High Wycombe

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High Wycombe (/ˌhaɪ ˈwɪkəm/), commonly known as Wycombe and formally called Chepping Wycombe or Chipping Wycombe until 1946, is a large town in Buckinghamshire, England. It is 29 miles (47 km) west-north-west of Charing Cross in London; this information is also engraved on the Corn Market building in the centre of the town. According to the 2001 census High Wycombe had a population of 92,300, making it the largest town in the non-metropolitan county of Buckinghamshire now that the Borough of Milton Keynes is a unitary authority area, and the second largest in the ceremonial county. The High Wycombe Urban Area, the conurbation of which the town is the largest component has a population of 118,219.

High Wycombe is mostly an unparished area in the Wycombe district. Part of the urban area constitutes a civil parish of Chepping Wycombe, which had a population of 14,455 according to the 2001 census – this parish represents that part of the ancient parish of Chepping Wycombe which was outside the former municipal borough of Wycombe.

Wycombe is a combination of industrial and market town, with a traditional emphasis on furniture production. There has been a market held in the High Street since at least medieval times. The town has always had a presence of industry, which in the 17th century exceeded the market town and now Wycombe remains more industrial in character.

The name Wycombe comes from the river Wye, and the old English word for a wooded valley, combe. Wycombe appears in the Domesday Book and was noted for having six mills. The town once featured a Roman Villa (built 150–170 AD) which was excavated three times, most recently in 1954. Mosaics and a bathhouse were uncovered at the site on what is now the Rye parkland. High Wycombe was the site of a minor English Civil War battle featuring John Hampden, and the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

The existence of a settlement at High Wycombe was first documented in 970, as Wicumun. The Parish church was consecrated by the visiting Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester in 1086. The town received market borough status in 1237, although the market has featured in the town since early in the 12th century.

High Wycombe remained a mill town through Medieval and Tudor times, with the manufacture of lace and linen cloth. It was also used as a stopping point on the way from Oxford to London, with many travellers staying in the town’s taverns and inns.

The paper industry was the most notable in 17th and 18th century High Wycombe. The Wye’s waters were rich in chalk, and therefore ideal for bleaching the pulp. The paper industry had soon overtaken from cloth.

Wycombe’s most famous industry, furniture (particularly chairs) took hold in the 19th century, with furniture factories setting up all over the town. Many terraced workers houses were built to the east and west of town to accommodate those working in the furniture factories. In 1875, it was estimated that there were 4,700 chairs made per day in High Wycombe. When Queen Victoria visited the town in 1877, the council organised an arch of chairs to be erected over the High Street, with the words “Long live the Queen” printed boldly across the arch for the Queen to pass under.

The town’s population grew from 13,000 residents in 1881, to 29,000 in 1928.Wycombe was completely dominated socially and economically by the furniture industry and, consequently, there was considerable unemployment and social problems when the industry declined in the 1960s.

By the 1920s, many of the housing areas of Wycombe had decayed into slum conditions. A slum clearance scheme was produced by the council, whereby many areas were completely demolished and the residents were re-housed in new estates, that sprawled above the town on the valley slopes. Some of the districts demolished were truly decrepit, such as Newlands, where most of the houses were condemned unfit for human habitation, with sewage pouring down the street and people sharing one room in cramped courtyards of subdivided flats. However, some areas such as St. Mary’s Street contained beautiful old buildings with fine examples of 18th and 19th century architecture, which was a terrible shame and an injustice to the town.

From 1940 to 1968 High Wycombe was the seat of the RAF Bomber Command. Add to this, during World War II, from May 1942 to July 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force’s 8th Air Force Bomber Command, code-named “Pinetree”, was based at a former girls’ school at High Wycombe. This became formally Headquarters, 8th Air Force, on 22 February 1944. Since 1968 all commands of the Royal Air Force are housed at RAF High Wycombe.

In the 1960s the town centre was redeveloped. This involved culverting the River Wye under concrete, and demolishing most of the old buildings in Wycombe’s town centre. Two shopping centres were built along with many new multi-storey car parks, office blocks, flyovers and roundabouts. Areas of cottages and period buildings have been replaced with a town centre which looked like any other built in the aesthetically challenged decade of the 1960s. On the open area known as Frogmoor the original cast iron fountain and some Georgian buildings have gone. A recent town centre regeneration project (the ‘Eden Project’) was originally going to uncover the Wye, however in a change of plan the new shopping centre has been built over the whole area, right up to the road which runs parallel with the river.

