Woodland road near Leith Hill, Surrey

Surrey - The Patio of England

Author: Sue
Date: 13th May 2024
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Surrey

Surrey is a very pretty county - not very far from London and fairly close to home. I also worked there for several years. It's been delightful exploring it again.

Surrey - Facts and Factoids

  • Surrey is known as a 'home county', as it borders London. This is one reason that it is an extremely desirable place to live. But you need a bank balance that fits. Surrey has the highest per capita income of any county in UK and pays the highest taxes. Over two thirds of the working population have managerial or professional occupations, compared with half for England as a whole. And Surrey has the highest average house prices - is the least affordable county - with prices almost double the national average.
  • Much of the north of the county, the other side of the M25 circular motorway, forms part of the low lying Greater London Built-up Area, extending south into Woking, Guildford and Leatherhead and west, into Farnborough/Aldershot. For this reason, although Surrey sometimes claims the title 'Garden of England, (already taken by Kent) architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner more aptly dubbed Surrey 'The Patio of England'. To be fair, the south of the county is rural, and exceptionally lovely. Surrey has the densest woodland cover in England.
  • The Surrey Hills cover approximately one quarter of the county. They cover part of the North Downs and an area of the more southerly Greensand Ridge. They were designated an Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB) in May 1958, but were redesignated as a National Landscape, in 2023. I'm unclear why this is supposed to sound more impressive. It adjoins the Kent Downs AONB to the east and the South Downs National Park in the south west.
  • The chalk escarpment that is the North Downs, runs from the south-west to north-east, dividing urban from rural. The south-east is part of the Weald, whilst the south-west contains the remainder of the Surrey Hills and Thursley, Hankley and Frensham Commons, an extensive area of heath. There isn't a great deal of agriculture on this patio, but there are a huge network of footpaths and bridleways. The most notable is the North Downs Way, of which I've done the Surrey section.
  • The highest point in Surrey is Leith Hill, near Dorking (295 metres).
  • Government redesignation of part of Surrey as the London Borough of Kingston, left it as the only county with its "county town", of Kingston, in another authority. Although Guildfordians would claim that the town of Guildford has that status, despite the council being based elsewhere.
  • The largest settlement, however, is Woking. Brookwood, at Woking was home to a huge outer London necropolis, with coffins being brought in, from Waterloo (between 1854 and 1941) on London’s spookiest and strangest railway line. Most certainly a Dead End Line. Britain’s first official crematorium (after considerable heated debate and opposition), followed here. Britain’s first purpose-built Mosque was also in Woking. H G Wells, the author, moved to Woking in 1895 (he's blue plaqued in Maybury Road) and wrote The War of The Worlds there. Apparently, he used quite a lot of local detail, to make the story authentic; one of the best-known novels of all time.
  • Breakfast cereal was first made in Surrey, by the Seventh Day Adventist movement. Based at Shalford Mill, they intended to supply health foods to their British followers, but since these were only available in the U. S. and difficult to import, the venture failed. Instead, several of their members, led by one Dr. Kellogg, founded the ‘London Health Food Company and produced wheat flake breakfast food and ‘health biscuits’, as well as nut-based foods. (The mill burnt down in 1900 and the business was transferred to Birmingham.)

Godalming

Godalming is a market town, which dates back to the sixth or early seventh centuries. It has an idyllic setting, facing onto the Wey and buttercup carpeted water meadows, and was well situated for trade, on the London to Portsmouth route. Godalming made its early money from Kersey, a blue dyed woollen cloth, dyed blue, but, in the seventeenth century, focus switched to knitted textiles - manufacture of hosiery in particular.

Several buildings in the town centre date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the High Street is almost impossibly cute. The distinctive Pepperpot, octagonal with a cupola, was built from crowdfunding of the time, in 1814, to replace the medieval market house and to house the council chamber. It's definitely the focal point of the town. It was also home, for a time, to the Godalming Museum, but that's moved on, up the High Street.

