Silwood, Sovereigns & a Spa
Sunninghill is the most south-easterly parish in Berkshire and the parish stretches over Ascot as well as Sunninghill itself. The ‘Devil’s Highway’ follows much of the border with Surrey. It was the old Roman road from London to Silchester and is said that ghostly Roman soldiers still march along its route!
The place-name means ‘Sunna’s People’s Hill’ referring to the early Saxon leader, Sunna, who set up a small kingdom in Eastern Berkshire. Centred on Sonning, it was called ‘Sunningum’. His name is particularly remembered at Sunninghill because it lay on the boundary of his kingdom with ‘Surrey’ (the Southern Kingdom).
The area was originally part of the manor of Cookham which lay in Windsor Forest and the inhabitants were scattered throughout the woodland. They would only come together on Sundays, at Sunninghill Church, which was first built in about 1120. For much of its life it was under the control of the poor nunnery of Bromhall, situated on the edge of adjoining Sunningdale. It was completely rebuilt in Victorian times, but one of the original Norman doorways was discovered in a garden wall and has since been restored. The church is chiefly noted for the chapel to the memory of Thomas Holloway, who founded nearby Royal Holloway College. He is buried in the churchyard, along with Sir Henry Riggs Popham, the Naval Commander in charge of the expedition which won the Cape of Good Hope for Britain. The house called ‘The Cedars’, next to the church was once the property of the poet, George Ellis, and his friend, Sir Walter Scott, was a frequent visitor, along with other members of literary society.
The independent manor of Sunninghill seems to have emerged in the mid-14th century and it was purchased by a leading local man, John de Sunninghill in 1362. His manor house was probably in Silwood Park. By Tudor times it was known as ‘Eastmore’ and this was probably from where Prince Arthur, the eldest son of King Henry VII, wrote a letter to All Souls’ College, Oxford in 1499. He liked to hunt in this area and his brother, King Henry VIII, certainly had a hunting lodge in Sunninghill. He held a Royal Council there in 1542, but this may have been at ‘King’s Wick’, an old house, which stood by the roundabout between the village and the church. Nell Gwynne is supposed to have lodged there while attending King Charles II at Windsor Castle.
Sunninghill Park was part of Windsor Forest until King Charles I sold it to the Hon. Thomas Carey in 1630. His wife was the daughter and heiress of Justice Sir Thomas Smith of Abingdon. The old house was a late Georgian stucco building, but this burnt down and was rebuilt in very modern style as a home for Prince Andrew. The park is haunted by ghostly horses. Silwood Park was the site of the old manor. It was purchased by a parliamentarian, John Aldridge, in 1673. He was allowed to fell trees in the Great Park and subsequently became a timber baron, as well as a wealthy tanner. In 1788, James Sibbald, a banker, purchased the estate and built a fine Georgian mansion on the other side of the park. This was replaced in 1876-8 by the present house, said to have been designed by Sir Alfred Waterhouse. Other large houses in the area include Tittenhurst Park built in 1737; and the Oaks (now the Royal Berkshire Hotel), built in 1705 for Charles Churchill (son of the 1st Duke of Marlborough) whose wife was the housekeeper at Windsor Castle.
Sunninghill developed as a small town during the 18th century due partly to the popularity of Ascot Races, but largely because of the chalybeate spa at the Wells Inn (now a Moroccan Restaurant). Since the discovery of the health-giving spring there the previous century, it was one of the places to be seen among the Society People from Windsor. In its heyday, it was as popular as Bath or Tunbridge Wells, but its clientele were much more exclusive and it was even frequented by Royalty. They were not welcomed by everyone however. For, though the local people formed a militia unit, the loyal ‘Sunninghill Infantry,’ in the 1790s, the parish was quarrelling with the Royals. George III had built his kennels on the local common grazing land at Ascot Heath. There were further proposals for a boat house on Sunninghill common land, on the edge of Virginia Water and compensation was demanded. The Virginia Water is partly in Northern Sunninghill. It was created by the Duke of Cumberland, the Ranger of Windsor Forest who lived at Cumberland Lodge, in 1753. It had previously been a tiny stream which fed Sunninghill Mill. The Duke was also a keen horse breader and racer, and it was his influence which made Ascot into the popular racecourse it is today. Though, unfortunately, this eventually meant the complete loss of the common land at Ascot Heath through the Windsor Forest Enclosure Act of 1813.
Still the Royal family was preferred to less desirable visitors to Sunninghill. The parish register contains the following entry:
A certain highwayman, whose name we know not, attempted to rob the Salisbury Stage Coach, near Kingswick Beech in this parish, was shot with a brace of bullets by a gentleman who was in ye coach on Monday the 20th Day of March 1704 and was buried here on Wednesday following.
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