A walk through the historic environment of the Surrey Hills
Apologies that there’s been no HER blog for a while now. It’s been a challenging time in Surrey HER-land over the past three months or so, since our esteemed colleague Andrew Dearlove departed for a new role at the Humber HER back up in his homeland of Yorkshire. As a result, the rest of the team has been kept extra busy covering all of our usual core activities, which unfortunately left next to no time for things like the HER blog – hence this post appearing a number of months after the walk in question! Happily, we have new recruits joining the team next month, which should mean we can get back to blogging on a more regular basis.
Surrey boasts an extraordinary number of publicly-accessible open spaces, long distance footpaths and, as the jewel in its crown, the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty running through the middle of the county. These places are worth a visit whatever the time of year, but there’s something about being outside on a warm Spring day that strikes a chord with this particular Historic Environment Record Assistant.
I mention this because, immediately after this year’s Easter Bank Holiday weekend, I found myself attending a morning meeting in the heart of the Surrey Hills. However, I knew that I needed to be back in our main office at County Hall in Kingston before the end of the working day. But how to get from one to the other without a car? Being a bit of a keen walker, I chose to hike from my starting point in Abinger Hammer up and over the North Downs ridge all the way to Horsley railway station. This allowed me to walk through a landscape full of historic buildings, monuments and sites, many of which are entered into the HER. I took photographs and made mental notes as I went, in order to tell you more about some of our records – and a few examples of things we might add to the database in the future.
My walk began at the headquarters of the Surrey Archaeological Society in Abinger Hammer (pictured above). It’s open for members every Wednesday and on some weekends, and has an exceptional research library full of all manner of books, journals, maps and more. It is located just around the corner from Abinger Hammer’s most famous landmark, the Blacksmiths Clock, added in 1908 to a slightly earlier house (SHHER 9702). It wasn’t working on the morning I was in the village, to the consternation of at least one local resident!
I was heading north, and there were several options for which way to walk. I chose to go to the west edge of Abinger Hammer and turn up Beggars Lane, mainly because the historic Ordnance Survey map I was using to navigate (not for historical authenticity but because I’d forgotten to bring my modern map!) marked it as the former course of the Pilgrims Way. The accuracy of this name is questionable, but it did allow me the opportunity to duck into Piney Copse, a small area of woodland managed by the National Trust and once owned by the author E M Forster.
Beggars Lane passes beneath a bridge carrying the railway line between Guildford and Dorking (built in the late 1840s) before it slowly but steadily increases in gradient as it makes its way up Hackhurst Downs. It’s not easy walking, but there are a few things along the way that are worth a look as well as being a good excuse to stop for a breather! For instance, a gap had been dug in the roadside bank at one point, probably to help divert rainwater running downhill. This had unintended archaeological interest, as it had created a section that showed the different layers of material which form the bank and also the solid chalk beneath it.
More dramatic were the deep chalk pits on the lower slopes of the Downs. These were created either to extract chalk for building material or conversion into quicklime using a lime kiln for spreading on fields to balance out the acidity of the soils (remains of a lime kiln survive further east on Hackhurst Downs; SHHER 13390). In fact, old pits and quarries were a frequent feature of my whole walk, and have considerable significance from an industrial archaeological perspective (although none of them are on the HER – not yet, anyway). It is essential to emphasise here that pits and quarries can be very dangerous places and must not be entered, particularly when they can be appreciated at a safe distance from public rights of way!
More interesting were a series of linear depressions higher up Hackhurst Downs. They may share the same origin as sites of chalk (or flint) extraction, but alternatively could mark the lines of former tracks or footpaths going up and down the steep slope. Or maybe you can suggest another possible explanation?
Finally I made it to the top of the North Downs ridge, and entered a very different landscape, one of continuous woodland. The land here is very high up (there was once a semaphore station here to take advantage of this elevation: SHHER 1987) but the density of trees meant there was no chance of any long-distance views. This particular section of the walk felt very remote; I didn’t see another person for maybe an hour or so! It is also one devoid of HER entries, although that does not mean there aren’t historic landscape features to be seen and appreciated, as this sign made clear:
The names of the tracks I walked along – Drove Road and Sheepwalk Lane – indicate not all of the land on this part of the North Downs was so densely wooded, but used to be used for grazing livestock. Indeed, I spotted a herd of cattle grazing in a field that is marked on maps as once having formed part of Effingham Upper Common. A little further to the east is the site of a so-called banjo enclosure, a type of enclosed Iron Age settlement (SHHER 31). It shows this particular corner of Surrey was not always so isolated and devoid of people.
One of the things I was most keen to visit along the route of my walk was Dunley Hill Camp at the southern edge of Effingham parish (SHHER 23081 – it’s one of our newest records so isn’t on the Exploring Surrey’s Past public version of the HER yet). It was established as an army camp in 1941, and a recent television programme found evidence that it housed soldiers from the Canadian Army until they were deployed for the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6th June 1944 (the results of the associated digging up of a tank at Denbies Vineyard can be read online). The camp was sold into private ownership after 1950 and remains private property. Fortunately, a number of the camp buildings still survive in various degrees of completeness and can be seen from Sheepwalk Lane that runs along the south boundary of the site.
