Silwood, Sovereigns & a Spa
Sunninghill means ‘Sunna’s People’s Hill’ referring to a supposed early Anglo-Saxon leader, Sunna, whose followers probably 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 with the adjoining kingdom of ‘Surrey’ (the Southern Kingdom).
The area was originally part of 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 stone in about 1120. For much of its life it was under the control of the 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 political writer, George Ellis, and his friend, Sir Walter Scott, was a frequent visitor, along with other members of literary society.
Much of this area was open heath and woodland frequented by bandits who preyed on travellers moving west from London, as well as out of Windsor. 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.
In the later 18th century however, the rich began to carve out small estates in the area. The earliest manor house had stood in the Cheapside area and was known as ‘Eastmore,’ but it was eventually moved to Silwood Park. This was purchased by a parliamentarian, John Aldridge, in 1673. He became a wealthy tanner, using bark from the estate. In 1788, James Sibbald, a banker, purchased Silwood and built a fine Georgian mansion on the other side of the park by displacing many of the villagers to Cheapside. This was replaced in 1876-8 by the present house, 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. Unfortunately, stories of ‘King’s Wick,’ an old house which stood at the southern end of Nell Gwynne’s Avenue, being this lady's residence seem to have been due to confusion with the Gwynne family of Frogmore who owned land in Sunninghill.
Sunninghill Park was anciently a Royal hunting lodge. Records show that it was from there that Prince Arthur, the eldest son of King Henry VII, wrote a letter to All Souls’ College, Oxford in 1499, while his brother, King Henry VIII, held a Royal Council there in 1542. King Charles I sold the park 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 (since demolished). The park is said to be haunted by ghostly horses.
Sunninghill began to grow as a village 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 pan-Asian 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. More widespread expansion occured after the building of of the railway station in 1856.
Many thanks to Christine Weightman for suggested improvements
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