Looking to get away from it all, without straying too far from ‘civilisation’? A visit to an often overlooked tract of countryside in Surrey could be just the job, says Jack Watkins
We southerners are apt to underplay the glories of our landscape. It’s as if we have an inferiority complex, knowing that even the best of our natural beauties – the intimate beechwoods of the Chilterns, perhaps, or the South Downs, undulating in wave-like serenity near the English Channel – are features in miniature next to the soaring glories of the likes of Snowdonia or the Peak District. That complex is constantly being reinforced by people from other parts of the country who suffer no such modesty. My grandmother, a proud Scot, never tired of reminding me of the unparalleled magnificence of the Highlands. I can’t recall her having a word to say for the Sussex Downs, the area where she spent the last thirty years of her life.
No-one could deny the grandeur of the Highlands, of course, but handsome is as handsome does. I visited Mount Snowdon and the surrounding area a couple of years ago and, awesome as the Welsh mountains undoubtedly were, I found the lack of human scale daunting. Wilderness is all very well, but it is the clear evidence of past or present interaction with man that adds meaning to a place, rather than the broad vista or the lofty precipice alone. And besides, much as I like a walk in the country, I’ve never been one for the rucksack and walking boots scenario, nor the sensible but style-free attire that screeches ‘rambler!’ at one hundred paces. Give me a good stretching walk in bucolic surroundings that leaves plenty of opportunities to stop off and admire the views – but plenty of time, too, to get back home for a cuppa.
If you’re of similar disposition, there’s no better place than the Surrey Hills – or the Surrey Highlands, as Victorian promoters of a day trip to the countryside liked to call them. First, though, let’s get the geography straight. The Surrey Hills are not part of the North Downs, the chalk escarpment that runs from the cliffs of Dover through to the hills above Sevenoaks and on to Box Hill, even though, confusingly, they are part of the 153 mile North Downs Way. Rather, they are an outcrop of greensand hills that rise up around the towns of Farnham and Dorking. You can tell the difference because, instead of the chalky white limestone of the Downs, here the soil has a gorgeous sandy gold colour. For all that distinctiveness, in recent years at least, the charms of the Surrey Hills have been relatively unsung, although they were one of the first places to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Britain, in 1958. They suffer now from the association of all things Surrey with stockbroker belt-suburbia.
In the 19th century, however, the area remained undeveloped. Alfred Tennyson was in the vanguard of a generation of poets, writers and artists who were so taken with the place that they took up residence there, seduced by the idea of a rural utopia that yet remained conveniently close to the bright lights of London. Tennyson had his property, Aldworth, built on the slopes of Blackdown Hill (now on National Trust land). At 918ft above sea level, it’s one of the highest points along the range, though it is topped by Leith Hill at 1000ft: the highest point anywhere in south east England, higher for instance than Box Hill, on the North Downs escarpment to its north, or anywhere along the South Downs.
You can access Leith Hill via a National Trust car park south west of the village of Coldharbour. If you are feeling energetic, though, alight from the train at Holmwood and approach through the winding, high banked lanes which, apart from the occasional screech of jays or the scuttling of pheasants, have some of the remote feel of the distant heights of Exmoor. Coldharbour is a pretty spot, strikingly at odds with what you might expect a Surrey village to look like. Centuries-old stone cottages and an old church cling to the side of the hill, and then, as you enter woodlands, the ground rises further and gaps open out among the Scots pines on spirit-lifting views over the southern countryside. By the time you reach a clearing with a cricket pitch, you are apparently 870ft above sea level. The views from Leith Hill itself, of course, are well worth the effort and, although if you go on a warm sunny day, you can expect plenty of company – for this is a popular place – the undulating summit is plenty large enough to find a quiet spot for contemplation. From the Gothic tower, built by the local squire Richard Hull in 1766, you can see south to the Channel and north to St Paul’s if the skies are clear.
Several candidates vie for the title of capital of the Surrey Hills. Guildford is probably pre-eminent in the 21st century, but Farnham and Haslemere run it close. Farnham is worth a pilgrimage not least to see the lovely Castle Street, considered by many to be the best preserved Georgian street in England, with mellow red brick and fanlights a-plenty. It’s also the birthplace of William Cobbett, author of the classic Rural Rides. His birth place is now a pub bearing his name close to the ancient market known as The Maltings. You can also see his chest tomb right outside the porch of the church of St Andrew’s.
Up above Castle Street is the castle itself, next to the bishop’s palace, an ensemble dating back to Norman times. The keep is now a ruin and as with many such structures, what was once the scene of much violence is now a location of great tranquility.
Haslemere is known for its prestigious annual Early Music festival, but it’s also one of the gateways to the Highlands in their truest rustic sense, for if you really want to get a feel of the Surrey wilds as the Victorians loved them, you must visit Hindhead Common. The paths out of Haslemere lead up onto its heathery heights, which were one of the first major acquisitions of the National Trust, in 1905, to prevent the encroachment of house building. Exmoor ponies graze among the trees, nightjars and Dartford Warblers nest here, and while the desolation of the heaths, ‘their silence, their savagery, their impressive beauty’ as local writer George Sturt put it a century ago, may be much eroded, there’s still a great feeling of solitude. Eventually the footpaths bring you to Gibbet Hill, with more spectacular views. The Celtic cross here was erected to reassure travellers that the place was not the haunt of demons. It certainly was notorious for its thieves and highwaymen.
Not far away is the Devil’s Punchbowl, a geological feature of much curiosity, which caused passers-by in a bygone age to gape in awe and no small measure of trepidation at its natural steep amphitheatre, with its swamp-like centre. Today this is a popular spot for refreshments or a picnic, which in a way typifies the 21st century Surrey Highlands experience. There’s enough here to let the imagination run wild, yet you are still never far from modern creature comforts.