Preston is a small parish in Hertfordshire, made up of approximately 400 people living in around 175 households. The parish benefits from being secluded but with easy access to the rest of the country. The village of Preston, nestling in the countryside 38 miles north of Central London, 4 miles south of the historic market town of Hitchin, is the only major settlement within the parish and is the hub of this happy, peaceful yet thriving, rural community.
Preston is a ‘Chiltern’ parish as, despite its small size, it stretches across the Chiltern escarpment, from the foot of the scarp slope at Wellhead Farm and its spring source of the river Hiz, up the short steep scarp slope by Offley Holes Farm, and then southwards gently down the dip slope to the village and on down to Hitch Wood and the B651 road. These landscape changes in altitude and gradient give subtly changing vistas across the length and breadth of the parish.
Human habitation here for centuries gives us today a man-made landscape of woodland, grassland, hedges and much arable farmland. This varied land use adds to the visual attractiveness of the parish. Hitch Wood, WainWood and West Wood are today the remnants of more extensive forests which provided fuel and food for families as well as hunting and shooting opportunities for the gentry.
One of Preston’s charms is that the village is not overlooked or dominated by hills or high ground. At 143 metres, the village is only 10 metres below the highest point of Hertfordshire. The drawback to this sense of spaciousness is Preston’s exposure to the bleak easterly winds that sweep in seemingly unchecked from Siberia. www.prestonherts.co.uk/page148.html
Preston was part of the parish of Hitchin, becoming a separate civil parish in 1894. Documents, artefacts and structures which survive from, or, in this parish give us today a glimpse of the life of our predecessors here. Perhaps two periods of significance in the last 1200 years are uniquely interesting: the medieval and Tudor era from c. 1140 –1540, and the early 20th Century from 1900 –1927. Little remains from the earlier period; from the later period, much can be seen and is still in use today.
The name Prestune is first mentioned in a document in 1185, but the manor of Dinsley is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086, and it may well have existed for decades before that date. This manor was taken over by the new King, William I, and the entry records that 180 people lived there in about 40 houses; it was a sizeable population.
The King then gave his large manor of Hitchin to a loyal aristocratic family, the de Balliols. In c.1095 Bernard de Balliol built Dinsley Castle in this area. This structure, probably of flint walls and timber roofs, may have lasted for 200 years; its presence gave status to the agricultural village. No trace of its foundations now exists; its legacy is in the name, Castle Farm
The international monastic and military Order of the Knights Templar in the person of its first Grand Master, Hugh de Payens, reached England from the continent in 1127. Before 1142, this Order had established a religious house and estate at Dinsley. In that year, generous gifts of land, money, two mills, certain rights and privileges, and of ‘the men of the land’ were given by King Stephen and by Bernard de Balliol, to this house. It became ‘the most important preceptory of the Templars in the British Isles outside London’. Its buildings included a hall, a bake house, a chapel, a smithy, and also a graveyard. Between 1200 and 1310, several important annual assemblies or Chapters of the Order in England were held at Temple Dinsley. Thus, living quarters for the Preceptor and his staff, for the visiting knights and their servants, and their horses, must have been available on the estate. King Henry III and his entourage paid one visit to a Chapter meeting at Temple Dinsley.
After the dissolution of this Order in 1307, the estate was transferred to the Order of the Knights Hospitaller, and they remained as owners until 1540. Some documents, and a few artefacts –an effigy and a grave cover, both in the valuable Purbeck marble, and 17 medieval glazed floor tiles, survive from this period of high status for this area. No trace of these buildings now exists aboveground level; again, the legacy is in the name, Temple Dinsley, for a later house on the site, and also Temple End, at the northern boundary of the parish.
The Temple Dinsley house and its estate continued to be the economic and social focus of the parish from 1542 through to 1935. A succession of families or their tenants made their home there; some were able to enlarge the house and its outbuildings, and to develop the gardens and the park.
Several individuals held county or national positions of influence, and several, by their own philanthropy, contributed to the built environment of the village we enjoy today.
Benedict Ithell, banker, built a new mansion in 1714, Elizabeth Darton built the National school in 1818, and William Henry Darton, her grandson, paid for the sinking of a well to a depth of 211’ on the Green in 1872. A sale catalogue of 1873 tells us that the estate comprised the mansion and its park, 3 farms, 40 cottages and The Chequers Inn. In 1874, Henry Pryor gave just over six acres of his land for about 30 new allotments off School Lane, and then, in 1900, his son, Ralston, gave one acre of land for the site of the new church.
