Princes Risborough lies in a broad gap on the western slopes of the Chiltern Hills to which, in all probability, it owes its existence. This provided travellers with a link between the River Thames and the Icknield Way, both of which were routes of prime importance from earliest times. Added to this, the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which we protect today for our leisure would have had much greater practical significance for those travellers. The chalk downland of Saunderton Lee and clear springs, such as Pyrtle Spring, are cited by J.F. Head as making the area particularly favourable to early settlement, when much of the region was either wooded or marshy. Local names such as Slough and Ilimire (llmer) and even Summerleys (the summer fields) point to a generally higher water table than that of today.
There is ample evidence of these first inhabitants. The block of pebble conglomerate, commonly known as a ‘Pudding Stone’, which has (recently) been restored to proper prominence at the roundabout in Horns Lane, is one of several in the Chilterns thought to have been way-markers for prehistoric man. For many years only its tip was visible, at the foot of a post in Back Lane, and it was a very happy decision to use it to mark the New Road and signal a growing awareness of our heritage.
More familiar human traces lay in the recently re-excavated Neolithic barrow, some 5,500 years old, near Whiteleaf Cross and in a Beaker burial found in 1983 in Clifford Road, close to where an old track known as Barrow Way crossed the hill to Culverton. A Bronze Age axe was found on the site of the British Legion Hall, and the Iron Age is represented by earthworks on Pulpit Hill and Lodge Hill. Whiteleaf Cross itself, which dominates the landscape, remains a mystery. It is curious that it is not mentioned in writing before 1738 and the earliest known drawing of it is in the Bodleian library and entitled ‘Crux Saxonica’ dated 1742. Whiteleaf Cross stands on the face of a promontory of the Chilterns above Whiteleaf and can be seen clearly across the Vale of Aylesbury. By the Enclosure Act 9 of George IV it was declared to be public property. In autumn 2003 severe erosion was repaired and surrounding areas renovated, helped in part, by funding from the National Lottery.
Kop Hill is a long climbing road that leads from the town up towards Whiteleaf Cross. This steep, straight hill was a very famous venue for Motor Racing in the early 20th C with the famous Kop Hill Climb being a very popular and regular event in the racing calendar. On the left as you climb Kop Hill, you will find the Brush Hill Nature Reserve. An Area of Special Scientific Interest, Brush Hill has just been awarded a grant from The Heritage Lottery Fund to help with its management and maintenance, as it is an important site for rare and endangered plants and wildlife.
A Romano-British villa at Saunderton, excavated in 1937 and then re-buried, may have had a neighbour at Pyrtle Spring, since Roman tiles and pottery may still be found there. Roman control of Britain ended officially in 410 AD and the Danes and Saxons moved in, to their ‘wicks’ and ‘hams’. As late as 871 AD, a Danish army marched along the Upper Icknield Way and soon after, in 903 AD, we find the first reference to Risborough by name, ‘Hrisebyrgan be cilternes efese’, which has been translated as ‘the brush covered hills by the Chiltern eaves’.