The surface of Berkshire comprises four grand natural divisions: the first is the great Vale of White Horse, which is bounded on the south by the White Horse hills (a continuation of the Chiltern range), on the east and north by the Thames, and on the west by Wiltshire, constituting the whole north-western part of the county. Here, along the banks of the Thames, is a fertile but narrow range of meadows, seldom exceeding half a mile in breadth, from which the land rises in most parts gradually, forming moderately elevated ridges, or distinct eminences. Between these hills and the chalk range, with a gentle inclination towards the south, lies the Vale, properly so called, remarkably productive of every kind of grain and pulse. The next grand division comprises the chalk hills, which form so prominent a feature in the western part of the county, presenting towards the Vale a steep declivity, mostly bare of wood, but clothed with a fine sward. The third great natural division consists of the Vale of the Kennet, containing a variety of richly diversified scenery. The fourth is the Forest district, which comprises the remaining eastern part of the county, being the whole of that lying eastward of the Loddon, except a detached range of chalk hills included between the Thames and an imaginary line drawn from Maidenhead to Wargrave, and which may be considered as forming a collateral part of the second division, or chalk district. The surface of the Forest district is agreeably varied, particularly in Windsor Forest, and the views from Windsor Terrace are of unrivalled beauty; but it contains the greatest quantity of waste land of any in the county, the most extensive tracts of waste being situated on the south side of it, and one of them, called Maidenhead Thicket, on the north.
The soils are various, but those of a chalky or gravelly nature predominate. Owing to the great extent of barren heaths in the south and east parts of the county, and of sheep-walks on the chalk hills, the quantity of land in cultivation does not exceed the general average of the kingdom. The total amount of arable land is computed at 255,000 acres; the rotations of crops are of infinite variety, but wheat and barley are the principal. The natural grass lands, bordering on the rivers, and in the dairy district occupying the western part of the Vale of White Horse, together with other dry pastures, parks, &c. but exclusively of the sheep downs of the chalk districts, are computed to comprise about 97,000 acres, of which 72,000 are included in the Vale. The dairy district includes the greater part of the hundreds of Shrivenham and Farringdon, and smaller portions of those of Ganfield and Wantage; the cheese made in it is for the most part of the kind known by the name of "Single Gloucester," and a large quantity is annually sent down the Thames to the metropolis. The native breed of hogs is the most esteemed of any in Great Britain.
The woodlands occupy about 30,000 acres, much of which consists of coppices, of which those in the Vale of the Kennet supply large quantities of hoops and brooms to the London market. The best wooded tracts are in Windsor Forest, on the south side of the Kennet, and in several parishes to the north of that river; and Bagley wood, near Oxford, is one of the largest. A considerable extent of boggy land in the vicinity of Newbury is planted with alder-trees, the wood of which, at eight or nine years' growth, is there made into rakes, prongs, shafts for mops and besoms, &c. Along the banks of the Thames and on its islands are numerous osier-beds; and in every other suitable situation osier plantations are objects of considerable attention, more especially along the courses of the rivers Kennet and Loddon: the greater part of the produce, after being prepared for the basket-makers, is conveyed by the Thames to London. The celebrated Royal forest of Windsor was formerly of much greater extent than it is at present, having comprised large portions of the counties of Surrey and Bucks, and the whole southeastern part of Berkshire, as far as Hungerford, on the border of Wiltshire: the Vale of the Kennet was disafforested by charter in 1226, and the circuit of the forest is now reduced to about 56 miles. The greater part is under tillage; and Windsor Great Park was reduced by George III. from 3800 to 1800 acres, 2000 acres having been brought into cultivation. The forest is computed to comprehend 69,600 acres, of which about 5500 are inclosed lands belonging to the crown; 29,000, other private property; 600, encroachments upon the wastes; and the remaining 24,500 acres, open forest land, including heaths and water.