The church of St Peter and St Paul, with a great view of the meadows, is over a thousand years old. The King's Arms and Royal Hotel, in the High Street, is a former coaching inn, dating back to the seventeenth century. It's main claim to fame is a stay by Peter the Great and his entourage, The Russian ambassador even unveiled a plaque, in 1998, to mark the 300th anniversary of the Czar's visit.

Godalming was also home to my mountaineer hero - George Mallory , who made the famous 'Because It's There' quote. And the famous public school Charterhouse is based on a hilltop, overlooking the town.

A History of Surrey

  • There are just a few Pre-Roman remains, to be seen in Surrey: two fine Bronze Age barrows at Horsell Common in Woking and Iron Age hillforts at Hascombe Hill, Chertsey, St George’s Hill in Weybridge and Holmbury Hill. countryside.
  • The Roman Stane Street, connecting Chichester to London, traversed Surrey, literally paving the way for the modern A3 and A24. The Romans also built temples near Wanborough and Farley Heath.
  • But Surrey is named after the Saxons, who arrived in the fifth and sixth centuries. Surrey comes from the Saxon term Suthrige, which means, 'southern kingdom. Surrey was, for the most part, too far inland to suffer Viking raids, but the invaders were defeated at Farnham, in 892, by the army of Edward the Elder. Kingston was important enough to be the site of the coronation of English kings, during the following century, including Aethelstan and Aethelred the Unready. (The Coronation Stone is still on the High Street by Clattern Bridge).
  • Following the Norman conquest, William de Warenne became Earl of Surrey, and amongst his many castles were those at Guildford and Farnham.
  • And it was at at Runnymede, on the banks of the Thames, in 1215, that King John was forced to sign Magna Carta.
  • Proximity to London, and plenty of forests meant hunting for the nobles. So several opulent palaces were built. Although only Hampton Court now remains.
  • Surrey's mainly rural economy had revolved mainly around the woollen cloth industry in the Middle Ages. Industrialisation, from the seventeenth century centred led to the development of waterways. One of the country’s first canal systems, the Wey Navigation, opened in 1653. It enabled gunpowder (the area was the country's leading producer), timber, wood, corn and flour to be transported up to London. They brought back coal, to power the mills.
  • The arrival of the railways led to commuting to London and Surrey developed as a dormitory county.
  • In 1960, the report of the Herbert Commission recommended that much of north Surrey (including Kingston and Croydon) be included in a new "Greater London". These recommendations were considerably, but, in 1965, the areas which now form the London Boroughs of Croydon, Kingston, Merton, and Sutton and the part of Richmond, south of the River Thames, were transferred from Surrey to Greater London, leaving only a small part of the county's northern border running along the Thames (alongside Berkshire.)

Guildford

Habitation in the Guildford area dates back to the Mesolithic era and Guildford is mentioned in the will of Alfred the Great (c.880.), although the exact location of the main Anglo-Saxon settlement is unclear and the town centre we now today may not have been occupied until the early eleventh century. In medieval times Guildford prospered through the wool trade. The new River Wey Navigation and then, the arrival of the railways underpinned further growth, but building potential is limited, as Guildford is surrounded on three sides by the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Guildford Castle and Museum

Guildford Museum and castle are adjacent. not exactly huddled, as the castle (or what's left of the keep) stands proudly on its motte, with stair and boardwalk access. And there are bits and pieces of wall and shell keep scattered around. It was built by William de Warenne, the first Earl of Surrey, just after the Norman conquest. It had its heyday in the time of Henry III. He extended and titivated to the point that it became worthy of the name palace. But after that defence was no longer necessary (other than the odd civil battle) and the buildings fell into decline.

Today, the castle is interesting, but the floral gardens surrounding the keep are more attractive. You can access both, to one side, through an arch, attached to the old gatehouse. This is home to part of the Guildford Museum. There's also a new gallery (well 1911), constructed in the Arts and Crafts style, and housing house objects donated by the horticulturalist, Gertrude Jekyll. and an early nineteenth century townhouse, acquired and to house manuscripts.

