North Downs Way: Westhumble to Merstham

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Only three weeks after completing Shalford to Westhumble, we were back at Box Hill and Westhumble Station to start the next 10-mile leg to Merstham.

We arrived by the same route, changing at Wimbledon on to the SWR Dorking service, arriving soon after nine in the morning.

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Morning

Light rain was falling as we walked through the underpass, then alongside the busy A24 until we reached the Stepping Stones car park.

We navigated confidently the sixteen or so concrete hexagonal stones across the River Mole, Tracy leading, Jacqui in the middle and me at the rear. There is a footbridge for the fainter-hearted.

Stepping stones have been here since at least 1841 but these date from 1946, built to replace the set destroyed at the onset WW2, to inconvenience potential invaders.

Soon we were climbing the 275 steps up Box Hill, named after the box woodland that covered the chalky slopes around us. Both the chalk and the exposed tree roots were slippery from the rain.

I tried, rather faintheartedly, to engage Jacqui in a debate on the many sins of the Catholic Church. But, sadly, she wouldn’t bite, so I climbed at my own pace, waiting for the others at the top. I’m less good downhill.

John Evelyn’s diary records the gentry climbing up Box Hill as early as 1662. In the 1720’s Defoe told how it had acquired some notoriety:

On the top of Box-Hill, and in view of this town, grows a very great beech-tree, which by way of distinction is call’d the Great Beech, and a very great tree it is; but I mention it on the following account, under the shade of this tree, was a little vault or cave, and here every Sunday, during the summer season, there used to be a rendezvous of coaches and horsemen, with abundance of gentlemen and ladies from Epsome to take the air, and walk in the box-woods; and in a word, divert, or debauch, or perhaps both, as they thought fit, and the game encreased so much, that it began almost on a sudden, to make a great noise in the country.

A vintner who kept the King’s-Arms-Inn, at Darking [Dorking], taking notice of the constant and unusual flux of company thither, took the hint from the prospect of his advantage, which offer’d, and obtaining leave of Sir Adam Brown, whose mannor and land it was, furnish’d this little cellar or vault with tables, chairs, &c. and with wine and eatables to entertain the ladies and gentlemen on Sunday nights, as above; and this was so agreeable to them as that it encreased the company exceedingly; in a word, by these means, the concourse of gentry, and in consequence of the country people, became so great, that the place was like a little fair; so that at length the country began to take notice of it, and it was very offensive, especially to the best governed people; this lasted some years, I think two or three, and tho’ complaint was made of it to Sir Adam Brown, and the neighbouring justices; alledging the revelling, and the indecent mirth that was among them, and on the Sabbath Day too, yet it did not obtain a suitable redress: whereupon a certain set of young men, of the town of Darking, and perhaps prompted by some others, resenting the thing also, made an unwelcome visit to the place once on a Saturday night, just before the usual time of their wicked mirth, and behold when the coaches and ladies, &c. from Epsome appear’d the next afternoon, they found the cellar or vault, and all that was in it, blown up with gun-powder; and so secret was it kept, that upon the utmost enquiry it cou’d never be heard, or found out who were the persons that did it: That action put an end to their revels for a great while; nor was the place ever repaired that I heard of, at least it was not put to the same wicked use that it was employ’d in before.’

Well over a century later, the picnic scene from Austen’s Emma (1815) was set here.

Box Hill and Betchworth Forts – two of the London Mobilisation Centres built in the late Nineteenth Century to protect London against invasion from the Continent – are nearby. We would pass a third, Reigate Fort, towards the end of our journey. All thirteen were declared redundant within a few years of their construction.

We paused to take in the view from the Salomons Memorial: Leopold Salomons (1841-1915) was a City financier who bought 230 acres up here in 1913 for £16,000, donating it to the National Trust the following year. The Trust subsequently bought several other plots and the complete estate is now over 1,200 acres.

To help us up the climb we had dangled before ourselves the ‘carrot’ of breakfast at the Box Hill Café. As we approached we could see that the ubiquitous cyclists had nabbed all the tables under cover.

Cyclists are reputed to have been flocking here since the 1880s, but the 2012 Olympic Road Races made the route internationally famous.

We bought our food from the servery – cornish pasty and black Americano for me – finding a much-weathered bench partly sheltered by a small tree.

Before resuming we changed into our waterproof gear: the rain looked to be with us for a while.

Returning to the Memorial we followed the track into woodland, climbing up and down steps and passing through Oak Wood. Some swinging was undertaken from the branches of an overhanging tree.

We halted at a break in the woodland to admire the view beneath us, then noticed a gravestone just behind in memory of ‘Quick, an English Thoroughbred’, who lived from 1936 to 1944.

Not a racehorse apparently, but a greyhound owned by a Danish lady called Mrs Barnholdt who lived here at the time.

Soon we were skirting the quarry of Brockham Lime Works.

Small-scale quarrying had been prevalent here for centuries before a commercial enterprise was established in the 1850s. In 1875 the Brockham Brick Company opened next door which, in addition to making bricks, also mined for hearthstone, a chalky mineral substance used to clean hearths and doorsteps. There was a rail connection to nearby Betchworth Station.