Not far away from the camp I started to pass houses once again. And then – my first Lovelace bridge! For those who don’t know, the Lovelace bridges (of which ten survive out of an original 15) are so-called because they were ordered to be built by William King, 1st Earl of Lovelace, in the 1860s. Despite the fineness of their designs and the quality of their design and construction (check out the brickwork in the photos below), the reason for their construction was rather utilitarian; to aid the transport of timber out of the local plantations without blocking or churning up existing bridleways and footpaths. Fortunately, over a century and a half later, they no longer have to bear the weight of such heavy loads! Below are photos of the two bridges I walked under: in descending order, Hermitage Bridge (SHHER 8855) and Troy Bridge (SHHER 8078).
Skirting around the earth bank marking the southern boundary of East Horsley parish, I came to Sheepleas, another area of former pasture with another sheep-related name, the second half of this one being an Old or Middle English term meaning “pasture”. It was the subject of an archaeological survey in 1996 that led to the discovery of a wealth of earthworks, most notably many banks and lynchets that are believed to have once formed the boundaries of medieval or post-medieval fields and other plots of land (hence SHHER 19168, to give a typical example). However, even in springtime before many plants had grown too tall, it was hard to make out many of the earthworks recorded across Sheepleas. Not that this a bad thing, as the land is now managed by Surrey Wildlife Trust for nature conservation purposes, maintaining a mosaic of open grassland and woodland so rich in plant and animal species that it is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Having crossed Sheepleas, I came to the A246 Epsom Road. And almost immediately, without any obvious cause, the street-name changed to Guildford Road. Two road signs located side-by-side mark this change, but do not explain it. So, what does?
The reason for this change of name lies in the fact that the signs stand either side of the parish boundary between West and East Horsley. This is a very old boundary indeed; we know that East Horsley was gifted to Canterbury Cathedral by an Anglo-Scandinavian nobleman named Thored in the earlier 11th century (as is documented in a contemporary record), and West Horsley is very likely to be equivalent to an estate named Horsalege in the will of Ealdorman Aelfred of Surrey drawn up in the late 9th century. Add to this that different communities would have attached greater importance to different places (such as Guildford and Epsom) and all of a sudden this pair of random street signs becomes emblematic of how the Surrey countryside is made up of an extraordinary range of elements, some of great antiquity.
By this point I was more or less on the edge of East Horsley and so – at long last! – the final stretch of my hike. The south end of the village is characterised by many flint-and-brick buildings which, like the Lovelace bridges, were built in the early 1860s and are associated with the 1st Earl of Lovelace – hence some of them being described as being designed in the “Lovelace style”. The Guildford Lodge (SHHER 8807) and Duke of Wellington pub (SHHER 8062) act a bit like twin sentinels guarding the entrance to the village street from the Guildford Road. Further up Ockham Road South, there are smaller but scarcely less architecturally-interesting buildings, such as Ye Olde Horsley Shoppe (SHHER 8662) and, almost opposite it, Bishops Gate Lodge (SHHER 8075). This is without mentioning the related structures within the churchyard of St Martin’s, East Horsley (e.g. the octagonal mausoleum; SHHER 8363) – nor for that matter the late 11th- or very early 12th-century tower of the church (SHHER 8812), about which this HER Assistant wrote part of his Master’s dissertation! (The first two buildings of the above-mentioned buildings are shown in photographs above, and the two after in the following photographs.)
From here I tried to pick up the pace in order to catch an imminent departure from Horsley station to Surbiton and from there back to Kingston. Unfortunately, I just missed that train. Possibly in part this was down to me continually stopping en route to take photographs of things that I thought were of archaeological and/or historical interest. I’ll admit, some of these may barely warrant being described in such terms in the present day – the last remaining portion of a public roadside bench pictured below, for instance. But supposing this survived for the next 50 or 100 years. Assuming the Surrey HER is still around (and we very much hope it will be!), this would almost certainly make the grade for inclusion on our database, in the same way as a lot of Second World War-era structures have been added to it in recent years. In effect it is future archaeology – as well as being an almost sculptural relic of modern public street furniture.
This was not a walk designed to take in the best the Surrey Hills have to offer in terms of archaeology and history. It really was primarily about taking a relatively direct route between Abinger Hammer and Horsley Station so as to give me time to respond to emails after the extra-long Bank Holiday weekend! But, as maybe you’ve gleaned from the above, it turned out to be a hugely rewarding walk through time, taking in prehistoric, medieval and modern sites. I hope you enjoy being out and about in the Surrey countryside as much as I do and, if you happen to spot something that you think might be of interest to the Surrey HER, please let us know by emailing [email protected].
With thanks to our work experience placement Kala for helping to upload the photographs for this blog post.