Guildford Town Centre

Guildford is an idyllic place to shop, if you're after upmarket chain stores in an eclectic mix of attractive old buildings, alongside cobbles. It's the epitome of middle class, or 'Overheard in Waitrose'. Although that supermarket is a relatively recent addition to Guildford. Head for the High Street, but keep looking up, towards the facades and roofs, as you wander uphill.

You can also get your shopping fix in the modern malls, like the Friary Centre, or the little squares and alleys that burgeon off the High Street. But first, take in the Guildhall and especially its splendid clock. Guildford has to have a guildhall, of course, but its name predates the guilds by a long way and refers to the crossing of the river here. The current building is thought to have been constructed around. 1550. The outer case of the Guildhall clock is dated 1683, but the workings may be earlier even than that. .

And you can't miss the Abbot's Hospital. This (officially) Hospital of the Holy Trinity, was founded in 1622, by George Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a former pupil of the Royal Grammar School. (His statue is almost opposite.) The name is misleading - it was accommodation for singles from Guildford and it's still used for that purpose. It's a dark red building, around a rectangular courtyard, with a beyond imposing four storey gatehouse.

Opposite, is the Anglican Holy Trinity Church, a solid, red brick edifice, built in the early 1760s to replace the collapsed mediaeval church. It served as proxy cathedral, until the current one was finished

River Wey Navigation

It's a very pleasant stroll alongside the Wey if you cross the Millbrook Lock system. The curtain literally comes down on the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre here - you can just make it out through the gracefully weeping willow trees. Beyond that, and somewhat less elegant is a scruffy Debenhams building. And then, Dapdune Wharf. The main boatyard for the River Wey Navigation has been based here since the waterway was completed in 1653 and you can sometimes take boat trips.

Guildford Cathedral

Guildford became the centre of a new Anglican diocese, in 1927. The foundation stone of Guildford's relatively modern Anglican Cathedral Church of the Holy Spirit, was laid in 1936, on Stag Hill. It was donated land (from Lord Onslow) , which at that time was outside the town perimeter. Guildford University followed, next door in 1966. Its solid red brick and stands majestically above the town. Imposing rather than beautiful. I would say the same of the interior. Though the cathedral was listed as Grade II by Historic England.

RHS Wisley

RHS Wisley is one of five gardens run by the Royal Horticultural Society. Wisley is the second most visited paid entry garden in the United Kingdom, after the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with well over a million visitors. (There were 5,250 in 1905.) Wisley began life as the 60 acre 'Oakwood Experimental Garden', where Victorian businessman and RHS member George Ferguson Wilson, attempted to 'make difficult plants grow successfully.' Wisley came into the hands of the RHS in 1903.

Today, Wisley covers 240 acres, incorporates numerous formal and informal decorative gardens, several glasshouses and an extensive arboretum and various research facilities. Not to mention the National Heather Collection. It's a jolly good place for an outing, (unless there are road works on the A3 intersection close by) especially when there's a sculptural exhibition integrating with the blossoms. There are nice cafes, good views across the countryside from the various landscapes and an excellent plant shop.

Painshill Park

Painshill, near Cobham, is a restored eighteenth-century landscape park. It was designed and created between 1738 and 1773 by Charles Hamilton, although the original house built there by Hamilton has long since been demolished. It now comprises 158 of the original more than 200 acres, stretching along the undulating banks of the winding River Mole.

Activity here, which is mostly strolling, centres on a serpentine lake of 14 acres created with water pumped from the Mole. It's surrounded by rarer tree specimens and decorated with islands, bridges, a causeway and several follies. These include a Gothic Tower and a restored Roman Temple to Bacchus. There's even a crystal grotto. Apparently there was also once even a 'hermitage', complete with resident hermit. but he went AWOL too often and had to be dismissed.

The Surrey Hills

The Surrey Hills are home to magnificent view points, leafy vistas and the prettiest of villages. I've been lucky enough to see much of thi,s from the North Downs Way.