The town is currently undergoing a large redevelopment of the centre, including the development of the town’s existing shopping centre and the completion of the new Eden Shopping centre and the redevelopment of the Buckinghamshire New University with a large student village and new building on Queen Alexandra road.

These two developments have brought new life to the town and caused an influx of interest in the town, with larger apartment buildings and a new multi-million pound hotel being built in the centre and a new Sainsbury’s store on the Oxford road next to the Eden shopping centre and bus station.

High Wycombe’s population figure differs due to the varying definitions of the town’s area. The town proper (that is with none of the suburbs) is 77,178. However Hazlemere is now regarded as a suburb of Wycombe and so the population of High Wycombe town is 92,300. The High Wycombe urban area (with some surrounding settlements) population is 118,229.

High Wycombe has been home to two Prime Ministers:

  • the Earl of Shelburne lived at what is now Wycombe Abbey (and was also MP for the town)
  • Benjamin Disraeli, who lived at nearby Hughenden Manor, was defeated as an independent candidate in 1832. Disraeli made his first political speech in Wycombe, from the portico over the door of the Red Lion Hotel on the High Street (now Iceland/ Pound world).

A ceremony, carried out in the town since 1678, involves the weighing of the mayor. At the beginning and end of the mayor’s serving year, they are weighed in full view of the public to see whether or not they have gained weight at the taxpayers’ expense. The custom, which has survived to the present day, employs the same weighing apparatus used since the 19th century. When the result is known, the Town Crier announces “And no more!” if the Mayor has not gained weight or “And some more!” if they have. The actual weight of the Mayor is not declared.

The town’s nearest motorway is the M40 which has two junctions serving Wycombe- junction 3 for Loudwater and High Wycombe (east) and junction 4 at Handy Cross roundabout, for central Wycombe, Marlow and the surrounding area. Junction 4 is a major interchange between the M40 and A404 trunk road. It suffered from heavy congestion but was improved by the Highways Agency in 2006. Junction 3 is restricted, only traffic going towards and coming from London can join and exit respectively.

High Wycombe railway station is the only railway station in the town and is on the Chiltern Main Line with services to London Marylebone and Birmingham Snow Hill as well as services to Aylesbury via Princes Risborough. The station is the busiest in South Buckinghamshire. It is possible to reach London in 30 minutes on faster trains, slower ones can take up to 45 minutes. The Wycombe Railway ran from High Wycombe to Maidenhead, through Loudwater and Bourne End. However this was the victim of the Beeching Axe with the Wycombe to Bourne End section closed in the 1970s. The southern section remains open as part of the Marlow Branch Line.

ere are two shopping centres: the Eden Centre which spreads from the High Street under the Abbey Way flyover to the south of the A40, and the Chilterns Centre, which is located between Queen’s Square and Frogmoor to the north. The High Street (pedestrianised in the early nineties) has a number of 18th and 19th century buildings, and ends at the colonnaded Guildhall that was built in 1757 by Henry Keene and renovated in 1859. The small octagonal shaped Cornmarket opposite known locally as the Pepper Pot was rebuilt to designs by Robert Adam in 1761. The large parish church of All Saints was founded in 1086 but enlarged in the 18th century and extensively restored in 1889. There is a large well-equipped theatre, the Wycombe Swan, which hosts many acts and shows prior to or following the West End.

In March 2008, a new development in the town centre was completed. This included the demolition and relocation of the bus station. The main feature of the development was the brand new Eden Shopping Centre, with 107 shops, new restaurants, a large bowling alley and cinema and new housing. The old Octagon shopping centre was connected to the new development. The complex is seen an a major milestone in the regeneration of the town, and is one of the largest in the country.

