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Not to be confused with Little Berkhamsted.
View south along the High Street showing the town hall, shops and market stalls
Berkhamsted Town Hall
Berkhamsted town crest.png
The town coat of arms
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

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

Berkhamsted /ˈbɜrkəmstɛd/ is a historic town in England that lies on the western edge of Hertfordshire, in the Bulbourne Valley bordering the Chiltern Hills, 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.[4]

The town's most prominent role in national affairs took place in early December 1066. After his defeat of King Harold II of England's Anglo-Saxon army at Hastings, "William the Conqueror" received the surrender of the Anglo-Saxon English, at Berkhamsted. Berkhamsted Castle became a favoured royal residence throughout the Norman, Angevin and Plantagenet period; it was abandoned in 1495 and today its ruins are managed by English Heritage. Many notable English medieval personages are associated with the castle including several kings, Thomas Becket, Edward, the Black Prince and Geoffrey Chaucer.

The town is home to possibly the oldest surviving shop in Great Britain, dated by dendrochronology of structural timbers to between 1277 and 1297.[5][6] Berkhamsted is also the home of the British Film Institute's BFI National Archive at King's Hill,[7] one of the largest film and television archives in the world, which was generously endowed by J. Paul Getty, Jr..



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.[8] The local historian Percy Birtchnell identified over 50 different spellings and epithets since the Domesday Book.[9] It is believed the original refers to homestead amongst the hills (Saxon – bergs).

The Town[edit]

Arms of Berkhamsted Borough on Town Hall

A late Bronze Age to the Iron Age (1200-100BC) bank and ditch, known as Grim’s Ditch, runs along the whole length of the south side of the Bulbourne Valley. Several settlements dating from the Neolithic to the Iron Age (c4500-100BC) have been discovered to the south of Berkhamsted. The Bulbourne Valley rich in both timber and iron ore, resulted in the development of a major iron production centre by the late Pre-Roman Iron Age. The Roman road of Akeman Street, on which the High Street lies, was a major communications route in the Roman period, and possibly also during the preceding Iron Age. There has been no significant Romano-British or Anglo-Saxon settlement yet found within the current area of Berkhamsted itself.

The earliest certain documentary reference to Berkhamsted is in the Will of Aelfgifu in the 10th century.[10] Earlier the prologue of the Law of Wihtred states that Wihtred and the "great men" of Kent issued their legal code before a large assembly of Kentish people, "in the fifth winter of his reign, in the ninth indiction, sixth day of Rugern [rye-harvest]" (6 September 695) at "that place which is called Berghamstead.[11][12] Two Victorian historians Samuel Lewis and Sir Henry Chauncy both suggest Berkhamsted had been of some of Mercian importance. Prior to the Norman invasion the Domesday Book records that the were the exceptionally high number of fifty-two burgesses in Berkhamsted.[13]

It was at Berkhamsted, December 1066, that William the Bastard, the Duke of Normandy became William the Conqueror.[14] Having defeated Harold II and the English at Hastings in October, William of Normandy led the Norman army to circle London crossing the River Thames at Wallingford, laying waste to much of the south east of England. At Berkhamsted he was met by Edgar Aetheling (the English heir to the throne), and the Anglo-Saxon Witan, including the Archbishop Aldred, the Earl Edwin and the Earl Morcar,[15] who offered the surrender of the English establishment. At Berkhamsted they swore loyalty to William and offered him the crown of England. 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 half-brother, Robert, Count of Mortain, who probably began work on the castle that became a favourite royal retreat for the Norman to Plantagenet dynasties.[14]

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.[16]

One of the effects of the Norman castle was, that the centre of the medieval town of Berkhamsted relocated, durring the 11th-12th centuaries, from original the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Berkhamsted St Mary (now called Northchurch),approximately 1.5km west of Berkhamsted to an area closer to the castle.[17][18] Henry II officially recognised Berkhamsted as a town in 1156.[19] 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.[20] A second charter in 1217 recognised the town's oldest institution, Berkhamsted Market.[20] 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.