St Martha’s Hill

St Martha's Hill is one of the first viewpoints on the North Downs Way, although its actually on the Greensand Ridge. There's a Norman church and five circular earthworks, believed to date back to the Bronze Age. There used to be a Good Friday custom whereby all the local youth flocked here to dance and listen to music every Good Friday. It's a shame it stopped, Plenty of benches to enjoy the view. Or do as I did and sit on the gravestones in the churchyard.

Loseley Park

Loseley Park is a large Tudor manor house which appears in the Domesday Book, of 1086, as Losele. It was held by Turald (Thorold) and its Domesday assets were: two hides. It had four ploughs and five acres of meadow. Nowadays, it has 1400 acres. The present house was built with stone, brought from the ruins of Waverley Abbey, and replaced a smaller one, which Elizabeth I had dismissed as 'inadequate for her to visit'. The Great Hall contains panelling from Henry VIII's Nonsuch Palace (pulled down in 1682–3, by Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine, mistress to Charles II, to sell off building materials, to pay for her gambling debts). There's also a minstrel's gallery, carvings by Grinling Gibbons, panels from Henry VIII's banqueting tents, a collection of royal and family portraits (one of the few paintings of Anne Boleyn) and a massive chalk fireplace, designed by Hans Holbein.

The wall round the garden is as old as the house, but the garden itself is modern, based on a design by Gertrude Jekyll, with a series of themed 'rooms', divided by box and yew hedges. A redevelopment project began in 1993/4 and is ongoing. I'm very lucky. It's a gorgeous day and the huge spread of wisteria, just inside the garden entrance is in full fragrant bloom. the friendly gardener working there tells me that it's the best wisteria plant in the country. She may well be right. and to think I went all the way to Japan seeking wisteria.

The gardens are cleverly designed so that at least one is in full bloom. so, although it's too early for roses, the flower garden is frothily stunning. Beyond the garden wall, the tranquil lily pad dotted moat, with its moat walk, facing across the meadows beckons. It's a great place to escape, if you want to sit quietly, away from the bustling tea garden.

Loseley Park and the house boast an array of filming credits. I'm most impressed by Agatha Christie's Why Didn't they Ask Evans? The Favourite, Rebecca and The Crown.

Albury

Albury parish, just over three miles east of Guildford spans the small new and old villages and three hamlets: Farley Green, Little London and Brook – spaced out by Albury Heath, Foxholes Wood, small fields and Albury Park. There are some interesting houses to stop and peek out as you drive through, not to mention a couple of pubs and the village shop.

The medieval village of Albury was clustered around the old Saxon church of St Peter and St Paul. In 1842, Henry Drummond moved the the village half a mile westward, to what was originally the hamlet of Weston Street, where he also built a new church. The Duke of Northumberland owns the estate – Albury Park Mansion was once home to the Duke and Duchess.

Shere

A little further east and just off the A25 is Shere. I've already said that Godalming is impossibly cute so now I'm lost for words. Shere is pure chocolate box village. Timber farmed and flint cottages, atmospheric pubs, an ice cream parlour (called Shere Delight of course). It's most famous for its duck stream, which is signposted, of course. It's a long time since I visited and today I'm blessed with sun and honeycomb ice cream. Last time, they were filming The Holiday. Cameron Diaz and Jude Law had drinks in the White Horse Inn. They weren't there when I was testing the gin and tonic, but the street was covered in artificial snow, testifying to their recent departure.

Abinger

Tootle along the A25 some more. The gorgeous hills behind and more charming villages. Gomshall and then Abinger. Abinger is actually a collection of three picturesque villages: Abinger Hammer, Abinger Common, and Abinger Bottom. Abinger Hammer is named after its water-powered iron forge and hammer pond. The pond was created by digging a channel from the River Tillingbourne in the sixteenth century. The forge closed in 1787 and nowadays, the pond is used for the cultivation of watercress.

The famous clock (shown above) which overhangs the main road portrays the figure of' 'Jack the Blacksmith', who strikes the hour with his hammer. The clock bears the motto 'By me you know how fast to go'.