There are out-of-town retail outlets in the suburbs of Cressex (including John Lewis, Asda, and TGI Fridays), and Wycombe Marsh, where there is small retail park of shops and restaurants. Shops include Comet, PC World, Pets At Home, Homebase, M&S Simply Food.. Desborough Road provides a secondary shopping area, with more independent traders, and a number of takeaways,

To the east of the town centre is the extensive Rye park (and the river) and dyke. The park has an open-air swimming pool (closed in 2009) and the River Wye winds through the green space, which is particularly attractive during the summer. Wycombes yearly Asian Mela takes place on the Rye, and is popular locally and nationally. There is a museum on Priory Avenue in the town centre situated in its own grounds which include a Norman Castle mound. The theme of the museum is the history of Wycombe, but the main focus is the chair industry.

Wycombe town centre is home to many public houses and bars especially in the Frogmoor area, there is a recently refurbished nightclub called Pure & Life On Mars (previously Pure & Obsession, previously Time & Here & Now, previously Club Eden), which has attracted some very famous urban British acts such as Lethal B, Kano, Heartless Crew, Soundboy, Shola Ama, Artful Dodger, and Gemma Fox. Additionally there is another town centre nightclub, The Garden.

The pub the White Horse appeared on ‘Britain’s toughest pubs’. They include free strip shows during the day. There is also a nightclub called the Blue Room in the suburb of Hazlemere.

Hughenden Manor borders the northern urban fringe of High Wycombe, approximately 2 miles from the centre of town. Built in the Regency period, the architecturally appealing house was also home to Benjamin Disraeli for three decades in the mid-19th century. The three floor mansion is situated in its own extensive grounds with beautifully landscaped gardens which back into the attractive Chiltern countryside. It is open to the public all year round as an historical attraction.

The local council attempts to maintain two locally beloved landmarks – the statue of a red lion (above the former Woolworths store on the High Street.) and the replacement fountain in Frogmoor Square(the cast iron original was removed in WW2)(the replacement fountain has also been removed and the unit sealed). The red lion’s significance dates back to when the building was the Red Lion Hotel. Since its installation, the lion has been replaced several times and has had to undergo extensive repair due to damage from both the elements and from human interference. Another notable landmark is the ruins of the Hospital of St John the Baptist, which is located on Easton street, just east of the town centre opposite the Rye parkland and dates back to the 12th century. The stone structure is one of the very oldest in Wycombe, and is said in part to contain stone used from the Roman villa on the Rye.

The site of the ancient Desborough Castle is situated between the Desborough and Castlefield suburbs of the town (hence their names), and appears somewhat out of place due to the surroundings (though some might argue it’s the surroundings that are out of place).

Wycombe was once renowned for furniture making (the town’s football team is nicknamed the ‘Chairboys’) and furniture design remains an important element of the town’s university, Buckinghamshire New University. Among the best known furniture companies were Ercol and E Gomme. The largest remaining furniture maker is Stewart Linford, creating bespoke furniture and limited editions. The Living Chair Museum is sited at Stewart Linford’s premises displaying many antique Windsor chairs and the tools that made them. The River Wye runs through the valley, where beech trees were cut down by the furniture industry, forming the town centre (circa 1700), with housing along the slopes (some areas still surrounded by woods). The town was also home to the worldwide postage stamp and banknote printer Harrison and Sons. More recent industries in the town include the production of paper, precision instruments, clothing and plastics. Many of these are situated in an industrial area of the Cressex district, to the south west of the town centre. The two largest sites are those belonging to the companies Swan (tobacco papers, filters and matches) and Verco (office furniture) who until 2004 sponsored the local football team, Wycombe Wanderers.

A new experimental scheme to knock down old council flats in Micklefield and replace them with housing association properties was approved by John Prescott in 2003 after overwhelming approval by council residents. There are many different housing areas within the town, some of which such as the Castlefield district have gained a bad reputation for crime and drug related problems. Castlefield is also noted for being the most deprived estate in the county, with the highest level of child poverty in the whole of the Thames Valley.

The town is a diverse mixture of large council estates built in the 1930s, 1950s and 1960s which sprawl up the valley sides, compact Victorian terraces in the bottom of the valley to the east and west of town, and desirable areas for wealthy commuters. The Amersham Hill area is noted for its large period properties, and leafy streets. Recent developments are showing a tendency towards blocks of flats, and developers are mainly making use of brownfield sites.

High Wycombe is twinned with Kelkheim, Germany.

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