White Hill, A40 Road, Beaconsfield

Nominated by: Andrew Wyllie CBE

As a civil engineer, I am passionate about the profound impact that our work can have on the society in which we live. Sometimes, those engineering schemes are high-profile or become iconic landmarks, like the St Pancras high-speed rail terminus in London, that I was fortunate enough to be involved in constructing.

Often, those engineering schemes are more modest in scale, but still have a significant impact on the community they support. My Bucks 100 Object is one such scheme. I live in the lovely market town of Beaconsfield in south Buckinghamshire. A town that developed over hundreds of years due to its position as an important coaching stop on the historic road between London and Oxford.

Beaconsfield had geography on its side, located at the top of a dry hill at the summit of a gradual climb out of London, with soil of mostly gravel overlaying chalk. This was important for roads at a time when most highways were impassable for long periods of the year.

As trade flourished, so did the desire for increased speed. In 1667, it was recorded that a “flying coach has this year been set up to run from Oxford to London, it leaves at 6 in the morning and is clear into London at 7 in the evening. This is a marvellous feat in the annals of travelling”!

Despite the flying coach, most travellers continued to break their journey at Beaconsfield for food and rest. The great demand for coaching inns is reflected in many of the buildings that still exist in the Old Town today.

Those travellers would also have been glad to reach Beaconsfield as a place of safety. Unlike the gradual climb into Beaconsfield from London, the approach from Oxford to the west was notorious and required coaches to navigate the steep climb on a badly surfaced road out of the marshes of the Wye Valley up the hill to Holtspur.

This, unfortunately, presented ideal conditions for attack by Highwaymen on the slow-moving coaches being pulled by tired horses. Such were the frequency of attacks, as shown on the Ordnance Survey map, the wood west of Beaconsfield through which the road passed is still known as Cut-throat Wood with the adjacent Highwayman’s Farm.

The solution, along with the demand for better roads, was eventually provided by the elder Brunel through what was considered at the time a great engineering feat. He reduced the height of the hill by cutting White Hill through the top of the escarpment, using the material to make an embankment across the valley.

Perhaps not much to look at today if you are driving west down the hill out of Beaconsfield along the old A40, but you are unlikely to be asked to “Stand and Deliver!” This little stretch of road is steeped in history, and Buckinghamshire continues to flourish as a place to live and work because of its high-quality infrastructure thanks to civil engineering Objects like the one at White Hill!

White Hill was nominated by Andrew Wyllie CBE, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 2019.