Surrey Hills AONB celebrating 60th birthday

Leith Hill

Leith Hill - Credit: Archant

As this extraordinary piece of protected countryside celebrates 60 years since being designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, we look at the Surrey Hills through the ages

Surrey Hills Board

Surrey Hills Board - Credit: Archant

The Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) occupies a unique place in Britain’s portfolios of protected landscapes. What singles it from its peers is that it lies just 35 minutes by train from the centre of London. By the lake, in Friday Street, you feel a million miles from anything urban, yet climb from there up to Leith Hill Tower and you can see Canary Wharf. The contrast is breathtaking. But the capital, with all its development pressures, has pushed down to the very boundary of the AONB, and those pressures are on the increase.

Estate agents’ windows shout out that houses for sale are ‘in the Surrey Hills’ and the name is used by businesses right across the county. It crops up on cycling and tourism websites and on village signboards. The Surrey Hills Google profile now has more hits than any other AONB and most National Parks. However, this identity with landscape is actually quite new. When the Surrey Hills was designated an AONB in 1958, that status overlaying and reinforcing existing Metropolitan Green Belt protection was used primarily as a planning tool to curb urban sprawl. It was very successful. But for the first 35 years very few people recognised the Surrey Hills as an entity at all. Such a funny shape for a start. Throughout the 20th century no Surrey residents would ever have described themselves as living ‘in the Surrey Hills’.

The first hint of change came when the need to manage the countryside crept up the national agenda in the late 1980s, generating specific projects such as the regeneration and conservation of the Downland and Heathland. But it wasn’t until the focus shifted to leisure, tourism and public access that its value as a cohesive landscape with a distinct identity was recognised. People needed to know about it.

Hindhead Tunnel opening in 2011 © Group Q Photography

Hindhead Tunnel opening in 2011 © Group Q Photography - Credit: Archant

In the 1990s, the Countryside Commission decided to push ahead with more proactive management of AONBs, which inspired the Surrey Hills Visitor Project. The Surrey Hills AONB Board was set up and Rob Fairbanks was appointed in 1999 to oversee projects, based on the AONB Board’s objectives: to protect and enhance natural beauty, to promote public understanding and enjoyment and promote social and economic wellbeing.

His first initiative was to try to raise the profile of the AONB among the communities living within it, beginning with the Jigsaw Project empowering villages to identify the significant features in their areas and creating a visual record of parish pages. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) 2000 raised the profile of AONBs and created a duty for each one to have a management plan. It also gave impetus to this move to connect people with the countryside and the Rail to Ramble project was launched to bring people into the AONB by train.

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Surrey symbol

Surrey then embarked on an extraordinary project to give the AONB a brand identity. The swirling seed pod emblem carved in oak by chainsaw artist Walter Bailey led to a series of iconic oak sculptures created with a combination of artistic vision and lumberjack confidence. The emblem design was then seared into oak boundary markers and village signs and a logo was established.

“I was commissioned to come up with a symbol and I carved a design based on a seed pod as a symbol of new beginnings,” he says. “There is an infinity symbol there too in the figure of eight design. It is a positive image about moving forward and seeing things afresh from a new perspective.

“People drive through the Surrey Hills very quickly and do not realise what an asset they have in the landscape. I want people to feel curiosity and surprise when they see the boundary markers.”

Being a landscape of hilltops, the AONB has fabulous views: Jane Austen set the famous picnic in Emma on Box Hill and George Harrison composed Here Comes the Sun on Pitch Hill, so the Inspiring Views Project in 2006 was a natural progression. It linked Gatton Park and Reigate Fort with art workshops, restored Limpsfield Air Raid Shelters and cleared scrub and trees from major viewpoints across the AONB. The second phase of this project, sponsored by the Mittal Foundation in 2016, saw five artists create seat sculptures at Hascombe, Holmbury, Winterfold, and Hindhead.

Part of the concept of the AONB as a special landscape was the need to quieten it down, reducing the clutter of urban road signs, slowing traffic and telling motorists they were entering a beautiful rural shared space. The Quiet Lanes project included wooden finger posts and removal of excess signage. It was obvious that Surrey’s huge acreage of woodland was sorely neglected so a Wood Fair and Wood Fuel Conference were established in Bramley in 2010 to stimulate its restoration. With visitor numbers now rising fast, in particular on bicycles, working groups were set up to manage the sharing of public paths between the different user groups on foot, bike, horseback and 4x4.

Public access and engagement with the AONB went beyond just paths however, and to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2008 the Surrey Hill Society was launched. This has proved a great success, acting as the public face of the Surrey Hills, with 1,000 members and a full programme of events, walks, talks and visits. Surrey Hill Enterprises was then established as a Community Interest Company in 2013 to help businesses use the Surrey Hills brand to promote the local economy and in 2014, the Surrey Hills Trust Fund was set up to create a financial base to safeguard the future of the AONB.

That future is unfortunately under greater threat now than at any time since the AONB was designated. Local councils are under pressure to build new homes within the AONB, and the threat of fracking and drilling is ongoing. The Surrey Hills family and the public all have an ongoing role in safeguarding this precious piece of countryside on the doorstep of London.

Surrey Hills timeline

• 1958 - Surrey Hills designated as an (AONB) and second landscape to be designated.

• 1993 - Surrey Hills Visitor Project established.

• 1998 - The Countryside Commission publish Surrey Hills Landscape Character Assessment.

• 1999 - Surrey Hills AONB Board established.

• 2000 - First Surrey Hills AONB Management Plan published.

• 2002 - Surrey Hills sculptures created by Walter Bailey and boundary markers installed across the AONB.

• 2003 - Penelope Keith DBE becomes Patron of the Surrey Hills.

• 2004 - The first Rail to Ramble campaign takes place with South Western Railway (formerly South West Trains) and the National Association for AONBs Conference hosted at Surrey University.

• 2005 - First Undergrounding power lines project undertaken by EDF Energy.

• 2006 - The First Inspiring Views project undertaken, viewpoint clearance and community engagement undertaken.

• 2007 - The Surrey Hills Sustainable Fund established and awards more than 80 grants.

• 2008 - Established the Surrey Hills Society as a legacy of the 50th anniversary.

• 2008 to present - Working groups established to resolve issues such as cycling, roadside signage and traffic, horse riding, illegal off-road vehicles, and landscape conservation.

• 2010 - The first Surrey Hills Wood Fuel Conference takes place at Cranleigh School.

• 2011 - Opening of the Hindhead Tunnel and organised first walk through for more than 7,000 people.

• 2013 - Surrey Hills Enterprises established.

• 2014 - Surrey Hills Trust Fund established in partnership with the Community Foundation for Surrey and the first Surrey Hills Wood Fair, organised by Surrey Hills Enterprises, takes place at the Birtley Estate.

• 2015 - The Frontline Surrey Hills project unveils memorial on Reigate Hill.

• 2016 - Inspiring Views project works with artists and land owners to clear viewpoints and install five permanent sculptures funded by the Mittal Foundation, the annual Surrey Hills Challenge event is established and Cow Parade Surrey brings together art and landscape organised by Surrey Hills Enterprises in support of charities and the Surrey Hills Trust Fund.

• 2017 - Michael More-Molyneux joins Penelope Keith DBE as Patron of the Surrey Hills.

• 2018 - Celebrating 60 years of the Surrey Hills.


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