Take a trip through history

Take a trip through history

The River Chess catchment has a rich history from mills to watercress, Iron Age relics to ancient meadows.


Humans and rivers have been inextricably linked over the millennia, and the River Chess is no exception. The River Chess catchment is strewn with reminders of past generations and their connection to the river.

Rich in history – the cultural heritage of the River Chess and its catchment

There has been a rich history in the Chess catchment. The earliest hunter-gatherers in the Mesolithic were drawn to the reliable clean waters and abundant springs, while the first farmers of the Neolithic began to plant the rich soils of the valley bottom. By the later prehistoric period, the entire catchment was well populated, and significant monuments in the form of hillforts and the enigmatic Grim’s Ditch were constructed. During the Roman administration of the area, well-established farmsteads, villas, and roads served a thriving region of grain and iron production.

Look out for these prehistorical features:

Evidence of flint workings, such as tools and weapons, from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age; 11,700-4,000 BC) and Neolithic Periods (New Stone Age; 4,000-2,000 BC).

Located near to Chenies Bottom, a farmstead from the Iron Age (650 BC – 40 AD) was still occupied in Roman times (43-410 AD).

One of two hillforts in the catchment, and probably a site where objects were manufactured for trade.

A large, enclosed hillfort. Which was used intermittently for iron production from the Iron Age into Roman times.

One of a series of linear earthworks. This section may have been a territorial boundary marker.

A villa with mosaic floors and underfloor heating was excavated under the current sire of Restore Hope at Latimer.

Evidence of a Roman road leading from the River Thames crossing the Chess near Chenies, and continuing to St Albans (the Roman city of Verulamium).

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Flint tools from the Chilterns. Image: Allen Beechey

The river has also served as a spiritual focus for people from all eras. Burnt flint mounds from the Bronze Age highlight a riverside ritual site, not far from where later inhabitants would construct St Mary’s Church at the now deserted Flaunden village. Holy Cross Church, Sarratt, which overlooks the Chess Valley, was founded as an ‘anchorite’ chapel – a chapel where monks from St Alban’s Abbey could reflect in isolation.

Not just spiritual power, but physical power was invoked from the River Chess over the course of the last millennium as mills were constructed to process grain into flour and rag into paper. By this time, the chalk stream had been shaped and reshaped for purposes such as the flooding of managed water meadows and watercress beds, now visible only through LiDAR imagery. The wealth produced from these industries led to the presence of large, stately manors, enjoyed by some of our key historical figures

LiDAR – how it helps us to see the past

LiDAR stands for ‘Light Detection and Ranging’ and is a remote sensing method that uses pulses from a laser to collect measurements to examine the Earth’s surface. These measurements can be built up to create a 3D model of an area, mapping the ground beneath the airborne platform (usually a plane or helicopter) used to scan it. It can show us features of the landscape that have long been forgotten, whether a hillfort lost to grassland or a World War I training trench deep in a woodland. The Chilterns Conservation Board’s Beacons of the Past Flagship Project recently commissioned the largest high resolution LiDAR survey ever flown for archaeology in the UK.



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Look out for these historical features:

Concentrations of finds dating to the Bronze Age (2,000-700 BC) suggest burnt mounds used to create a type of sauna, perhaps similar to sweat lodges.

Meadows were irrigated to produce plentiful hay crops and rich grassland for pasture. Channels were dug and managed, so the fields could be flooded to maximise production.

This is one of several Medieval moated manors in the region, with extensive earthworks dating from the 13th century.

Originally constructed in the 13th century, with many changes over the Medieval Period. The manor hosted visiting royalty, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

Home of the first Barons and a prominent feature of the valley, possibly influenced by Lancelot ‘Capablity’ Brown, and used by the military during the Second World War.

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Locally grown watercress

Thriving water industries: watercress beds

Watercress is one of the oldest green vegetables known to man. The River Chess, with its clean mineral-rich spring water, is ideal for producing this wonderful superfood. Watercress production was a thriving local industry throughout much of the 20th century, and Ewelme Watercress Beds supplied markets as far away as Covent Garden. The watercress was grown in specially built brick beds fed by the Ewelme Brook, a chalk stream whose crystal-clear waters are ideal for watercress.

By the late 20th century, greater regulation and more competition led to the demise of the local watercress industry, and the Beds fell into disrepair. In the 1990s, the Chiltern Society began a programme of restoration and conservation. The Beds are now a nature reserve and can be visited on Open Days where you can learn all about their history and see some of the plants and animals that live in the clear, chalk waters, including the rare water vole.


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Weirhouse Mill in Chesham. Image: Susan McArdle

Thriving water industries: water mills

The River Chess was used to power water mills for centuries; four mills are listed for Chesham in the Domesday Book, but only Weirhouse Mill stands today. Mills were used for a range of purposes from corn-milling to paper production.


This is the most complete and well-preserved mill on the river. Besides corn milling, it was also used for the manufacture of paper.

This was the site of a Saxon corn mill, referred to in the Domesday Book. It was owned by the canons of Missenden Abbey from the early 12th century. It last worked in 1937 and was demolished around 1960.

Meades Water Gardens was originally the location of the leat for the mill, but only the sluice gate remains. The site was later converted for use as watercress beds and then ornamental gardens. In 2008, the river was restored as part of a project to regenerate the gardens.

Owned by Herbert Ingram who founded The Illustrated London News in 1842 and built the nearby, imposing Glen Chess house.

The site of a Medieval manor that had its own corn mill, the remnants of which were demolished around 1860. The current house dates from the Tudor period.

Rich in wildlife

The River Chess catchment is extremely important on both a local and a global scale – it is one of only 283 chalk streams that have been identified in England. It has a clean gravel bed and crystal-clear, oxygenated waters. Plants like white-flowered water crowfoot grow abundantly in its fast flow, and fish, such as brown trout, lay their eggs in the riverbed.

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Chilterns Chalk Streams Project

Learn about our flagship partnership project, committed to conserving our threatened chalk streams and the wildlife they hold.
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Chilterns Chalk Streams Project

Learn about our flagship partnership project, committed to conserving our threatened chalk streams and the wildlife they hold.