Pangbourne owes its existence to its location on a strategic crossing point of the River Thames. The Thames has been an important route way for human communities for many thousands of year and Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) and Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) flint tools have been recovered from the river in the Pangbourne area.
Evidence of permanent settlement was found in the 19th century when workers building the railway discovered an extensive Roman period cemetery. The presence of these burials is a strong indication of nearby settlement, but this has yet to be securely located.
The current village has its origins in the Saxon period. In the 9th century AD a settlement is recorded by the name of Pegina Burnan or Paegeinge Burnan, meaning stream of Paega’s people. The name is probably a reference to the River Pang which enters the Thames at this point rather than the larger river. The precise location and character of this early settlement remain a mystery.
Little is also known about Pangbourne in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest; the earliest post-Conquest written reference occurs in 1166. However from the 13th century the manor was held by Reading Abbey and nearby Bere Court was used as a country residence for the Abbots.
A small collection of fine 17th and 18th century houses and cottages survive adjacent to the church of St James on Pangbourne Hill, but the bulk of the surviving historic buildings in the centre of the village are 19th or early 20th century in date. The arrival of Brunel’s Great Western Railway in c1840 provided the stimulus for significant growth as the village became a popular riverside ‘resort’, mentioned in the novel Three Men in a Boat. A series of new villas were erected along the banks of the Thames and the centre of the village saw significant change. Even St James' Church was almost entirely rebuilt in 1868.
Pangbourne was home to Kenneth Grahame in the 1920s-30s, author of The Wind in the Willows. In 1940 the village became an important hub in the Defence of Britain, a vital link between the lines that ran along the Kennet and Avon Canal and the River Thames in preparation for the expected German invasion. Several pillboxes can still be seen in the area and the defensive features in the ‘Sulham Gap’ to the south can still be traced.