The Origins of Penn Street

An ‘ancient ‘ charter was produced as evidence for an inquiry, in 1665, into rights of common on the 4,000 acre Wycombe Heath, which covered parts of seven parishes, including the northern quarter of Penn. The charter was a forgery, but it included the traditional bounds of the heath that are judged to be authentic. The bounds define the heath after a large rectangular bite (see map) had been taken out of it, presumably to allow room for the de la Penne family to move from their first cramped manor house at Penbury, near Penn Church. This is likely to have been soon after a Statute of 1285 first allowed a lord to enclose part of a shared common, provided he left enough pasture for the commoners.

Field names around Penn House, Ashmoor, Shinglemoor, Culvermoor and Horsemoor, confirm that it stands on former heathland. The names Great and Little Readings tell us that trees have been cleared around it (map). As late as 1829, Lady Howe paid a quit rent to the manor court for building part of Penn House on the manorial waste of Segraves Manor.

The part of the bounds relating to Penn Street goes, ‘and so the way leadeth to woods heeves lyeing and beinge towards the Gatestakes of Pennbury the Manor of Sir Roger Atte Penn Knight’.

‘Woods heeves’ i.e., the eaves or edge of the wood, seems to have been an earlier name for the hamlet that grew up outside the gates to service the new manor house, now Penn House. 17th C property deeds show that Wood Eves was a place name in Penn Street. The ‘Gatestakes of Pennbury’ are the gates to Penn House opposite Penn Street Farm.

Wood Eves was probably restricted to the same side of the road as Penn House, but closer to Penn Wood. The other side of the road and on towards what is now the church, i.e. at the side of the main road or straet as it was called by the Saxons, meaning a road used by the Romans, was still part of the heath in 1285. Its development, which was to give Penn Street its name, is likely to have been by later, and illegal, encroachments, driven by rising population pressure, up to the Black Death of 1348. The earliest known reference to the name Penn Street is in the parish register for 1592.

There was a Roman villa and iron smelting and smithing industry near Shardeloes, about 1½ miles north of Penn Street and the route connecting them with a main Roman road running just south of Beaconsfield is marked to this day by the surviving road names of Penn Street, Clay Street and Old Street (now part of the B474 at Knotty Green).

‘Penn Street’  – OE straet, ‘street’, was typically used by the Saxons to indicate a road with some sign of a made surface, i.e. one used by the Romans.  It presumably ran run from the Roman villa and industrial site at Shardeloes, via  Penn Street, Clay Street and Old Street, an earlier name for the road  through Knotty Green to Beaconsfield.   The only physical evidence on this stretch could be a possible modest agger (embankment) where Horsemoor Lane crosses Penn Bottom.  This road would have met  the lesser Roman Road which has been proposed, following the general line of the A40 along the main Wycombe valley, a section of which can still clearly be seen in Wycombe Abbey School in High Wycombe   (C.Morris, G.H.Hargreaves, R.P.F. Parker, ‘A Roman road through South Buckinghamshire’, Records of Bucks XVIII, pt 5, (1970), p.372).

There is abundant archaeological evidence of Roman activity around Shardeloes, in Penn Wood, Common Wood, and King’s Wood.

The 1285 Statute also required that a 200 foot wide (i.e. a bowshot) strip of land was kept clear of trees between a highway and woodland, in order to remove any cover for highwaymen, who were then a serious problem. The Penn Street gates to Penn House today are 200 feet from the road and the common is exactly 200 feet wide with the same open width up to the wood boundary running all the way down, past the school, to the main Wycombe-Amersham road.

There were two ponds on what is now Penn Street Common and one or both were called St George’s, named after an edible spring mushroom called agaricus georgii, which still makes its appearance by the pond around St George’s Day on 23 April. The name of the mushroom and the pond could date back as far as 1222, when 23 April was made St George’s feast day by the Church. He became the patron saint of England in the 14th C.

(For a fuller discussion see ‘Wycombe Heath and its ‘charter’, by John Chenevix Trench and Miles Green, Records of Bucks, Vol. 36 (1994), pp.144-59, in public libraries).

Miles Green, 22nd July 2002, Note on Roman road added March 2023.

More detail, in the book ‘Wycombe Heath 1,000 years ago’,
Miles Green (Dec 2018)