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The Chiltern Hills are a chalk escarpment in South East England. They are known locally as "the Chilterns". A large portion of the hills was designated officially as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1965.


The Chilterns stretch in a 75 km (47 mile) southwest to northeast diagonal from Goring-on-Thamesmarker in Oxfordshire, through Buckinghamshire, via Dunstable Downsmarker and Deacon Hillmarker in Bedfordshire, to Hitchinmarker in Hertfordshiremarker.

The boundary of the hills is clearly defined on the northwest side by the scarp slope. The dip slope, by its nature, merges with the landscape to the southeast. Similarly, the Thames provides a clear terminal to the southwest, whereas northeast of Lutonmarker the hills decline slowly in prominence.


The scarp overlooks the Vale of Aylesburymarker, and approximately coincides with the southernmost extent of the ice sheet during the last ice age. The Chilterns are part of the Southern England Chalk Formation which also includes Salisbury Plainmarker, Cranborne Chasemarker, the Isle of Wightmarker and the South Downsmarker, in the south. In the north, the chalk formations continue northeastwards across north Hertfordshiremarker, Norfolk and the Lincolnshire Woldsmarker, finally ending as the Yorkshire Woldsmarker in a prominent escarpment, south of the Vale of Pickering.

Physical characteristics

Their highest point is 267 m (876 ft) at Haddington Hillmarker near Wendovermarker in Buckinghamshire; a stone monument marks the summit. The nearby Ivinghoe Beaconmarker is a more prominent hill, although it only stands 249 m (817 ft) above sea level. It is the starting point of the Icknield Way Path and the Ridgewaymarker long distance path, which follows the line of the Chilterns for many miles to the west, where they merge with the Wiltshiremarker downs and southern Cotswoldsmarker. To the east of Ivinghoe Beacon is Dunstable Downs, a steep section of the Chiltern scarp that is the site of the famous London Gliding Club and Whipsnade Zoomarker. Near Wendover is Coombe Hillmarker which is 260 m (853 ft) above sea level.

The more gently sloping country – the dip slope – to the southeast of the Chiltern scarp is also generally referred to as the Chilterns, containing much beech woodland and many pretty villages.

Rivers that drain from the Chiltern Hills include the River Mimram, River Lea, River Vermarker, River Gade, River Bulbourne, River Chessmarker, River Misbournemarker and River Wye. These are classified as chalk streams, although the River Lea is degraded by water from road drains and sewage treatment works.

The opening credits of the BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley feature an aerial shot of the Stokenchurch Gapmarker. This is a major excavation which eases the M40 motorway from the Chilterns into the Vale of Oxfordmarker. It is between junctions 5 and 6. The chalk that forms the hills can clearly be seen on both sides of the cutting when driving on the motorway.


In pre-Roman times, the Chiltern ridge provided a relatively safe and easily negotiable route across southern Iron Age England, thus the Icknield Waymarker (one of England's ancient prehistoric trackways) follows the line of the hills.

One of the principal Roman settlement in the Roman province of Britannia Superior was sited at Verulamiummarker (now St Albansmarker) and there are significant Roman and Romano-British remains in the area.

The Tudor had a hunting lodge in the Hemel Hempsteadmarker area.


Until the coming of the railways and, later, the motor-car, the Chilterns were largely ruralmarker with country towns situated on the main routes through the hills. The position of the hills, northwest of London, has affected the routing of major road, rail and canal routes. These were funnelled through convenient valleys (eg, High Wycombemarker, Hemel Hempsteadmarker) and encouraged settlement and, later, commuter housing.

List of towns and villages in, or adjacent to, the Chilterns


The hills have been exploited for their natural resources for millennia. The chalk has been quarried for the manufacture of cement. Beechwoods supplied furniture makers with quality hardwood. The area was once (and still is to a lesser degree) renowned for its chair-making industry, centred on the towns of Cheshammarker and High Wycombe (the nickname of Wycombe Wanderers Football Club is the Chairboys). The clean water from the aquifer is still used for public supply and the rivers and streams have fed watercress beds. The chalk of the hills is an important aquifer, exploited to provide water supplies in the area; it has been suggested that over-exploitation has led to the disappearance of some streams.

In a region short of building stone, local clay deposits and timber provided the raw materials for brick manufacture. Where available, flint was also used for construction; it is still used in modern buildings, although restricted to decoration to give a vernacular appearance.

Mediaeval strip parishes reflected the diversity of land from clay farmland, through wooded slopes to downland. Their boundaries were often drawn to include a section of each type of land, resulting in an irregular county boundary between, say, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. These have tended to be smoothed out by successive reorganisations.

In modern times, as people have come to appreciate open country, the area has become a visitor destination and the National Trust has acquired land to preserve its character, for example at Ashridgemarker, near Tringmarker. In places, with the reduction of sheep grazing, action has been taken to maintain open downland by suppressing the natural growth of scrub and birch woodland. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Youth Hostels Association established several youth hostels for people visiting the hills.

The hills have been used as a location for telecommunication relay stations such as Stokenchurch BT Towermarker and that at Zouches Farmmarker.


The Chilterns are not a National Park and do not, therefore, possess their own planning authority. The Chilterns Conservation Board has an advisory role on planning and development matters and seeks to influence the actions of local government by commenting upon planning application.

The local authorities (four County Councils, one Unitary Authority and ten District and Borough Councils) are expected to respect the area's status as a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Chiltern Hundreds

The Chilterns includes the Chiltern Hundreds. By established custom, Members of the British Parliament may apply for the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds as a device to resign their seats, despite an ordinance to the contrary (see Resignation from the House of Commons).


  1. Chiltern Society, The Chilterns.
  2. L. W. Hepple and A. M. Doggett, The Chilterns, 2nd ed, Phillimore, 1994, ISBN 0-85033-833-6, page 7.
  3. B.S. Nau, C. R. Boon, and J. P. Knowles, Bedfordshire Wildlife, Castlemead, 1987, ISBN 0-948555-05-X, page 71.
  4. Chilterns Conservation Board

See also

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