Visiting the Surrey Hills - stunning views to Walter Bailey sculptures via local produce in our Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
- Credit: Archant
Running right through the heart of the county, the Surrey Hills are the jewel in Surrey’s natural crown. A Portrait of the Surrey Hills author and long time Surrey Life contributor Jane Garrett reveals a few of the best reasons to visit
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Enjoy great Surrey views
An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Surrey Hills take in some of the most spectacular countryside in southern England, and the high vantage points offer stunning panoramas north to London and the Thames, and south to the South Downs and the sea beyond. It’s hard to pick a favourite but the following should certainly whet the appetite, starting with the North Downs between Shere and West Horsley. Pick your spot on a clear day and you can see the profile of London. For sheer beauty, go to Newlands Corner when there is mist in the valleys and sun on the hilltops, or for a glimpse of the sea, climb Leith or Holmbury Hill and focus on the glint of water through the Lancing Gap. I could go on; the Devil’s Punch Bowl and Gibbet Hill are just as lovely. The best thing is that just about anywhere in Surrey is within easy range of a hill just waiting to be climbed.
Eat al fresco in the Surrey Hills
Picnicking is one of the great pleasures of an English summer and one of the most famous picnic spots is Box Hill, which has been a magnet for sightseers, courting couples and family outings for centuries. For example, Jane Austen used it as the setting for the picnic in her novel Emma. Of course, a running stream can also make a lovely backdrop for a picnic, too, and the Tillingbourne runs through grass at Abinger Hammer. On a summer’s day, you can picnic by the stream and watch the cricket. If you prefer a proper seat, however, go to Leith, Holmbury or Pitch Hill, where you can munch your sandwich and enjoy the view in comfort.
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Try a local Surrey beer or wine
Surrey is becoming famous for its wines and beers. Denbies Wine Estate, just outside Dorking, is a great place to explore viticulture and wine making. Their indoor wine experience tour takes place all year round, and the outdoor vineyard train runs daily from March to November. There is also a successful little vineyard producing sparkling white wine at Greyfriars on the Hog’s Back at Puttenham, which holds open weekends for tasting, viewing and buying. Prefer beer? When you visit a pub in the Surrey Hills, ask for Hogs Back TEA, Shere Drop or Ranmore Ale. The Surrey Hills Brewery, which is soon to move to Denbies, and the Hogs Back Brewery at Tongham are Surrey’s best known and both offer award-winning tipples. The Hogs Back Brewery also runs regular tours.
Spot the Surrey Hills sculptures
Here are some clues: Newlands Corner, Young Street in Leatherhead and Hambledon... all good places to start your hunt for the Surrey Hills famous boundary sculptures. The carved oak posts, which look like huge totem poles, were erected in 2002 as part of a unique branding exercise to make people aware they were entering a special place the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Internationally famous chainsaw sculptor Walter Bailey created them with a seed pod design, as a symbol of new beginnings, and there are 11 in all. Can you find the others?
Have a pub lunch
To get the real Surrey Hills experience, head for the Stephan Langton pub in Friday Street and, an insider tip, leave your car in a car park in the forest and walk down to the hamlet. The lake is magical whatever the weather. The pub is known for being very welcoming and the chef’s reputation is legendary. Another Surrey Hills favourite is The Three Horseshoes in Thursley, which is owned by the local community and where the food is fantastic. Meanwhile, over at The Parrot in Forest Green, they use produce that has been grown on the owner’s farm in Coldharbour, and the William IV at Little London in Albury serves its own pork. All these pubs are surrounded by excellent walking country, so why not make a day of it?
Explore local history
The Surrey Hills are full of reminders that, during the Second World War, we were braced for a German invasion. The Tillingbourne Valley, the North Downs and even St Martha’s Hill are all dotted with wartime defensive installations. They are mostly gun emplacements but at Limpsfield you can see air raid shelters conserved as mini museums and at Reigate Fort defensive works dating from the 1890s. The Tillingbourne at Chilworth was one of the most dangerous places in Surrey. Walk through the woods and explore the ruins of the notorious gunpowder mills. The Lovelace Bridges on the North Downs at East Horsley are a great excuse to get lost in the woods, too.
Learn rural crafts
See the journey from living tree to finished furniture at one of the open days held at Norbury Park Wood Products. The Surrey Wildlife Trust sawmill there produces hand-crafted furniture, but you can sometimes see charcoal burning and chair bodging, too. A newly laid hedge is hugely satisfying and the ancient craft of hedgelaying is growing in popularity. Why not give it a try and dazzle your friends with your new woodland vocabulary there is even a Surrey Hedgelaying Group, whose members hold training sessions.
Rushing along in a car is no way to appreciate the Surrey Hills. Slow down, and go by foot, bicycle or horse as you will see so much more. The Mole Gap Trail is perfect for a gentle walk, and made more interesting by the quirky little silver arrow way-markers along the route. Catch the train to Leatherhead and follow the arrows all the way to Dorking, stopping off at the Stepping Stones pub for a breather, of course. Or, why not pop your mountain bike on the train and get off at Gomshall to test your skills on some serious hills around the Hurtwood and Leith Hill? Peaslake Stores is famous for its cheese straws instant energy for bikers! Finally, the extra height of a horse makes the views even better and far easier than having to climb a tree! Many local riders like to collect Surrey Hills peaks: Leith Hill, Holmbury Hill and Pitch Hill all make a good day ride or check out Albury Equestrian Centre for organised group hacks.
Meet some wildlife
Their horns are more than two feet long (each, that is) and their fur is red and shaggy... Despite their appearance, though, Highland cattle are pretty docile, so don’t panic if you bump into one snoozing on a path on Headley Down, Gibbet Hill or Reigate Hill, or browsing through the meadows below Box Hill. On a hot sunny day on Blackheath, you might be lucky enough to spot a rare sand lizard basking on a stone, although make sure you watch out for adders in the heather! Roe deer are fairly common across the Surrey Hills and, in the summer, if you see one crossing a road be sure to slow down, as there will often be a youngster or two bobbing along behind as well. Meanwhile, the Hurtwood near Peaslake is full of birdsong, so listen for a long drawn out churring it will probably be a nightjar, and his wife will be nearby, sitting on her nest in the heather, fantastically camouflaged against predators.
See the sights
Some of the most beautiful pieces of countryside in the Surrey Hills are actually man-made. For example, Capability Brown designed the parkland at Gatton Park, on Reigate Hill, and it has recently been restored, with a public access trail. The gardens at Loseley Park are also well worth a visit and you can buy unusual plants that are grown there, too. One of my personal favourite places is Winkworth Arboretum at Hascombe, particularly in spring and autumn the rhododendrons and azaleas there are famous. Then there is the top of Holmbury Hill, which is sculpted into huge banks and ditches that once fortified an Iron Age camp. The track there takes you right through the fortifications to the summit.
• A Portrait of the Surrey Hills is available in all good bookshops, priced at 12.99. Become a member of the Surrey Hills Society and take an active role in protecting the unique landscape and character of the Surrey Hills, or simply explore and enjoy this beautiful area with like-minded people.
What do you most love about the Surrey Hills? Share your thoughts by commenting below...