Many people – mostly those that haven’t been there – believe that South East England is busy and crowded, with little remaining countryside of any note. They are right about it being busy – South East England is the most populous part of the UK – but they are wrong about the countryside. Leith Hill, near Dorking in Surrey, is one example. Part of the Surrey Hills’ Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), Leith Hill is the second highest point in South East England, with fabulous views and lovely waymarked walks mainly, though not exclusively, through woodland.
Lovers of the Lake District, Snowdonia, the Highlands or Yorkshire Dales may wonder what on earth the Surrey Hills are, and what they possibly have to offer the rural rambler. All I can suggest is that the next time they drive (or sit in stationary traffic) along the M25 between junctions 10 (for Guildford) and 6 (Godstone), they glance left or right for hints at what they might be missing. Even better, follow minor roads pretty much anywhere between Farnham in the west and Kent in the east.
Back to Leith Hill. It is a relatively modest 965 feet (294 m) high, just a little lower than Walbury Hill in Berkshire. From the top is a panoramic vista across Surrey and Sussex to the sea some 30 miles distant. To the north lies London, also about 30 miles to its centre. Landmarks such as Wembley Stadium Arch, the Shard and the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf are clearly visible on a fine day. It was certainly that when the ABAB team visited. Some of the photographs also show the desiccated state of the countryside in early August 2022, when much of Britain was experiencing its second heatwave of the year and the Met Office reported the driest July for England since 1935. For East Anglia and South East England, it was the driest July on record. The UK faced its hottest ever day on 19 July 2022, when temperatures exceeded 40°C. (For the hottest, coldest, oldest kind of pub quiz stuff, check out Britain’s Superlatives).
At the top of Leith Hill is the oddly named Leith Hill Tower, built in 1765 by wealthy merchant Richard Hull of nearby Leith Hill Place. His motivation – apparently – was to allow people to experience the glory of the English countryside from above 1,000 feet. At 64 feet (19.5 m), the top of the tower is officially the highest spot in South East England. After Hull’s death in 1772 (he is buried underneath, incidentally), the tower fell into ruin, was filled with concrete and rubble and the entrance blocked. A subsequent Victorian owner, William Evelyn of Wotton House, added a side tower to enable access to the top, but the National Trust fully restored it in the 1980s. There is now a small café on the ground floor and ‘tis said that 13 counties can be seen from the top – if you can manage the 74 steps. Allegedly, the flagpoles are in fact mobile ‘phone masts in disguise.
Dorking Museum features an amusing article from the Dorking Advertiser of 1889 concerning a Mrs Skilton, aged 72, who was the keeper of the tower and described as “the highest lady in the county”. From her vantage point, she could see over a radius of 200 miles, spot shipping in the English Channel and count up to 40 churches (presumably not in the Channel) – albeit possibly with the aid of a telescope.
Mrs Skilton also mentioned that a fair used to be held on the top of the hill, but it had to be stopped due to the number of bad characters that attended. They were little tinkers, those Victorians; it wouldn’t happen today, of course.
Anyway, if you want to climb those steps and count counties and churches, you need to get there early because, at time of writing, the tower closes its doors to visitors at 3pm. As we discovered. You also need to pay for entry, unless you are a member of the National Trust, in which case entry is included in your membership fee. The café closed at the same time, so bear that in mind too, if you plan a longer jaunt.
Another fun game, to add to the let’s pick out London landmarks and church spires ones, is to count aircraft taking off from and landing at nearby Gatwick Airport. Yet, you get used to that and Leith Hill, away from the top, is surprisingly quiet and full of flora and fauna. Shortly after our arrival, a deer stumbled into a nearby clearing and stood there on uncertain legs while I tried, unobtrusively, to retrieve my camera. I had just about got the right setting and focussed on the creature, when it winked at me and bounded away. I lied about the wink. But there was ample evidence of other animals; butterflies and other insects were everywhere and, in the clearings, heather and other plants were in full bloom. It was a joy, it really was.
We had left the car adjacent to a once cultivated area identified as Rhododendron Wood. This not only included the expected ericaceous shrubs (note to self – come back in May), but also a splendid specimen of a Sequoia. It was also close to Leith Hill Place, which is open to the public, so we wandered over to take a look. Naturally, it was closed. However, the back door was open and, despite not being used to entry via the trades’ entrance, we wandered in and had a quick look round.
Leith Hill Place dates from around 1600, but was completely refurbished in Palladian style in about 1760 by our friend Richard Hull. It was purchased in 1847 by Josiah Wedgwood III, grandson of the Josiah Wedgwood who founded the Wedgwood pottery business. Josiah 3 was married to Caroline Darwin, brother of Charles, author of ‘On the Origin of Species (etc)’. Charles used to visit, apparently; he probably derived some inspiration from those rascals up at Leith Hill fair. Anyway, one of Josiah and Caroline’s daughters, Margaret, married Arthur Vaughan Williams who, sadly, died at an early age. Margaret moved back to Leith Hill Place with her three young children. Her youngest son, Ralph, (‘Rafe’ to his mates) grew up to become the well-known English composer whose works include the Lark Ascending. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) inherited the property from his older brother in 1944 and donated it to the National Trust. It was subsequently leased by other members of the Wedgwood family, became a boarding house for a nearby college and then opened to the public in 2013. Spectacularly ugly from the outside and clearly in need of considerable TLC, inside it has a relaxed, informal, atmosphere – unlike many other National Trust properties. A fuller visit required, methinks, if only to soak up some Vaughan Williams (though I gather he never wrote any rock ‘n’ roll) and also seek out the spectral apparitions that are reputed to drift in and out, unanounced.
One more snippet before leaving Leith Hill is its place in the history books as the possible site of a long-ago battle. In 851AD, an invading army of Danes, having first burnt Canterbury, then London, and beaten the Mercians, headed south into Surrey. At Aclea, they were met by the army of Wessex under King Æthelwulf (father of Alfred the Great). The West Saxons marched up Stane Street (now renamed the A29), so it is said, and inflicted such a defeat on the Danes that none remained to bury their dead. It is often thought that Aclea is Ockley, close to Leith Hill, and the battle took place near there, or even on the commanding high ground near the summit. There are tantalising mentions of a mass grave, discovered in 1882, as proof – but I have seen no detailed description for this. Despite tales of heavily armed ghostly Saxons and Danes being seen marching to battle near Leith Hill, the fact is that no one knows where the battle took place. Ockley probably means a woodland clearing belonging to a man called Occa, whereas the main source for the battle, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, refers to Aclea – oak clearing or oak field – and there are other candidates for that.
For more about the Surrey Hills, visit the Surrey Hills website.
For more about Leith Hill, visit the National Trust’s website.
For Mrs Skilton, visit the Dorking Museum website.