Leith Hill

Leith Hill, reaching s 294 metres (965 ft) above sea level, is the highest summit in Surrey and indeed, is the second highest point in southeast England, (after Walbury Hill in Berkshire). On top of the hill is an eighteenth-century Gothic tower, built by Richard Hull of nearby Leith Hill Place. It has the dual purpose of raising the hill above 1,000 feet (305 metres) above sea level and making it taller than Walbury Hill. Hull called it Prospect Tower and provided visitors with prospect glasses, (like a small telescope), through which to survey the extensive views: London in one direction and the south coast in the other.

When Hull died in 1772, he was buried under the tower, but the building fell into ruin. and it was filled with rubble and concrete and bricked up. In 1864, William John Evelyn of nearby Wotton House attempted to reopen it, but the concrete made access difficult. So, they added a turreted side-tower. The tower was fully restored by the National Trust in 1984. at summer weekends they open it up, so you can climb to the top. During the week you have to be content with refreshments from a serving hatch.

There are numerous footpaths meandering around here, through the woodlands and its a perfect place to stop, have a drink and admire those views. It's been claimed that on a clear day, 13 counties can be seen from the top of Leith Hill Tower.

Polesden Lacey

Polesden Lacey is a National Trust owned house and estate, on the North Downs at Great Bookham, near Dorking, Surrey. There have been houses on the site since the fourteenth century, but this one dates back to the Regency period, and was extensively remodelled in 1906 by Margaret Greville, a well-known hostess. So, it is considered to be Edwardian. Her collections of paintings (restoration and Georgian in the main), furniture, porcelain and silver are displayed in the reception rooms and galleries, kept as they were at the time of her celebrated house parties. The future George VI and Queen Elizabeth spent part of their honeymoon there in 1923.

On my last visit the house is hosting 'The Last Tree & The Art of Nature In Collaboration' exhibition. It takes up most of the rooms upstairs and the cynical might suggest that it's just a room filling exercise.A few twigs and some twinkly lights are not very engaging.

The 1,400-acre estate includes a walled rose garden, lawns (croquet anyone?), ancient woodland and landscape walks.The house is cleverly positioned for optimum views, with the wooded bank falling away from the principal rooms. It's thoughtfully littered with deckchairs and picnickers are enjoying the sunny weather.

Dorking

Dorking is a market town in Surrey, also surrounded on three sides by the Surrey Hills. A market is thought to have been held at least weekly since early medieval times - especially notable for the poultry traded there. There's a breed of domestic chicken named after the town. Hence, cockerels proliferate in Dorking, not least on the town crest. There's even a metal sculpture of a Dorking cockerel, by Peter Parkinson (2007), on the Deepdene roundabout, to the east of town. This cockerel is a frequent yarn bombing target and is often bedecked in hats, scarves and other items of clothing.

This was a boom town in Tudor times, but things went less well after that. Dorking wasn't hugely easy to get to (clay or chlak lay in the way) and it may or may not be relevant that many inhabitants were nonconformists, including the author, Daniel Defoe, who lived in Dorking as a child. Six of the Mayflower Pilgrims, including William Mullins and his daughter Priscilla, lived in the town before setting sail for the New World. There's a blue plaque on Mullins house. This is the only known surviving home of a Pilgrim Father.

Dorking started to expand again, as roads improved and the railways came. Lime was produced in the town (you can see the quarries on the sides of the Downs, to the north). Box Hill was a big attraction, with its views and Emmanuel Bowen proclaimed the air of ‘Darking’ the sweetest in England. London's Nouveau Riche looked to build country residences in the area - still in coaching distance from the capital.

I've seen Dorking described as charming, but that's stretching it. I think the High Street (which used to be East Street and the hub of all market activity) is a little ramshackle. Sometimes it's impossible to tell what's old and what's fake, or has had its original facade covered, in the name of fashion. If you like quirky shops and antique stores, no problem. There are plenty of those. And the newish St Martin's Walk with eateries and a Marks and Spencers. And there are definitely a few old buildings.

