In the first of our ‘Meet The Locals’ blogs, Trustee of High Wycombe Society, Willie Reid, shares his favourite parts of the town’s vibrant past. Over the past 5 years, Willie has led hundreds of groups, students and visitors on FREE organised tours around High Wycombe – sharing his in-depth knowledge and historical facts. We put some questions to Willie…
What led you to become so interested in High Wycombe’s history?
Walking tours are becoming more common in towns and cities everywhere. Whilst attending my godson’s wedding in Australia in 2015 I went on a fascinating historical walking tour through Sydney and I wondered if I could do the same in High Wycombe. Sydney may be many times larger than Wycombe but its history doesn’t to go back anything like as far. But would Wycombe have enough interesting history? It’s definitely seems so!
Interestingly when we got to Perth in Western Australia there is a suburb there named High Wycombe, and Beaconsfield too!
Where do you find all the information about High Wycombe’s history?
I started reading local history books from the library. Then I started ‘writing it up’ on the computer by creating headings like ‘Red Lion’, ’furniture industry’ and then adding information under the various headings.
Six or seven books later I then started to put the information in each in date order and then eventually into walking route order. I was also helped by locals I got to know who were prepared to share their share historical knowledge with me. And, of course, from walkers I gained several more nuggets!
Where do you take visitors that join you on your guided walks?
The first walk I did was around the centre of the town starting at the railway station and then onto Wycombe Abbey, The Dyke, The Rye, Easton Street, High Street and All Saints Parish Church before going on to finish in Frgomoor. However, as more history was unearthed, I found the walk had grown to almost 3 hours long – far too much.
Information was still coming forward and so I decided to split the town walk into two: ‘Walking Wycombe With Willie’ and ‘Rusty, knights, mosquitos and more…..’ which includes parts of Desborough. However, I was also drawn to Bassetsbury and down the River Wye to Loudwater. There I found parts of the old Wycombe to Maidenhead railway line as well as several mills and milestones.
What is your favourite fact about High Wycombe’s history and why?
This is a difficult one as I can think of quite a few. But I am going to plump for the fact that the Royal Military College (which later became the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst) was set-up in Wycombe by Lieut.Col John Gaspard le Marchant in 1799. After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, which finally saw the defeat of the French under Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington was heard to say of the outcome that ‘it was a damned close-run thing.’ So it is quite likely that without the training that many of his officers had had at the RMC in Wycombe that victory would not have been secured at Waterloo.
What is your favourite historic building/artefact in High Wycombe and why?
It has to be Wycombe Abbey as ‘life’ there has witnessed at least three remarkable and different incarnations through time:
1) Originally Loakes Manor, it was the home of William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, Prime Minister 1782-3. He is the only man, other than the Duke of Wellington, to become PM and who had also risen to the rank of army general.
2) Frances Dove set-up Wycombe Abbey School for Girls on 23 September 1896. An auspicious occasion as that was the day Queen Victoria became the longest reigning British monarch and she was a suffragist not wanting to miss an opportunity to make a point. Today, 125 years later, the school is one of the most successful and prestigious in the country
3) From 1942-45 Wycombe Abbey became HQ of USAAF 8th Bomber Command from where, in a bunker in the hillside within the grounds, all US bombing operations over Europe were planned and directed.
What are your top tips for people who are interested in finding out more about High Wycombe and its history?
High Wycombe has a great local library where you can find many history books, and joining High Wycombe Society too – on their website, you can read the back catalogues of their newsletters going back some 50 years covering numerous topics of Wycombe history.
I would have to suggest you come on any of my 3 walks (or alternatively you could come and hear one of my talks) – check my website for dates!
For more information, please visit High Wycombe Society – www.highwycombesociety.org.uk
Walking Wycombe With Willie – www.walkingwycombewithwillie.co.uk