Following the news that Buckinghamshire Council have qualified to receive a grant of £11.7m from the Government’s Future High Street Fund to “renew and reshape” High Wycombe town centre, we take a look at how the High Street has developed over the last 1,000 years.

The first written description of Wycombe is in the Domesday book, when the town was described as a large village. It might be imagined that this was very much like the village of West Wycombe today, concentrated either side of one main street - the High St. In the embryonic Wycombe there were already six mills powered by the river.

The village needed a church and this was consecrated in 1087 by Bishop Wulfstan, the Saxon Bishop of Worcester. Its status as a Borough was confirmed in 1237, meaning it had some degree of self-government. During the 13th century the High Street was laid out in a typical medieval planned pattern, of a wide street with long, narrow plots facing onto it.

By the 14th century the town was known as Chepping (meaning market) Wycombe. This market place stretched from the church towards Frogmoor and was bounded by what is now Church Street, White Hart Street and Queen Square. The original Guildhall was built in the Cornmarket, in the 1470s.

By this time, as well as the important grain trade and the corn market, Wycombe was a major centre for the wool and cloth trade, with the river powering the mills for fulling. The town’s proximity to London meant that the market was highly successful. Its location midway between Oxford and London also made it a convenient stopping off place for travellers.

The wool and corn trades attracted tradesmen, shop keepers and inn keepers to the town, which accelerated its growth. The High St became lined with the houses and commercial buildings of the mercantile classes. By the late 16th century many of the earlier medieval buildings were being improved or replaced by more substantial timber-framed ones. The Guildhall was largely rebuilt in 1604. The area in front of the Guildhall was used for many events over the years, one of them being the barbaric “sport” of bull baiting, until this was outlawed in 1835.

As the result of the long period of prosperity, and new architectural and building methods, the character of the town changed in the Georgian period (1714-1830). During that time many of the buildings facing the High Street were refaced in brick (refronted), with patterns picked out in contrasting brick and bond patterns. The Lords Shelburne in particular did much to “beautify” the town.

For example, the second Earl gifted a new town hall, which is now the Guildhall, in 1757. This was “a fine and picturesque structure, which gave character to the High Street”. The third Earl was probably the most prominent political figure associated with the town in the late 18th century. He was a Cabinet Minister, the first Home Secretary, and then Prime Minister in 1782-83.

The Victorian period (1837-1910) was characterized by the gradual movement of the townspeople from houses on the High Street to the newer leafier suburbs on the surrounding hillsides. Many of the High Street buildings became shops and businesses. This continued into the 20th century with the result that a number of institutional buildings such as banks were erected on the High Street. The increased need for infrastructure led to the construction of new roads, such as Corporation Street.

An excellent account of the High St as it was in the early 20th century is given in the publication “A Guide to Old Wycombe High Street and Easton Street”. This is based on the reminiscences of Charles Walter Raffety, who was affectionately known as the Grand Old Man of High Wycombe.

He recounted these in a series of four “chats” to a group called the Congregational Young People’s Guild, between 1910 and 1913. Prepared by Jackie Kay of the High Wycombe Society, the publication is available on-line at.

The buildings in the High St, Nos1 to 40, and their occupants at that time, are each described in some detail. On the Nostalgia pages we have recently considered two of these, The Wheatsheaf at No. 2 and Buckingham House, formerly the Catherine Wheel, at No. 36.

Two more buildings of particular interest are No.20, which would have been familiar to Mr Raffety’s audience as the offices of the South Bucks Free Press newspaper, and next door No.21.

As Mr Raffety said in one of his chats, “No.20 had been a family residence, perhaps the most distinguished one in the High St” and the Old White House at No.21 “is one of the most interesting houses in Wycombe both from its age, style and associations”. We will look at the history of these in a future Nostalgia article.

At the time he was considering, the early 1900’s, Mr Raffety could not have anticipated the impact that one particular invention would have on the High Street, the motor vehicle. As with all town centres their impact has been profound and led to High Wycombe being described as “the town that nearly died from traffic”.

The High Street was partially pedestrianized in the early 1990s, which is thought by many to have been a mixed blessing.

We await with great interest the plans for the “renewing and reshaping” of the High Street. One building which might be considered in this scheme is the Guildhall. Far from being “a fine and picturesque structure, which gives character to the High Street”, today it appears as somewhat rundown and redundant.

What do you think? Do you have any ideas as to how the High St might be revitalised, if so send them to me at