The White Horse Hotel dates back 400 years and the first building on the site belonged to the Knights Templar. The property became an inn around 1750, just before the opening of the Epsom to Horsham turnpike road. Famous guests have included Charles Dickens who wrote The Pickwick Papers there (that man got around). The church (St Martin's) with a splendid tall spire, is Victorian (the third incarnation on the site) and Pippbrook House, a Gothic country house to the east of the High Street, was designed, as a private residence, by George Gilbert Scott in 1856. The buildings now belong to the local Council. Almost opposite is the Art Deco Dorking Halls building, designed for the Leith Hill Musical Festival, in 1931. That's also now owned by the Council. Outside is a statue of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who lived in Dorking.

To the north of town, Denbies Wine Estate is one of England’s largest single estate vineyards, with 265 acres currently in production. It's relatively modern - the first vines were planted in 1986. there are tours and tastings. The North Downs Way passes right through the vineyard.

Dorking is still a relatively quiet place. The train service isn't the best and the car parks are free on Sundays, to encourage visitors. That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of traffic. Dorking has an infuriatingly slow one way system coming from the west. The A24 skirts to the east. It's dual carriageway, but again, not always easy driving. Today. I'm surrounded by maybe 100 motorcyclists heading south - and it's not even bank holiday. They swoop past, then slow down, wave their mates by, clog up the whole of the lane in front of me. I finally manage to get by. escorted front and back and then they all overtake again. And so it goes on.

Box Hill

This is a National Trust property full of footpaths that could keep you entertained for days on end. There are several parking spots around the property, the most popular of which is located near the memorial viewpoint, where you can enjoy views of Dorking and the surrounding area.

Major Peter Labilliere was buried, upside down, on Box Hill, in 1800. H had been unlucky in love. The woman of his dreams had turned him down and it's thought that this disturbed the balance of his mind. He moved to Dorking where, despite his wealth, he chose to live in a hovel called ‘The Hole in The Wall’. He predicted his death, to the exact day, ninth months in advance. He was convinced that there would be a resurrection, but also that then, the world would be turned upside down. So, he left instructions that he should be buried upside down, so that he would be ready and waiting.

Brockham

Located just to the east of Dorking, and still just off the A25 Brockham (Bend in the Brook - nothing to do with badgers) is the most stereotypical of English villages. A lovely wooden bridge, the remains of yet another Norman castle (Betchworth), village greens surrounded by pubs (one of them either used to be the village hall or doubles as that too. I'm unsure.) We can't count the church - it's only nineteenth century sadly. But the main green is famous. Even WG Grace is said to have played cricket here. and it's also been renowned for hosting the UK's largest bonfire and firework display.

What more could you ask? Except, I'm talking about the northern, older part of the village. The rest winds south to where Beecham Research Laboratories Ltd (which merged with SmithKline and then with Glaxo, to become GlaxoSmithKline in 2000) operated from Brockham Park. This is where scientists did the groundwork for making synthetic penicillin. Today, it's a housing estate. But Brockham can't shake off its industrial shackles. In August 2018, retrospective (!) planning permission was granted by Surrey County Council for a secondary oil wellbore in Brockham.

Leigh

Potter south to find Leigh, more village greens, tow more pubs and a church that dates back to at least the fourteenth century- possibly even older in parts. Though the wooden tower is nineteenth century. There's a well, which became a pump, underneath its own roof. Even the traditional red phone box houses a history lesson.

Reigate

Reigate is another affluent Surrey town. It is recorded in the Domesday Book, in 1086, as Cherchefelle. Reigate, as a name, doesn't appear until the 1190s. One suggestion is that it derives derive from Roe-deer Gate, as the town was close to the entrance to the de Warenne's (Earl of Surrey) deer park. Then, and for some centuries, its wealth was based on agriculture. (A weekly market began in the late thirteenth century and continued until 1895). De Warenne preferred to make Lewes his base, but Reigate was important enough for his family to build a motte-and-bailey castle, in the late eleventh or early twelfth century. This was originally timber, but the curtain walls were later rebuilt in stone.

