On Leith Hill

View south from Leith Hill

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.

  • View from Leith Hill
  • Leith Hill walk
  • Leith Hill walk

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).

Leith Hill and Leith Hill Tower

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.

London from Leith Hill

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, childhood home of Ralph Vaughan Williams
  • View from Leith Hill Place
  • Walking near Leith Hill Place

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.

51 thoughts on “On Leith Hill

  1. marmeladegypsy

    What an interesting and lovely place. I don’t think I’d make it to the top of the tower for those great views but they sure look worth it! I was very interested in the Wedgewood connection too.

  2. cynth76

    Beautiful photos! And if anyone can climb the 99 steps at Whitby they should be able to climb up!

  3. junedesilva

    I am lucky enough to live in the Surrey Hills and Leith Hill is one of my favourite dog walking spots. I often meet friends there, usually first thing in the morning. We aim to do quite a long and vigorous circular walk, finishing back at the Tower. In the cooler weather (remember that?!) there is nothing better than a mug of hot tea and a piece of home made fruit cake served via the tower window! I blogged about Leith Hill myself (shameless plug!) https://fancyingfrance.com/2020/11/19/the-surrey-hills/ Great post – yours, not mine!

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Thanks, June! Loved your post and mentions of places I have never heard of, but feel I should have. Despite living in the south (but no longer) for most of my life, I had actually never visited Leith Hill until recently – though often meant to.

  4. April Munday

    I think Stane Street is a better name than A29 and I’m probably not alone.

    I’m fascinated by the idea that Wedgwoods and Darwins got together and eventually produced Vaughan Williams.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      How can you possibly think that Stane Street is in any way superior, possibly even more lyrical, than ‘A29’. Our roads were named by poets.
      Re Wedgwood/Darwin/Williams – it never ceases to amaze me how joined up Britain can be!

  5. Jennie

    Mike, this was wonderful. There is so much to enjoy and explore. “Bad characters, little tinkers, those Victorians.” So, what is a little tinker?

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Thanks, Jennie! I had to think about the term ‘little tinker’ – I use it to refer, tongue in cheek, ironically or semi-affectionately, to a mischievous or naughty sort of person.

  6. Helen Devries

    Well, you really have come up trumps!
    Living in the area in my teens I used to go walking with friends from school all over that area…Headley Heath to Box Hill, then, if energetic, on to Leith Hill…if not, using the Green Line buses and the Mole Valley railway line…does that still exist?
    Ranmore Common, Polesden Lacey, where we were shown round the house and grounds and regaled with stories of the social climber who used the place to cement relations with royalty by an elderly gentleman who, with hindsight, clearly enjoyed the company of a group of young fillies…
    There used to be an RAF rehab centre at Headley Court…and you would see the inmates at the tea room cum shop nearby where they would hint at being terribly daring at being out of bounds and stand us lemonade and ice cream…when we knew all too well that it was being terribly daring in deadly earnest that had landed them there.
    Thanks for the memories…and the super photographs! Dear old Surrey!

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      You seem to have lived all over the place and have such interesting stories and memories to share. Thank you! I think the Mole Valley line is the one that still runs between Horsham and Victoria. Headley Court, I have just read, closed fairly recently – rehab services now provided elsewhere. Looks an amazing place.

  7. Peter's pondering

    I’ve always wondered whether it was worth stopping in Surrey. I’ve driven through, and visited all the counties around, but never set foot there. Since we travel very little now I doubt I shall visit but it’s good to read about it!

  8. thehungrytravellers.blog

    Quirky shop story time. I remember going for a brief wander around and partly up Box Hill, which I guess is very near to Leith Hill as I was killing time before going into Dorking. Anyway, there was a shop at Box Hill railway station which sold just two items – bicycles and cakes. I’m pretty certain it’s the only bike-and-cake shop I’ve ever seen. Or heard of for that matter. I’m also pretty certain the Danes had nothing to do with it.

  9. Andy

    Maybe those marching heavily-armed Saxon and Dane ghosts are still wandering around trying to find the battle site themselves. That solves one mystery in my mind at least. By the way (btw) if an area of outstanding natural beauty is an AONB would the second highest point in south east England be the SHPSEE? Just wondering.

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