratitude for their hospitality, commissioned a totem pole from the Canadian First Nations artist Henry Hunt. The western red cedar pole, 30 feet (9.1 m) long and 3 feet (0.91 m) in diameter, was carved by Hunt at Thunderbird Park, a centre for First Nation monuments. The completed pole was shipped to Britain and erected at Alsford’s Wharf in 1968. Alsford’s warehouses were demolished and replaced in 1994 by Fairclough Homes with a housing development, but the totem pole remains in place today as an unusual local landmark. As it stands in the private walled grounds of the flats, it can only be viewed at a distance from the public road. It is one of only a handful of totem poles in the United Kingdom, others being on display at the British Museum and Horniman Museum in London, Windsor Great Park, Bushy Park and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The carvings on the totem pole represent four figures from North American First Nations legend: at the top sits Raven, the trickster and creator deity; he sits on the head of Sunman, who has outstretched arms representing the rays of the sun and who wears a copper (a type of ceremonial skirt); Sunman stands on the fearsome witch-spirit Dzunukwa; at the base is the two-headed warrior sea-serpent, Sisiutl, who has upstretched wings.

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, where his father John Cowper was rector.

The town is home to the oldest extant shop in Great Britain, dated by dendrochronology of structural timbers to between 1277 and 1297. 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.

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.

As well as Berkhamsted Place, the town had another Elizabethan mansion, the smaller Egerton House, which stood at the east end of the High Street. The house was occupied briefly (1904–1907) by the Llewelyn Davies family who were close friends of the author and playwright J.M. Barrie; the Davies’s middle son, Peter Llewelyn Davies, was the inspiration for the character of Peter Pan. The house was demolished in 1937, and the site is now occupied by the Grade II-listed Rex Cinema. Recognised by English Heritage as a fine example of a 1930s art deco cinema, the cinema was designed by architect David Evelyn Nye for the Shipman and King circuit and opened in 1938. Its interior features decorations of sea waves and shells. The Rex closed its doors in 1988 but reopened in 2004 after an extensive redevelopment. 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.

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

Famous people born in Berkhamsted include the novelist Graham Greene (1904–1991), whose father was headmaster of Berkhamsted School, which Greene attended. One of Greene’s novels, The Human Factor, set there and mentions several places in the town, including Kings Road and Berkhamsted Common. In his autobiography, Greene wrote 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.

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

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.

Berkhamsted is served by rail services from Berkhamsted railway station which is on the West Coast Mainline. Principal services, operated by London Midland, run between London Euston and Milton Keynes Central, with additional trains running to Northampton and Birmingham New Street. The Southern train company also run an hourly service directly to South Croydon via Clapham Junction.

The London-Birkenhead A41 road passes west of Berkhamsted. The bypass opened in 1993 to alleviate congestion caused by traffic passing through the town centre. During the construction of the bypass, archaeologists excavating along the route unearthed Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman artefacts.

Note: this page is partly based on a Wikipedia page. Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. Where possible, text is being updated to original, fully referenced research. ‘Our photos’ means we took the photographs. The Street View and street map visuals are courtesy of Google.

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