White Hart Crest of the Royal County of Berkshire David Nash Ford's Royal Berkshire History

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Wild Things

Sulham is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning 'Gully Home'. The name fits well, for the old parish (now combined with Tidmarsh) stretches from Purley down to Theale along the eastern side of the Pang Valley where a small stream runs in parallel at the foot of the ridge covered by Sulham & Boxgrove Woods. The valley may have been the site some conflict between the Saxons and the Vikings around the time of the Battle of Englefield in AD 870, as suggested by the surviving field names, 'Breaches' and 'Deanfield' (or Danefield). The old parish contains two small settlements, Sulham and Nunhide, both based on ancient manors. A third smaller estate, mentioned in the Domesday Survey (1086) as held under Miles Crispin of Wallingford, probably merged into that of Purley Hall. The parishes of Purley, Sulham and Pangbourne once met in the dining room there. The Wilders of Sulham bought the hall in 1773 and it remained a popular home with them into the 1830s.

The poetic name Nunhide is a corruption of 'One Hide,' a hide being a measure of land; although the current form may have been influenced by the fact that it was owned by the nuns of Goring Priory in the Middle Ages. An erroneous legend suggests, however, that it was named after the secret retreat of a nun who ran away from the Anglo-Saxon Nunnery in Reading. At Domesday, it was one of the Berkshire properties of Theodoric the Goldsmith, centred on Hampstead Norreys. A German immigrant, this man was the finest gold and silver craftsman in London both before and after the Conquest. He mainly lived at Kennington in Surrey but, in Berkshire, he also held five manors with good woodland, like at Sulham, for smelting his precious metals. Wilder family legend states that the manor of Nunhide was given to Nicholas Nunhide in April 1497 by King Henry VII in thanks for his having rode into battle with him against King Richard III at Bosworth Field twelve years before. If true, either there was an early Nicholas who has left no record, or he survived to a great age, dying in 1542. By that time the Wilders were certainly living in Sulham parish, almost certainly at Nunhide which they leased from the Forsters of Aldermaston Court and earlier manor lords. Thomas Wilder eventually purchased the estate in 1632 and the present house largely dates from his time, although it did remodel an earlier building. 'Wilder's Folly' on Nunhide Hill is traditionally said to have been erected by Rev. Henry Wilder in 1768 as a token of his love for his future wife, Jane Thoyts, from Sulhamstead House. There was once an outside wooden staircase to the windowed meeting room and the building was supposedly positioned so the two lovers could both see it from their respective homes - which seems unlikely. Some people think it is of an earlier date, built as a folly for Rev. John Wilder in the 1730s. Others favour a later date, being built as a beacon or look-out tower during the Napoleonic Wars. It was also said to have been converted into a dovecote in Victorian times, but where the doves would nest is something of a mystery.

In 1712, the Wilders purchased the newly rebuilt Sulham House and switched residences. This house still remains hidden behind the present façade which encased it in 1839. Much of the village was also then rebuilt in the whimsical cottage orné style for which it is now famous. The Wilders lived at Sulham House for nearly two hundred years. Five members of the family over five generations, throughout the 19th century, were also rectors at the church next door which they rebuilt in 1836. The last of their number died in 2009, but the estate is still owned by their descendants, the Scutt family. The manor of Sulham had been one of those owned by Godric, the Ealdorman (or Sheriff) of Berkshire during the reign of King Edward the Confessor. It would have made a convenient stopping place between Wallingford an Reading, the two major towns under his control. William the Conqueror gave the place to William de Cailly but he rented it out to an unnamed man-at-arms (or cavalryman). There were six smallholders and four villagers and their families, along with two slaves also in residence in the manor. By the early 13th century, it belonged to a family who took their name from the village, the De Sulhams. Their heirs appears to have been the St. Philibert family. Sit Hugh served with King Edward I in Scotland and Flanders and his son, Sir John (born in Sulham), with Edward III in Scotland and Gascony where became Mayor of Bordeaux. They seem to have been a pious family, fond of pilgrimage. Sir John travelled to Saint Iago in Spain to see the body of St. James, whose hand he had, no doubt, viewed at Reading Abbey. His son, another John, was illegally arrested in Pisa, whilst on a pilgrimage to Rome at the age of only twelve. He later joined the retinue of the Black Prince and was made Lord St. Philibert, but he sold Sulham in 1352.  


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