The burgesses returned two members to parliament in 1320 and again in 1338 and 1341, but was not represented again.[13] In 1618 James I granted the town a charter making the town a borough. But after supporting the Parliamentarians during the English 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.[21] 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 Castle[edit]

Main article: Berkhamsted Castle
View across the Inner moat twards the bailey walls of Berkhamsted Castle

Berkhamsted Castle is a ruined Norman motte-and-bailey castle, today situated beside the railway station. Historically Berkhamsted controlled the main northern approach to London, only 30 miles away.[22] Around 1070, William the Conquerors, half-brother, Robert of Mortain, built a timber castle.[22] The castle became an important royal residence throughout the 11th to 15th Centuries. Simon Schama refers to Berkhamsted as being to the Plantagenets what Windsor is to today's Royal Family.

Robert's son, William rebelled against Henry I and the castle was confiscated.[23] Henry granted Berkhamsted to his chancellor, Ranulf,[24] who in 1123 it is said became so excited at his first view of the castle, that he fell off his horse and died from his injuries.[25]

From 1155 until 1165, Henry II's favourite Thomas Becket was granted the honour of Berkhamsted. The castle was rebuilt in stone, the surviving flintwork curtain wall probably dates from this period.[20][26][27] It has been suggested by the local historian Percy Birtchnell, that one of the reasons for Beckett's fall from grace was his overspend on Berkhamsted Castle, which stretched the king's finances; the honour of Berkhamsted was removed and Becket was later assignated.[28] Henry II liked Berkhamsted and subsequently used it extensively himself.[29] A gatehouse led down into the town, meeting with Castle Street.[30]

Under King John the castle was entrusted to Geoffrey Fitz Peter in 1206, who rebuilt much of the town.[31] The castle was besieged in 1216 during a civil war, known as the the First Barons' War, between King John and rebel barons backed by France. It was successfully taken after Prince Louis, the future Louis VIII of France "the Lion" (1187–1226), who attacked it with siege engines for twenty days, leading the garrison to surrender. Reclaimed by royal forces the subsequent year, it was passed to Richard the Earl of Cornwall, beginning a long associate with the earldom and the later duchy. Richard redeveloped the castle as a palatial residence and the centre of his administration of the Earldom of Cornwall.

Henry III and Edward I spent much time here. Henry's wife Sanchia of Provence, died in the castle in 1260. In 1309 King Edward II granted Berkhamsted to his lover Piers Gaveston.[32] For the sake of honour Piers married Margaret de Clare, the granddaughter of King Edward I in Berkhamsted Castle. However in 1312 he was assassinated and the castle returned to the crown.

Edward III further developed the castle in the 14th century and gave it to his son, Edward, the Black Prince, who extended the hunting grounds. The castle was used to hold royal prisoners, including John II of France in 1353[32] and rival claimants to the English throne. More happily, the Hero of Berkhamsted, Edward, the Black Prince and Joan, the Maid of Kent spent their honeymoon here in 1361.[33] The entire court celebrated the marriage for five days 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[33] and was rewarded with 2d a day and appointed porter of the royal castle at Berkhamsted. When the Black Prince fell ill following his campaigning in France, he retired to Berkhamsted and died there in 1376.[34]

Richard II inherited Berkamsted Castle in 1377; initially the use of it was given to his favourite, Robert de Vere and, after de Vere's fall from power and exile in 1388, to John Holland.[35] Henry IV lived in the castle after he deposed Richard in 1400, and he used the property to detain rival applicants to the throne.[36] In 1389 Geoffrey Chaucer, later famous for his Canterbury Tales, oversaw renovation work on the castle in his role as Clerk of the Works at Berkhamsted Castle and other royal properties.[37] It is not known how much time he spent at Berkhamsted, but he knew John of Gaddesden; who lived in nearby Little Gaddesden (the model for his Doctor of Phisick in ‘The Canterbury Tales’). Both Henry V and Henry VI owned the castle, the latter making use of it until his overthrow in 1461.[38]

Ruins of the external bailey walls, chapel, the green mound of the castle motte behind the 19th century keeper's house.