The early 20th century saw a spate of high quality developments, mostly from the owners of Temple Dinsley. The Macmillan family, book publishers, contributed generously to the building and furnishing of St. Martin’s church in 1900, James Barrington White, lawyer, built a pair of cottages, one for the village constable, at Crunnells Green in 1905, and his family’s mausoleum in the churchyard in 1906.
Away from the village centre, two substantial houses were constructed at this time, both on high ground with commanding views of open countryside: in the north of the parish, Offley Holes House in the 1890s for the Curling family, and, further east, in 1905, Poynders End by Geoffry Lucas for Hugh Seebohm, banker, and his family. The former house was burned down in 1919; Poynders End still stands. Both of these new ‘country houses’ were built near to older existing farmhouses with their barns and yards, Offley Holes Farm and Poynders End Farm, now Tudor House.
Herbert and Violet Fenwick, bankers, purchased the Temple Dinsley estate in 1908, and quickly engaged the services of Edwin Lutyens, architect, to enlarge the house, and Gertrude Jekyll,designer, to refashion the gardens. Both of these professionals were nationally highly respected for their skills; their work remains today. The Fenwicks continued to employ the Lutyens practice, with the construction of the ‘model farm’ at Ladygrove with its two lodges, the small terrace of Chequers Cottages and Kiln Wood Cottage within this parish, and other premises just beyond the parish boundary.
The innovative and distinctive designs of these buildings must have caused surprise to some villagers, but they provided new facilities and comfort. Douglas Vickers, politician, built Crunnells Green House in 1919 for his estate manager, Reginald Dawson, the Village Hall and four adjacent bungalows in the 1920s, and in 1921 a new Pavilion on his meadow, now the Recreation Field.
Princess Helena College, a private day and boarding school for girls, purchased the Temple Dinsley estate in 1935, and still today enjoys this handsome house and its attractive gardens and park. A Nursery School now makes lively use of the Village Hall on four days each week.
Since the 1950s, the housing stock of the village has increased. For example, pairs of new council houses, using Swedish timber, were built in Chequers Lane. Elsewhere, a small meadow now has four detached houses, a large garden now has a new house and garage, the old school of 1849 was demolished and a new one built in Back Lane, and two new properties built upon the site, short ribbons of new houses were developed along Butchers Lane and Back Lane. The Edwardian farm buildings at Ladygrove have been converted to provide 15 new homes. On the north side of the village, the new short Templars Lane led to space for six bungalows and Castlefield for six more family homes with gardens and garages Small extensions, conservatories, new garages and one swimming pool, have recently been added to our village landscape.
Philanthropy has continued, with the purchase of The Red Lion public house by many villagers in 1983, the restoration of St. Martin’s church and its East window between 1993 and 2001, the building of the new Cricket Club pavilion on the Recreation Field, contributions to the new classrooms and equipment at the Primary School, and, very recently, the provision of an improved broadband service. Created in 1990, the Preston Trust, a registered charity, has amongst its aims the preservation of features of historic or public interest, and the promotion of high standards of planning and architecture, in the parish.
There are 63 listed buildings and structures within the Parish on 41 sites. Thirty three of these are situated in the designated Conservation Area. Two buildings, Princess Helena College, in the Conservation area, and Tudor House are ll*, with the remaining 61 being Grade II.
This is a considerable wealth of buildings of national merit within a small parish. The 13 listed houses include two, Tudor House and Sadleirs End, with material dating back to the early 16th century. The 21 cottages also include two with material of this date, Fig Tree Cottage and Reeves Cottage. The three outlying farms each have several barns of the 17th century. New listed structures from the 20th century, outside the complex at Temple Dinsley, include St. Martin’s church with its mausoleum and its lychgate, two pairs of fine gatepiers and flanking walls at the entrance to Temple Dinsley in 1908, and the telephone kiosk on The Green from 1935
The above is abstracted from Section 3 of the Neighbourhood Plan. There is also more information about the Environment and Heritage of our parish in Appendix C. You can view or download a copy by following this link: Preston Parish Neighbourhood Plan – draft version for the Regulation 14 Consultation