Berkshire was formerly one of the principal seats of the clothing-trade, which, about the middle of the 17th century, was carried on to a very considerable extent, particularly at Abingdon, Reading, and Newbury, and in their vicinities. Sacking and sail-cloth were also made at Abiugdon and Wantage; and silk is yet manufactured on a small scale at Wokingham. There are some large breweries, especially at Windsor, which is celebrated for its ale; several paper-mills on the banks of the Kennet; and numerous corn-mills. The principal rivers are the Thames, the Kennet, the Loddon, the Ock, and the Lambourn. The Thames forms the entire northern boundary of Berkshire, in a circuitous course of nearly 105 miles, in the whole of which it is navigable; and is augmented by the influx of all the others before it quits the county. The Kennet is navigable, partly by means of artificial collateral cuts, to its junction with the Thames a little below Reading. The Kennet and Avon canal, constructed under an act obtained in 1794, connects the navigable channel of the former river at Newbury with that of the latter at Bath; the Wiltshire and Berkshire canal, formed under an act obtained in 1795, branches from it, at Simington, in the county of Wilts, and, entering this county at Hackson bridge, near Shrivenham, traverses the Vale of White Horse, to the Thames at Abingdon. The north-western part of the shire also derives some advantage from the Oxford and the Thames and Severn canals; and the south-eastern, from the Basingstoke canal. The Great Western railway enters the county a little to the east of Maidenhead, and passes on the south side of that town, to Reading, after which it skirts the border of the county as far as to the north of Basildon Park; it then crosses the Thames into Oxfordshire, and runs for a short distance along the boundary of that county, recrossing the Thames a little above South Stoke, and again entering Berkshire, whence it proceeds, by Dudcote and Wantage, into Wilts. At Dudcote branches off a line in a northern direction, by Abingdon, to Oxford.
The remains of antiquity are various and interesting. The Roman stations were, Spinæ, at the present village of Speen; that called Bibractè, the exact site of which is yet undecided; and an important station, the name of which has not been transmitted to modern times, at Wallingford. Several Roman roads crossed the county; but it is difficult to reconcile their courses to any general theory, or to fix with precision the exact places to which they tended. The principal were, one from Glevum, now Gloucester, to London; and the Ikeneld-street, which enters from Oxfordshire at Streatley, where it divides into two branches, one of which, under the name of the Ridgway, runs along the entire northern verge of the chalk hills, and may be regarded as the main line, and the other, under the name of the Westridge, passes by Hampstead Hermitage, the Long Lane, and the vicinity of Newbury, to Old Sarum, in Wilts. Another very ancient, and perhaps a Roman, road enters from Wiltshire, on the north-western confines of the county, under the name of the Port-way, and appears to have taken a direction towards some spot south of Wallingford. There are also numerous remains of camps, of which it is thought that Letcombe Castle and Uffington Castle, both occupying commanding situations on the downs, were constructed by the Britons and subsequently used by the Romans. In a field about half a mile from Little Coxwell is a space of fourteen acres, styled Cole's Pits, in which are 273 pits, for the most part circular, and excavated in the sand to the depth of from seven to twenty-two feet: they are supposed to mark the sites of ancient British habitations. Near Uffington Castle is the rude figure of a horse, giving name to the hills and vale of White Horse; it is formed by cutting away the turf on the steep brow of the chalk hill above Uffington, and occupies about an acre of ground. At a little distance from this is a mount called Dragon hill, supposed to mark the place of interment of some British chieftain; and many tumuli are dispersed over the downs, especially in the way from Uffington to Lambourn, where a group of them has acquired the name of the "Seven Barrows."
Within the limits of the county were anciently twelve religious houses, including an alien priory, and two commanderies of the Knights Hospitallers; also three colleges, of which that of the royal chapel of St. George, at Windsor, still remains; and ten hospitals, five of which yet exist, namely, two at Abingdon, and one each at Donnington, Lambourn, and Newbury. Of the magnificent abbey built by Henry I. at Reading, little more than rude heaps of stones can now be seen; but there are considerable remains of the church of the Grey friars there, converted into a bridewell. There are likewise some vestiges of the monasteries of Abingdon, Hurley, and Bisham, and of the collegiate church of Wallingford. The fragment of a wall, and extensive ditches and earthworks, indicate the site of the important castle of Wallingford; and there yet exist ruins of the gateway of that of Donnington. The most remarkable mansion, in point of antiquity, is the manor-house at Appleton, which appears to be of as remote a date as the reign of Henry II. Berkshire has for a series of centuries derived some degree of celebrity from containing, at its easternmost extremity, one of the chief residences of the kings of England,the vast and magnificent pile of Windsor Castle; and there are also many seats of the nobility and gentry, distinguished for their architectural beauties. The mineral waters are unimportant, the following only possessing any note, viz., a mild cathartic at Cumner; a weak chalybeate at Sunninghill; a strong chalybeate in the parish of Wokingham, called Gorrick Well; and some springs near Windsor, of the quality of the Epsom waters. The county gives the title of Earl to the family of Howard, Earls of Suffolk and Berkshire.
Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.