The River Wye is one of a number of important chalk streams in the Chilterns. Chalk streams are an internationally rare habitat and support a wide variety of wildlife, including some of the UK’s most endangered species.
The Wye flows for about 10.5 miles (17km) from West Wycombe through High Wycombe, Loudwater and Wooburn Green to its confluence with the River Thames at Bourne End. It has two main tributaries, the Hughenden Stream and the Wycombe Marsh Brook which both, like the Wye, are fed from fresh water springs that rise up through the Chiltern chalk.
The Course of the Wye
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The source of the Wye varies from year to year. This is a characteristic of chalk streams, most of which have what is called a winterbourne section. In most years, the river rises from springs within a small copse in the fields alongside Chorley Road to the north-west of West Wycombe. In early 2013, the river flowed from as far as Inver Farm in Radnage. However, following the heavy rains of winter 2000/2001, it flowed from springs rising even further up the valley just south of Radnage Church.
The river’s course takes it through West Wycombe Park, where it was incorporated into the 18th century landscaping of the house, its gardens and estate, forming several watercourses, a lake and a cascade. The house and gardens are owned by the National Trust. Visitors to the property can see most of the watercourses, although an old sawmill (now Sawmill House) and its adjoining streams are within a private part of the estate.
The Wye continues through Park Farm, also part of the West Wycombe Estate, to reach Chapel Lane at the unusual Pepperpots Bridge. From there, it continues through a culvert beneath a furniture factory and a small public park near to where Francis Mill (a paper mill) was built in the 17th century. To the east of Mill End Road, the river runs through Desborough Recreation Ground. A back stream starting in West Wycombe Estate flows along the southern side of Desborough Park before rejoining the main river.
The Wye then flows as a single watercourse through a predominately industrial area before reaching a small public open space near Westbourne Passage where West Wycombe Road joins Oxford Road. Lord Mill, a corn/paper mill dating from 1717, and Ash Mill, a paper mill dating from 1596, were located along this section of the river, although there is little evidence remaining to indicate their actual location.
The Hughenden Stream joins the Wye shortly after it enters the town centre culvert. The Hughenden rarely flows above the pumping station at the foot of Cryers Hill, but the roadside ditches in Warrendene Road and the contours of the North Dean valley beyond the Harrow pub indicate that it has the potential to flow from either or both of these valleys in unusually wet years. Although classed as a winterbourne, the Hughenden has a history of ceasing to flow entirely, not just in summer but for several years, following a succession of dry periods.
Unfortunately, the route of the Wye through the centre of High Wycombe cannot be seen until it emerges from a culvert at the back of the fire station by the Swan Theatre. From there it passes under a bridge in Queen Victoria Road to emerge for a short stretch in the small gardens by the side of the Council Offices, before submerging again under the A40 and reappearing close to the entrance to the Rye public open space.
The Rye through to Loudwater
Eastwards from the town centre as far as Loudwater, the majority of the main stream has public access where it runs alongside the Rye, Holywell Mead, Wye Dene, the Wycombe Marsh Retail Park, London Road, King’s Mead, and Boundary Park. As well as the main river, a backstream, often called Wycombe Marsh Brook, flows from the spring-fed watercourses in Wycombe Abbey grounds via the Dyke, a wide artificial watercourse alongside the south side of the Rye and part of Holywell Mead. It continues via Marsh Green, along Bowden Lane, between the Wye Dene development and the former railway track and then along Kingsmead Road and the south side of King’s Mead to rejoin the main river at Boundary Park. Additional side streams at the eastern end of the Rye and in Boundary Park at Loudwater are legacies of former mills. The Beech Road ford, adjacent to Kingsmead Road, and the deep river channel near its junction with Station Road in Loudwater are also linked to historic mills.
The complex system of watercourses between Loudwater and Wooburn Green also dates back to the numerous former water mills in that area. A very good remaining example is near the junction of Knaves Beech Road and Boundary Road where some of the leats of the former Hedge Mill can still be seen. Former mill ponds and side streams relating to the former Glory Mill are still visible, some having been retained as landscaping features within redevelopment schemes.
The Wye re-emerges into a rural landscape at the bottom of Holtspur Hill from where it crosses meadows to the foot of Windsor Hill before winding its way round Wooburn Manor Park to Town Lane, alongside Wooburn Park Recreation Ground, and then Brookbank at Cores End.
Much of the Wye between Cores End and the confluence with the Thames near Andrews Reach, apart from Claytons Meadow Recreation Ground, has no public access. Views of the river however can be seen from road bridges within housing areas and within the modern business parks in Bourne End where the river has been incorporated within the landscaping.
A Historical Note
The Wye is historically very important. Its waters attracted human life into the Wye Valley and led to the development of the settlements that lie along its course. The Wye was a source of food and water and also the power that at one time drove over 30 mill wheels along its length. Many of the mills that initially ground corn into flour or made ‘fulling’ cloth later changed to making paper, for which the Wye Valley became a major centre. Some reverted to corn milling following consolidation in the paper making industry. The Wye mills gained national attention in 1830 when many hand-paper makers rioted, smashing some of the new paper making machines that had replaced them. With its close proximity to the Chiltern woodlands, the river also powered saw mills and other machinery that supported the local furniture industries.
Over time, the natural course of the river was extensively modified to facilitate milling and also, in its rural areas, to create water features in private parklands or to aid farming. These developments, especially the industrialisation of the Wye Valley and the density of housing, much of poor quality, that followed, had a dramatic impact on both the landscape of the River Wye and its water quality.
The pollution caused by industrialisation has been reduced significantly in modern times, but the Wye still remains vulnerable to the type of incidents and abuse that often unfortunately occur when a fresh water river runs through a large town. That means that the river course and its tributaries and back-streams need to be managed to maintain and improve, wherever possible, the characteristics of a Chiltern chalk stream – hence the need for the Revive the Wye initiative.
Read Silt Road – The Story of a Lost River by Charles Rangeley-Wilson for a historical perspective of the River Wye.