Hill with a vision

Mariner's Hill

Mariner's Hill - Credit: Archant

National Trust co-founder Octavia Hill not only coined the term ‘green belt’ but her endeavours as a countryside campaigner over a century ago helped safeguard the stunning Kentish Weald.

Chris Heels, NT's area ranger for West Kent

Chris Heels, NT's area ranger for West Kent - Credit: Archant

It is unlikely that many who stop to savour the views from the heights of the Greensand Way will be familiar with the name of Octavia Hill. One of the founders of the National Trust, her life and work has long stopped being a subject of mainstream curiosity.

Yet if it wasn’t for her endeavours as a countryside campaigner over a century ago, it’s just possible that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy such stunning prospects of the Kent Weald at all.

Mariners Hill and its neighbours Toys Hill and Ide Hill are three high points along the Greensand Way footpath in an area of Kent much regarded for its beauty. They have been in the ownership of the Trust ever since Octavia “saved them for the nation” early in the last century.

There’s little doubt that her action was critical to safeguarding them and the immediate countryside against piecemeal development, agrees Chris Heels, the Trust’s area ranger for West Kent. “These days the area is protected by Green Belt and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty designations,” he says.

“However, in Octavia’s time that sort of legal protection for the countryside simply did not exist, so fragments of the hills would likely have been built upon, and inappropriate development would almost certainly have occurred.”

Octavia knew all about “inappropriate development.” Born in Wisbech in Cambridgeshire in 1838, her childhood had been spent in Finchley and Highgate in north London. While these were still villages at the time, before long the hay meadows she remembered collecting wild flowers in as a young girl were disappearing as London expanded out from its metropolis.

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Octavia became involved in the fight to save Hampstead Heath from being built over, raising £512,000 by public subscription to protect Parliament Hill. Further afield, she was also involved in campaigns to save Burnham Beeches and Epping Forest. While these were important victories, Octavia still lamented the manner in which the working class urban population was being effectively cut off from what she called “pure earth, clean air and blue sky.” In an article she wrote in 1888 advocating the creation of networks of paths between protected open spaces in and around London she coined the term “green belt,” effectively anticipating the Town and Country Planning legislation introduced in the late 1940s to act as a break on development in the countryside surrounding the capital.

By the1880s Octavia had found a ‘bolthole’ in Kent at Crockham Hill, living in a cottage she named Larksfield, situated on higher ground just outside the village.

To her generation, counties like Surrey and Kent were still “out in the sticks”, not yet altered by creeping suburbia. She could see the Kent countryside was a precious resource not just to the locals, but also to Londoners grabbing a rare moment of leisure time. Mariner’s Hill, for instance, is less than 25 miles from Hyde Park Corner, ideal for the day tripper.

Octavia actively encouraged the idea of handing land over to the newly formed National Trust in memoriam. Her sister Miranda set a fine example by gifting land at Ide Hill, before Octavia gradually added to the bequest with more parcels of countryside at Toys Hill and Mariners Hill.

Today these spots are among the outdoor jewels of the Trust’s properties in the south east and anyone walking these hilltops now will not be short of viewing points; indeed, Chris Heels is in the process of restoring ones which have become closed in over time.

Nevertheless, he says, Toys Hill will always have greater densities of tree cover than the other areas. “During the Great Storm of 1987, Toys Hill lost 95 per cent of its tree cover, so we carried out an experiment, replanting in some areas and allowing trees to regenerate naturally in other sections.

“What we found was that where nature was left to its own devices, the tree regrowth proved stronger than in the planted areas. In fact, the regrowth has been so vigorous that the hill has largely reverted to dense woodland.

“So we are now trying to enlarge the open spaces to improve the diversity of flora and fauna. We are working on improving an area of heather known to support adders and other reptiles, with the help of the Kent Reptile and Amphibian Group.”

The Trust is also about to begin a period of consultation with the local community, seeking their views of the Trust’s ownership of Toys Hill and to develop a long-term management plan for one of the most famous sites along the Greensand Ridge.

Mariners Hill is a little more open than Toys Hill, its carpets of bluebells under the oaks presenting a beautiful spectacle in spring. But it’s still worth exploring on a less hospitable day in autumn or winter, its pathways are easily accessible. I paid it a visit recently, strolling up to a viewing point just above the tiny hamlet of Froghole where, through a break in the trees, the ground fell away to present an enchanting vision of the Weald in all its misty loveliness.

Retracing my steps to Froghole, I went down some steps and along the lane, past an old oast house and homes set into the side of the hill. Crossing a couple of streams, and cattle at pasture, I reached the village of Crockham Hill.

Octavia’s grave is just to the right as you climb some steps to enter the graveyard of the Holy Trinity Church, under a suitably aged yew.

She chose to be buried here in preference to Westminster Abbey, and her remains lie with those of her sisters Miranda, who predeceased her by two years, in 1910, and Harriet who lived on until 1930. Inside the church, if it is open, is a stone memorial to Octavia’s life, and the Octavia Hill memorial window.

Further down the lane, the green has apple trees and a village sign depicting workers gathering the corn at harvest time, and against a backdrop pf the church, schoolchildren and lots of trees, with a plaque to Octavia below.

Today, with renewed pressures on the green belt, and the requirement upon local authorities to build new housing, the pressures on the countryside are not dissimilar to Octavia’s day.

Even if it seems highly unlikely that anyone could get away with building on Mariners Hill now, it is worth reminding ourselves that there is little point in protecting land for its ‘viewpoint value’ if the views seen from it are changed or mangled beyond recognition.

Octavia Hill may at best be just a name on a village sign for many of us in the 21st century, but her ideas remain as relevant as ever and, it could be argued, we badly need more of her type now to continue to lead the fight against the Treasury’s “presumption in favour of development.”

Find out more

Holy Trinity Church, Crockham Hill

Church Lane, Crockham Hill

Edenbridge TN8 6RP

The church is at the end of Church Lane, a turning off the B269. The lane is on the eastern side of the main road: turn left if approaching from Westerham or Oxted, or right if coming up from Edenbridge or Four Elms.