In the late-15th century, Berkhamsted Castle became increasingly unfashionable and was left to fall into decline, until it was abandoned in 1495, its last noble inhabitant being Cecily Neville, Duchess of York.[32] By the middle of the 16th century it was described as being in ruins and unsuitable for royal use. Much of the stonework was plundered for building materials for the town and the nearby manor house Berkhamsted Place.[32] The castle narrowly escaped destruction during the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway in the 1830s, becoming the first building in Britain to receive statutory protection from Parliament. However, the barbican and half of the third moat were 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, was relocated to the grounds of Berkhamsted Castle.[32] In 1930 the remaining walls impressive earthworks and ditches passed from the Duchy of Cornwall to the care of the state, and in the 21st century the historical site is managed by English Heritage and is open to the public.

Other Listed sites and buildings of interest[edit]

  • The Prehistoric, late Bronze Age to the Iron Age (1200-100BC) bank and ditch, known as Grim’s Ditch, runs along the whole length of the south side of the Bulbourne Valley. The monument varies in size between 2 and 4 meters from the top of the bank to the bottom of the ditch and is about 5m wide. Destroyed by ploughing in places. It may have served as a boundary ditch between tribal territories, or between areas of differing land use such as woodland and pasture.[10]
St Peter's Church
  • 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.[39] 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,[40] where his father John Cowper was rector.[41]
  • The town is home to possibly the oldest extant shop in Great Britain or jettied timber-framed building, dated by dendrochronology of structural timbers to between 1277 and 1297.[42] Evidence has been found that it may have been a jeweller or goldsmith, but more detailed examination has revealed it to have been the service end of a larger house.[10] The shop, at 173 High Street, until recently Figg's the Chemists, is currently (2012) in use as an estate agency, which has proved controversial as some residents of Berkhamsted think the site should be preserved.
  • The Town Hall was built by public subscription from Berkhamstedians, and designed by Edward Buckton Lamb.[43] It comprised a market hall (now a Carluccio's restaurant), a large assembly hall and rooms for the Mechanics' Institute. When Berkhamsted joined Hemel Hempstead and Tring in the district of Dacorum, the new Borough Council in Hemel Hempstead drew up 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.[43]
  • 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 Foundling Hospital, which relocated from London in the 1920s.[44] 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.[44] The School Chapel housed an organ donated by George Frideric Handel.[44] 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 John Incent[45] and attended by the celebrated author Graham Greene, whose father was headmaster there.[46] Dean Incent's House, a 16th-century half-timbered house containing several Tudor wall paintings, stands opposite St. Peter's Church.
  • 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 Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies who were close friends of the author and playwright J.M. Barrie and whose five sons were the inspiration for the character of Peter Pan.[47] 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[48] 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.
  • The Swan, 139 High Street, contains the remains of a medieval open hall. Parts of the roof date from the 14 th century and the street range was extended and a chimney stack added c1500.[10]
  • 129-31 High Street is believed to be the house built by Dean Incent, founder of Berkhamsted Grammar School in 1523, and has medieval wall paintings within.[10]
  • The Court House (SMR 9183), which dates from the 16th century, is believed to lie on the site of the medieval court where the Portmoot or Borough Court was held.[10]
  • Nearby Ashridge House was the home of the Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, affectionately known as the Father of Inland Navigation.[49] 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.[50]
  • 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.[51]
  • In the neighbouring village of Great Gaddesden and on the site of a medieval convent, is to be found Amaravati Buddhist Monastery. Developed out of wooden buildings erected by the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War 2 as a transit camp, the site was then donated by the Canadian government to the British government for use as a school and evacuation centre for bombed out London children. Later it became a reform boarding school, or Borstal. These days it is flourishing as a Buddhist Monastery of the (Ajahn Chah) Theravadin tradition, complete with a purpose built brick and oak-wood temple.

