Writers and artists escape to the Surrey Hills

Wooden Bench in the North Downs

Wooden Bench in the North Downs - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The arrival of the railways in the 19th century meant the Surrey Hills attracted some of Britain’s greatest writers and artists, keen to escape the city for fresh country living. Here, Jack Watkins follows their trail of inspiration

When Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, visited Undershaw, the home of his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 19th century, he was thrilled by the sprawling view down the Nutcombe Valley and across to the South Downs, twenty miles away. It was, he exclaimed, like looking out upon an “endless sea of greenery.” Conan Doyle himself liked nothing better than to explore, either on foot or horseback, the surrounding Surrey Hills countryside, and it’s been suggested he derived inspiration for the “Dartmoor” settings of The Hound of the Baskervilles – written in his study at Undershaw - from the local heathland.

The author lived at Hindhead from 1897 to 1907, hoping its recuperative airs would have a medicinal effect on his wife, who was a tuberculosis sufferer. The area was known as Little Switzerland, while the bucolic setting of the greensand hills with their storm tossed pine trees was dubbed “the Surrey Highlands.”

Trees and scrub have closed have off the views around Conan Doyle’s former property these days. The house itself is a sorry spectacle and the subject of a fierce campaign to save it. But you still don’t have to walk far to understand why the landscape in these parts was such a draw for so many writers and artists in the Victorian period.


A ‘modern’ phenomenon

Its “discovery” was very much a mid to late nineteenth century phenomenon, however. Local farmer’s son William Cobbett, born at Farnham in 1763, hadn’t thought much of Hindhead at all. Its thin soils were of low agricultural value, fit only for the grazing of sheep and cattle. Added to this was the reputation of its common as the haunt of highwaymen, including the notorious Hindhead Gang, who lay in wait off the roadside to prey on stagecoaches or lone horsemen. It’s small wonder that in his celebrated Rural Rides, Cobbett referred to the summit of Hindhead as “the most villainous spot that God ever made.”

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But that classic book was published in 1830, and England was changing fast. In the early nineteenth century, you hadn’t needed to travel far from the centre of London to find yourself in beautiful countryside. John Constable, for instance, forced to leave his beloved Suffolk for London to work upon his Royal Academy exhibits, took a series of residences in Hampstead, north London. The broad vistas of the blustery Heath inspired him to produce remarkable studies of clouds and other weather effects. But in the succeeding decades, overcrowding, the dirtiness of London’s streets, and the smokiness of its air led many creative types to seek inspiration further afield. And the coming of railways to Surrey meant they could find a bolt hole in the hills, while retaining swift access to their patrons and publishers in the capital.

Among the early colonisers of the area was Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose home on the Blackdown, just across the Sussex border, afforded him a prospect across fifty miles of countryside, acting as a magnet for other literary types. George Eliot, who suffered acute headaches in London, was drawn to the fields and trees around Leith Hill before eventually taking a house at Witley. She was typical of many of the arty types who came to the area, in that it remained an imperative that she still had a speedy means of transport to London.

Entirely different in philosophy were the so called “hilltop writers” who chose to live in the heights around Hindhead in conscious rejection of London mores and “civilization.” Among these figures were Canadian-born Grant Allen, who built a house which Conan Doyle even contemplated renting, Stopford Brooke, who lived on Pitch Hill at Ewhurst, and Anne Gilchrist, who lived at Shottermill.


Panoramic vistas

Among artists, Richard Redgrave spent thirty-seven successive summers painting in the open air around Abinger from 1849. Such was the reputation of the village that it became known as England’s Barbizon for its parallels with the beautiful French landscape at Fontainebleau, and its attractiveness to painters. Another artist to settle at Abinger was George Vicat Cole, who claimed the distinction of being the landscape artist to exhibit at the Royal Academy in thirty years. Cole’s canvasses luxuriated in the magnificence of the Surrey Hills’ unexpectedly high and panoramic vistas.

But one of the biggest names of the period to beat the retreat from London was George Frederic Watts, in his heyday known as “England’s Michelangelo,” and revered for high-minded allegorical paintings and portraits of the great figures of the day. He and his wife, fellow artist Mary Watts, had initially adopted Compton, near Guildford, as an autumn and winter base, before making it their permanent home in the early 1890s. Watts who suffered from depression while in London, found solace in the Surrey landscape. His memorable study of a Scots Pine, a characteristic tree of the Surrey Hills, conveys something of the feelings of rest and repose the ageing artist discovered in his surroundings.

A few miles east at Gomshall in 1884, another prominent London artist Frank Holl took a cottage “to get a breather in the intervals between each weeks’ work,” recalled his daughter AM Reynolds in her biography. Soon he commissioned the architect Norman Shaw to design him a house in the village which he called Burrows Cross after the crossroads at which it was located. As a portrait artist, Holl was as popular with the public in his day as Watts and John Everett Millais. Unfortunately, he was a workaholic and it was widely felt that an inability to turn down the stream of commissions which came his way, resulting in chronic overwork, caused his death, aged forty three, in 1888. But it’s plain that, once again, he found respite at Gomshall, his daughter recalling with particular affection their walking the stretch of countryside between Shere and Leatherhead.


Urban sprawl

Watts and Holl made their reputations on the national stage, but arguably the artist most associated with the Surrey Hills was Helen Allingham, who lived at Sandhills, near Witley, with her poet husband William, between 1881 and1888. Her distinctly idealized depictions of Surrey cottages, with their thatched and gardens bursting with flowers, remain popular today. But as the century drew to a close, the complexion of the Surrey Hills was changing. As the populace continued its outward sprawl from London, they lost the wild, untameable aspect which had so appealed to the artists.

Yet all is not entirely lost. While you might think you are rarely out of sight of a rooftop in Surrey today, it can still surprise you. The Surrey Hills are as steep as any in southern Britain – Leith Hill, in fact, just under 1,000ft, is the highest hill in the south-east –and the views as you walk up Hindhead (894ft) looking back towards Haslemere, have an almost Alpine quality. No wonder Conan Doyle imagined Undershaw as a forest Lodge like something out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales.


On the trail of the Surrey Hills art colony


Undershaw in Hindhead

Keep up with the campaign to save the house of one our best loved authors, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: saveundershaw.com


Watts Gallery in Compton

Purpose built to display GF Watts’ paintings. The first exhibition in a century on fellow London émigré Frank Holl runs from Tuesday June 18 to Sunday November 3: wattsgallery.org.uk


Hindhead Common

One of the National Trust’s earliest acquisitions and a possible inspiration for Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles…

Leith Hill

At 1,000ft, it offers south-east England’s loftiest view over George Eliot’s “true country air, free of London’s haze”.




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