But the Brick Company closed in 1910 and, although Brockham Lime and Hearthstone Company survived it, that too had closed by 1936.

The site is now a Scheduled Monument. Seen from the path, the most prominent feature is this dilapidated chimney, crowned with scaffolding, which provides a superb observation point for the local birdlife.

Emerging into Betchworth, the route passes along The Coombe, lined with what I take to be quarrymen’s cottages. It turns into Pebblehill Lane before zigzagging towards and along the Buckland Hills.

The path became rutted and interrupted by a series of muddy puddles at roughly 10-metre intervals. The Guide promised us that: ‘…up the grass slope on your left, a bench provides a fine spot for a picnic’ but, though we found the slope, the bench had vanished.

At least the rain had stopped.

I tried, as best I could, to spread my picnic blanket – actually it’s an old nappy-changing mat – without squashing wild flowers or covering over prickly thistles. We reclined in a row and ate our lunches looking out over Reigate.

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Afternoon

Resuming after lunch, we soon came upon the top portion of Clifton’s Lane, which is a long and at times very steep climb up deeply wooded stretches of Juniper Hill. This finally emerges onto the lane to Mogador, across the M25, next to a coal tax post.

These posts were erected in the 1860s to mark the boundary within which the tax was payable to the Corporation of London. There was another one a little further on, though at a slant this time.

I had ample time to study the first and recover my breath as it was several minutes before Tracy and Jacqui emerged from the gloom below.

The din of the M25 echoing in our ears, we soon arrived at Colley Hill, which displayed some beautiful cloudscapes spread above the fields below.

We stopped to admire a brick tower marked ‘The Sutton District Water Company’ built in 1911. For some reason, I found this name, carved in relief above the door, particularly satisfying.

We had a longer rest at the Inglis Folly. This was donated to Reigate Borough by Lieutenant Colonel R W Inglis in 1911. Scots by birth, after his army service he became a stockbroker, rising to become Chairman of the London Stock Exchange.

Several online sources award him the Victoria Cross, but the more prosaically correct suffix is VD – he had been awarded the Volunteer Officers’ Decoration.

The Folly was supposedly once a drinking trough for horses, although the columns must have made it hard for them to reach the water! There is now a topograph where the water used to be, and a colourful mosaic depiction of the solar system under the roof.

As we sat admiring the view a large rabbit joined us on the slopes immediately below.

Passing through a gate on to Reigate Hill, we came upon a memorial consisting of two wooden wingtips lying in the grass.

A B17 Flying Fortress crashed here on 19 March 1945, killing all nine crew members. They belonged to the 384th Bombardment Group of the US Army Air Corps and were returning after a bombing mission over Eastern Germany to their base in Northamptonshire.

The plane dropped out of formation in poor weather and collided with trees before crashing into the hillside. The crew was on its 13th mission; all were under 25.

Shortly afterwards one passes the gates of Reigate Fort, another of the 13 London Mobilisation Centres. There is also a mysterious brick-built bunker which may have been used for wartime radio monitoring.

Leaving Reigate Hill we entered neighbouring Gatton Park. This 600-acre estate is managed partly by the National Trust and partly by the Gatton Trust.

Nearby Gatton was once a notorious rotten borough and the owners of Gatton Hall and its park invariably bought the borough too.

In the 1740s it was purchased by Sir James Colebrooke. He took one of the borough’s two Parliamentary seats for himself, occupying it from 1751 to 1761.

His brother, Sir George, inherited in 1762. He employed Lancelot Capability Brown to landscape the Park, that work being completed in 1768 at a cost of more than £3,000.

But Sir George got into financial difficulties, so borough, park and house were sold, subsequently passing through several different owners. By 1888, the estate was in the hands of Sir Jeremiah Colman, the Colman’s Mustard tycoon.

Then, shortly after the end of WW2, it was purchased by The Royal Alexandra and Albert School, one of the few state-run boarding schools in England. The School resides here to this day.

Descending through the wooded Park, one eventually reaches more open ground, occupied by the Millennium Stones.

This contemporary stone circle was created by the sculptor Richard Kindersley. There are ten stones in all, each framing a pertinent quotation. The first chronologically is taken from St John’s Gospel; the last from Burnt Norton, one of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

‘At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.’

Leaving the Park close to some of the School buildings, we crossed a road and soon found ourselves on a path heading towards Reigate Hill Golf Club.

This presented the muddiest conditions we’d experienced. Some gymnastics were necessary to avoid submerged boots, but we eventually joined a much drier path between fairways that kept us at a safe distance from the golfers.

We continued towards Merstham beside a cricket pitch where a tense match was in progress, four spectators viewing from their deckchairs alongside our exit.

We were delighted to find that the end of this leg was just a few hundred yards from the Station, arriving with some minutes to spare before our train pulled in.

Next time: Merstham to Oxted.

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TD

July 2021

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