The glorious heathland of Hindhead
If you want to sample some of Surrey's finest countryside, you could do no better than a visit to Hindhead Commons and the Devil's Punch Bowl
Originally published in 2007
Words by Emma WardThe National Trust is rightly famous for its impressive collection of grand houses and delightful gardens across the country. However, it is also committed to looking after acre upon acre of exquisite countryside, conserving and creating havens of peace, beauty and tranquillity that attract visitors in their millions every year from Cornwall to Northumberland. Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
One of the most attractive and unusual National Trust-owned countryside sites is found only a stone's throw away from the busy Hindhead traffic lights on the A3. Set right in the heart of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Hindhead Commons and The Devil's Punch Bowl together make up around 1,600 acres of lowland heath. The landscape of Hindhead Commons represents an exceptionally high quality and rare survival of once extensive heathland that used to dominate the Surrey Hills, and the National Trust works hard to protect the area's important habitat and abundant wildlife. The Devil's Punch Bowl is a natural amphitheatre covered with heath, small streams and woodland areas. It was formed by springs cutting down into the soft rock and is the largest spring-formed feature in Britain. This process can still be seen occurring in the bottom of the bowl, where the erosion continues even now. Today, the area is extremely popular, attracting around 250,000 visitors every year. They come for numerous reasons, including walking, horse riding, cycling and to watch the wildlife. There are over 60km of statutory and permissive footpaths and bridleways, as well as an easy access footpath to the main viewpoint located just 50m from The Devil's Punch Bowl Caf� that offers expansive views over the area. Hindhead Commons is a sanctuary for many different types of wildlife, including a number of rare species. Resident birds include green, great and lesser-spotted woodpeckers in the woods, with nightjars, stonechats, woodlarks and Dartford warblers on the heath. The valley bottom supports a rich insect fauna and is also home to rare craneflies. Visitors who are quiet enough can sometimes even catch a glimpse of roe deer in the woodland. Exmoor ponies also graze the heathland all year round as part of a National Trust project to restore and maintain a heathland habitat that had become overwhelmed by birch, pine and bracken after grazing of the land by commoners came to an end in the mid 1900s.
Working with the National Trust
The National Trust works in close harmony with the resident wildlife, often timing conservation tasks around the seasonal routines of nesting birds, roosting bats or sleeping dormice. Head warden, Matt Cusack has recently taken over the management of Hindhead Commons. "This year, our team of wardens are concentrating on improving the area's appeal for its visitors." He says. "We will be working on viewpoint clearance, as well as maintaining footpaths, improving access and adding to the information available to the public about the area and its wildlife." A great way for the public to find out such information is by stopping off at The Devil's Punch Bowl Caf�, situated at the heart of the Commons, just off the A3. The caf� is run by the National Trust and remains open all year round (except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day). As well as serving a wide range of hot and cold drinks, snacks and meals, visitors can also purchase a selection of local maps and walks leaflets. The caf�'s menu changes on a weekly basis to take advantage of the varying seasonal produce on offer locally. Dishes include plenty of examples of traditional English fare, such as steak and kidney pie and pork casserole, as well as delicious vegetarian options like spinach and mushroom pancakes or Soup of the Day. "The caf� is highly popular with visitors looking for somewhere to fuel up before a hearty walk on the Commons or to stop off for a snack on their way home," says Sarah Meredith, catering and retail manager at The Devil's Punch Bowl. "Our travellers' breakfast goes down especially well amongst walkers - we served over 5,200 breakfasts in the last twelve months alone. Many customers also reveal their sweet tooth, with sales of our home-made flapjacks and shortbread slices both surpassing 2,500 since March 2006." Hindhead Commons and The Devil's Punch Bowl came to the National Trust over a hundred years ago, when Sir Robert Hunter - co-founder of the National Trust and resident of nearby Haslemere - organised a public subscription, and set up a local committee, to purchase much of the area for the newly-formed Trust. Sir Robert's far-sightedness and the National Trust's dedication and management ever since has enabled the area to be preserved in perpetuity to provide inspiration and relaxation for thousands, including such literary figures as Tennyson, Conan Doyle and George Eliot.
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For more information about the area, visit the National Trust's web site at www.nationaltrust.org.uk or call the National Trust on 01428 683207.