This article is from "Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford" by Norman Hidden, 2009.
A mile and a half from Hungerford on the right hand side of the A338 road to Wantage, a signpost indicates a turning to Great Hidden Farm. A mile further along the same road, on the left hand side, another turning leads to Little Hidden Farm. Across the road is a house known as Little Hidden and a hundred yards or so downhill to Newtown are two semi-detached cottages known as Hidden cottages. Turning left at Newtown for about a furlong along New Hayward’s Bottom, a track leads to North Hidden Farm. Two miles north of North Hidden Farm is, paradoxically, South Hidden Farm.
When my wife and I first toured this area we talked to several local inhabitants, but none knew the origin of these names. Yet Hidden is a thousand year old place name, the first recorded mention of which goes back to the reign of the Anglo-Saxon king Ethelred. Hidden, spelt then Hyddene, was mentioned in a land charter signed by King Ethelred in the year 984 AD.
As a personal name Hidden is equally unusual. For years Dictionaries of Surnames failed to list it. The Penguin Book of Surnames was the first to include Hidden, giving as its derivation two Angle-Saxon words hythe + den meaning a landing place in a valley. The family who acquired this surname would seem to have originated from this ‘landing place in a valley’. One might have searched everywhere for such a vaguely defined spot which once existed in Anglo-Saxon England, but fortunately the Penguin book added Berkshire as the county of its origin.
Our study of contemporary gazetteers revealed no place in Berkshire named Hidden. Then I stumbled on Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Directory published in 1835, and it listed Hiddon ‘a joint tithing with Eddington’. Eddington is on the north side of the river Kennet from Hungerford, and a modern large scale Ordnance Survey map soon revealed the four Hidden farms. The visit my wife and I made to the area was, for us, like a homecoming.
And what a glorious summer day we had chosen. The sun beat down on the Berkshire wheatlands, the cattle dozed in the shade of the oaks; we climbed from the valley of the rivers Dun and Kennet to the northern hills some five hundred feet or more above sea level.
Everywhere the farms took us off the beaten track into oases of quiet, an atmosphere where time, like the still air of that summer afternoon, seemed to stand still.
First, there was Great Hidden Farm, which about 1969 became part of the Eddington estate of Lord Fermoy. In Elizabethan times the farmhouse was the manor house of Hidden and many of its oak beams seemed as though they might well have belonged to the original building. The house, despite the additions and alterations that have been made to it over the centuries, has a character of its own, and looks out southwards on to a charming small garden.
Little Hidden Farm is also set well back from the road, a little further up the slopes of the beginning downs. The farm manager there came out to show us around and he told us that the house had been rebuilt several times and the foundations had been discovered of an earlier building whose bricks dated it as being some four centuries old. This date fits exactly with the period of the rise of the Tudor Hiddens, whose fortunes were founded by John Hidden (died 1549).
John Hidden had been a sharp, alert farmer of not very clear antecedents, who was of some local assistance to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s minister, in his policy of dissolving the monasteries and in particular that of nearby Poughley. In the upheaval that this policy brought about John Hidden increased his own landholdings and acquired the lease of the manor of Hidden, formerly in the possession of the dissolved priory of St.Frideswide.
All such past events seemed a long time ago amid the peaceful Berkshire countryside as we motored from Little Hidden Farm to that of North Hidden, which though less distinguished in appearance than the others, retains the typical shape of these farms – a long rectangular building on the hillside, set apart from the main roads. From North Hidden Farm we drove northwards to South Hidden Farm. The reason for this apparent contradiction is that the first farm is the most northerly in the parish of Hungerford and the latter is in the south part of the parish of Shefford. All clear enough in the old days, but very puzzling to those from afield who consult their maps and no doubt decide that this is just another of those peculiarities with which English life is studded.
South Hidden Farm seemed almost deserted, but it was a fitting end to our visit, for it brought us to the highest point yet attained, 550 feet above sea level. The white of the downs lay beneath our feet.
Only a few inches of topsoil covered a vast hillside of chalk, but those few inches provided the base for a wonderful harvest of wheat, golden in the sun. The air was fresh on that otherwise still day, and the view southwards was spectacular, looking down the hillside past Newtown, beyond Saxon Eddington, past Norman Hungerford, over the valley with its virtually pre-historic landing place, to the hills of Inkpen on the other side.
With this beautiful landscape as the finale to our local pilgrimage and visitation, we suddenly felt what it must have been like to be a landowner, a Berkshire yeoman in the free and spacious days when these farms came into being, during the reigns of the Tudor monarchs, and perhaps some suggestion too of what it must have been like in those even earlier years, before the farms themselves existed, when there was a manor of Hidden long before the medieval town of Hungerford was even thought of or could have been imagined in the days before the Norman Conquest.
And where was the landing place in the valley? Our guess was that it was where the rivers Dun and Kennet join, the manor lands lying back, as was customary, in a strip from the river itself to the hillside woodlands in the hinterland.
That first visit to Hungerford took place over 30 years ago. Before Norman and I set off back home, we called at what was then Blakeway’s Bookshop in Bridge Street. This led in turn to an introduction to the Hungerford Historical Association and its founders, Hugh and Lois Pihlens. Norman was invited to speak to the Association on the Manor of Hidden, his own ancestry and the records of it dating from the mid-fifteenth century. Over the following years, continuing to delve into ‘Hidden’ research, he amassed much historical material on the Town of Hungerford itself, and when he was diagnosed as suffering from Lymphoma in 2002, he began to put all his collected notes into order so that it would be of use to future researchers. He completed the bulk of this and managed to get a photocopy of the manuscript to the Historical Association a few months before his death in 2006.
In his recollection of our first visit to Hungerford, Norman wrote, ‘for us it was like a homecoming’. The laying to rest of his ashes last year, in a meadow, which was once part of the Manor of Hidden, plus the publishing of ‘Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford’, must mean that his ‘homecoming’ is now complete.
Joyce Hidden, August 2009.