Other Famous people[edit]

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.[52]

Other notable historical Berkhamstedians have included the poet and hymn-writer William Cowper (1731-1800)[40] and World War I General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien (1858-1930).[53] The town was also the childhood home of Clementine Churchill, the wife of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.[54] During World War II Charles de Gaulle, living exiled from Vichy France, resided near Berkhamsted[55] with his family, from October 1941 to September 1942[56] at a house called Rodinghead.[57]

In modern times the town has been home to a number of notable personalities. The actor Michael Hordern (1911-1995) was born in The Poplars, an 18th-century townhouse on the High Street.[58] Berkhamsted was also the birthplace of television presenters Esther Rantzen (1940)[59] Nick Owen (1947),[60] and the singer Sarah Brightman (1960).[61] Comic actor John Cleese has lived in Berkhamsted.[61] Other notable Berkhamsted residents include actor Timothy Bentinck, 12th Earl of Portland,[62] actor Adrian Scarborough[63] and sports commentator Peter Drury. Sailor Robin Knox-Johnston attended Berkhamsted school.[64]

Fictional characters[edit]

BBC Radio 4 character Ed Reardon is a Berkhamsted resident, and many of the stories in the show are set there.[65]



A narrowboat on the canal near the Ravens Lane bridge

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.[66] The canal later became part of the Grand Union Canal in 1929. The town also stands on the River Bulbourne (non-navigable).[67]

The totem pole at Alsford's Yard

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.[68] 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.[69] 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.[70]

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.[71]

Road and Railway[edit]

Berkhamsted's first station (1838) on the London and Birmingham Railway with the Grand Junction Canal to the right-hand side.[72]

The town's high street is the old Roman road Akeman Street and the eighteenth century Sparrows Herne turnpike. In 1993 a bypass was opened to alleviate congestion caused by traffic passing through the town centre, so that the London-Birkenhead A41 road now passes west of Berkhamsted. During the construction of the bypass, archaeologists excavating along the route unearthed Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman artefacts.[73]

After a public protest (and the castle's historic statutory protection from Parliament) the construction of original Berkhamsted railway station began in 1834 by chief engineer Robert Stephenson, with a railway embankment on top of the ruined barbican and outer moat of Berkhamsted Castle. The present station was built in 1875, when the railway was widened. Berkhamsted Station 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.

A number of local bus routes pass through Berkhamsted town centre, providing links to Hemel Hempstead, Luton, Watford and Whipsnade Zoo. Services include the 30, 31, 62, 207, 500, 501, 502 and 532.[74][75] The 500 bus service runs between Aylesbury and Watford via Berkhamsted. Buses are managed by Hertfordshire County Council's Intalink transport service.


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


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: [76]

Near-Real-Time weather information can be retrieved from Berkhamsted Weather Station on the Met Office WOW: and view station status information at

Twin towns[edit]

Berkhamsted is officially twinned with the French town of Beaune. Also as part of Dacorum the Berkhamsted is linked with Neu Isenburg, Germany. The town also has an informal relationship with Barkhamsted in Connecticut, USA. The latter presented a gavel and block on 4 July 1976 which Berkhamsted Town Council now uses in meetings.


The town's football club, Berkhamsted F.C., play in the Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division. They were formed in 2009 after the demise of Berkhamsted Town F.C..



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  74. ^ "Berkhamsted transport map". Hertfordshire County Council/Intalink. Retrieved 3 November 2010. 
  75. ^ "Bus services – Area 2: Hemel Hempstead, Berkhamsted & Tring". Hertfordshire County Council/Intalink. Retrieved 21 January 2011. 
  76. ^ "Averages for Berkamsted". 


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