The parish of Checkendon lies on the south side of the Chiltern Hills, in the rolling country which runs down to the Thames Valley some 6 km to the south. The parish covers about 1500 ha and lies between 150m and 170m above sea level. The chalk slopes of the Chilterns support grasslands and are interspersed with extensive areas of gravel (glacial deposits from the last ice age) which are covered with beech forests. In the nineteenth century, sheep were raised on the higher grassland slopes of the chalk hills, while cattle-raising and arable farming took place on the lower lands. Cattle and sheep are now the main farming enterprises. The beech forests supported a cottage industry that produced furniture and other wooden articles; today there is some feeling of softwood for fence posts and a workshop for treating wood together with two small furniture workshops. The former blacksmith’s workshop has been replaced by a car repair business. There are two flourishing equestrian establishments. The Post Office and stores, three public houses, self-employment, and various other small businesses complete the employment activities in Checkendon. However, the neighboring village of Stoke Row has a small industrial estate. Checkendon and Stoke Row provide more local employment than most villages in the country.
Seventy years ago – perhaps even up to the late 1940s – most people of Checkendon would have worked in agriculture or craft industries which served the farms (blacksmithing and carpentry for example). Today, only a very small proportion of the working adults earn a living from the land (the proportion nationally is under 2% and falling). Extensive modernization of British agriculture has not only reduced the number of people working directly on the land but has also centralized the services which support farmers: instead of being provided by local craftsmen and firms, tend to be the business of large companies which cover whole regions or the entire country. In some areas, farmers still call on part-time helpers art critical periods such as haymaking, but otherwise, farming is a specialist occupation restricted to a small minority of the community.
As a result, the agricultural economy of the parish cannot employ all the residents of working age. More isolated villages have lost many of their native residents, for the younger people have no choice but to migrate out in search of work. In Checkendon’s case, towns such as Reading, Henley, and Oxford are within commuting distance (by car) and a number of government establishments provide some employment within the area. Of course, many of Checkendon’s young people will have migrated out, but not as many as from more isolated communities of, for example, the Scottish or Welsh highlands.
In those villages in the South of England which are not greatly isolated, almost the reverse has been happening: particularly since the late 1950s, people have been moving out of towns to villages such as Checkendon. Some have retired from work, but many others will commute to their job, even to London. Thus in any villages from which motorways or railways are easily accessible, there are two sets of residents: those born and bred there, who tend to work in the parish or nearby; and those who have recently settled, who work or have retired from employment well away from the parish.
Unlike some neighboring villages, such as Sonning Common and (to a lesser extent) Stoke Row, Checkendon has not seen a great expansion of the new building. Thus the two trends – outward migration of natives and inward settlement of newcomers – have almost balanced each other out. The present population of Checkendon village is around 500 people: the same as recorded from the whole parish in the national census of 1931.
The area has a long history of settlement and the parish itself has a record of continuous settlement since the seventh century AD. Under the name Cecadene (Old English: Ceaca’s hill or hill-pasture) it is listed in the Domesday Book, a national inventory of land ownership and resources which was complied between 1086 and 1090 for taxation purposes. But it is to the parish church that we look for evidence of later parish history, of which it is a focus on a number of senses. To begin with, it is the oldest building in the village: the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul was built in the twelfth century by friars from the monastery of Bec in Normandy and probably replaced an earlier timber building which in turn replaced an earlier pagan structure. The tower and porch were added in the fifteenth century. As the central institution of village life for many centuries, the parish church both symbolizes and preserves the continuity of the community’s history. A careful study provides remarkable insights into the community: the notices pinned up in the porch reveal the voluntary activities connected with the church; and the memorial inscriptions within identify prominent local families and give some of the backgrounds to church organization over the centuries (the rectors of the Parish are listed from the year 1222, together with their patrons). It is the church that the major events affecting the community are recorded: the lych-gate, for example, commemorates the men who fell in the two World Wars; while the parish registers preserve records of births, marriages, and deaths.
As often, the parish church marks the site of the original settlement: across the road can be seen several splendid examples of timber-framed buildings, among them the old smithy, the former post office, and the village pub. Next to the church is the complex of the primary school, village hall and new rectory. Unlike many villages in which the houses are densely clustered together, Checkendon is a dispersed linear settlement. But it does have a focus – at the church. Opposite the church is the village playing field that the community bought from its owner just after the last World War. In many other villages, the playing field was formerly common, wherein past centuries villagers could graze their animals and gather firewood, but in Checkendon this is not the case: although there is a small green in front of the church. Along the north-east side of the playing field is an area of later settlement; most of the houses having been built in the twentieth century. Here the Post Office store is to be found. Around and about the village are dotted a number of country houses, the seats of prominent families; the largest is Checkendon Court (built in the sixteenth century) which lies to the northwest of the village.
The public affairs of Checkendon are administered by the County Council (with its seat at Oxford) and the District Council (at Crowmarsh); insofar as these affairs relate to the regular services (education, police, health, refuse collection, etc.) Checkendon has its own primary school, run by a headmaster and 2.5 teachers with about 90 children attending. The older children go to secondary school at Woodcote. Like many villages, Checkendon does not have a resident policeman but is served by a policeman who covers several villages in the area.
Although individual parishes do not directly administer the major public services each village is able to exert influence over events within its boundaries. Each village has its own Parish Council, which is elected, although formal elections are held only when there are more candidates than seats. Parish Councils control only the public property of the village – usually the common land, the playing field, and the village hall. Yet the Parish Council exercises far more influence than its direct responsibilities suggest. With respect to the lager administrative bodies (the District and County Councils; on occasion, the central government at Westminster) the Parish Council acts as a pressure group representing the interests of the village.
There are many different kinds of voluntary associations in the village; those which are linked with various bodies (the church, and the school, for example); those which involve specific groups of people (clubs for the young or elderly, an emergency transport service); and those which cater for specific interests (for example the cricket club). All these associations have their own leaders or management committees – and it is through the associations that a large amount of voluntary work is undertaken in the community. Like many villages, Checkendon prefers to organize as much of its affairs as possible in its own way. Thus many tasks, for which it could on the assistance of the County or District Councils, are done by voluntary labor (the keeping up of the playing field and the children’s playground, are examples) or by employing a resident for the job. Many other matters, which are beyond the terms of reference of the County and District Councils, are taken in hand either by the Parish Council or by one or other of the voluntary associations. For example, the sports pavilion on the playing field was built by volunteers, the materials having been provided by the Parish Council. Volunteers with local materials and expertise built the children’s playground completed in 1985. In such ways, the community preserves its independence and, no less importantly, its privacy.
Mike Smith, The University of Reading, 1980
Revised 1986-2005, Mary Weller, resident of Checkendon