The castle was abandoned during the Reformation, after being owned by the Howard family and fell into disrepair. It was finally demolished, in 1648, after occupation as a garrison, during the Civil War, by Royalists. In 1777, one Richard Barnes built a folly or mock medieval gateway, over the ruins. He added a dedication to De Warenne in both English and Latin. It's still an interesting wander, if you can find the Castle Grounds entrance, to the north of the High street (it's not that well signposted). There's a grassy area, some flowerbeds and a stone pyramid, with a metal grille, which looks like a tiny gaol, but is the top entrance to the Barons' Cave (see below).

The other major historical building in Reigate was an Augustinian priory, founded to the south of the modern town centre in the first half of the thirteenth century. That building was also closed during the Reformation, but was rebuilt as a private residence for the Howard family. Maybe they moved there from the castle? The so called priory building was much later subsumed into Reigate Priory School, but is badly in need of repair. It's currently barricaded off. Its also left its legacy, in the name of the Park, formed out of the priory grounds. a small sunken garden, some fish ponds and beautiful views, across to a greensand ridge.

Reigate's fortunes fluctuated over time, as the new turnpike roads brought in cheaper goods rather than more custom. But expansion followed the railways and houses were built on some of the priory estate, after 1921. It's a nice, if pricey place to live (I worked here, running one of the schools for several years). The High Street is pleasant rather than attractive, but chock full of independent boutique type shops, bijou cafes and what are referred to as 'quality chains'.

The stand out building, on the northern side, is the Old Town Hall, though this is eye catching rather than pretty, like Godalming's Pepperpot. The site was previously occupied by the thirteenth century chapel and hospice of St. Thomas of Canterbury. It functioned as a pilgrims' resting place. The somewhat austere brick replacement was designed in the neoclassical style and completed in 1728. Markets were held in the arcades beneath and it was also later home to the local horse-drawn fire engine and the police station. It was used as a courthouse for petty sessions in the nineteenth century and as the headquarters of Reigate Municipal Borough Council from its formation in 1863. It's not really surprising that the borough council moved to a new town hall, in 1901.

The Cranston Library (opened in 1701) is the oldest public lending library in England, originally founded for use by the clergy. It is housed on the first floor of the vestry of the Church of St Mary Magdalene and the collection includes over 2000 books, most of them dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

I also need to mention the scenery to the north of town - much of the North Downs here is owned by the National Trust - Colley Hill (the Inglis Memorial here, dating from 1909, was originally a drinking fountain for horses) and Reigate Hill, contributing to the desirability of Reigate as a residence. Reigate Hill Footbridge carries the North Downs Way over the A217 to the north of the town, notable for the views and because it is one of the earliest reinforced concrete bridges in England. On the way up there pass by picturesque Wray Common Windmill, (just round the corner from where I worked). It's a tower mill, built in 1824 and used to grind corn until 1895, when it became an agricultural store. In the 1960s it was converted into a four-storey private residence.

Reigate Caves

Reigate has a hidden surprise. A network of caves riddle the town centre, although the Wealden Cave and Mine Society, who offer tours here, explain that these are these are mainly old sand mines, not caves. The sand mined was very fine and used mainly for glass making. The castle mound, overlooking Reigate town centre, is composed of soft sandstone and has been mined over several centuries. The castle building has almost entirely disappeared, but many of the excavations still remain.

The Barons’ Cave lies under the Norman Castle Grounds and no-one is entirely sure why it was dug. Size and quality of labour suggest that this was more than just storage, or a dungeon. Local legend has it the barons met here secretly, to draw up the Magna Carta in 1215, before making King John sign it. Hence the name. Sadly, this is not true. The cave may not even be that old - the first written record is not till 1586.

The warren of linking caves has collapsed and separated over time. There are also tours in East and West Caverns, in Tunnel Road. Tunnel Road was built in 1823, the oldest road tunnel in Britain and one of the oldest in Europe. The caves west of the tunnel were originally opened up as sand mines, but later used for storage. The caves on the east side were dug specifically for storing wines and beers. They were used to store explosives during World War I and as air raid shelters, during World War II.

But. my caving friends from the society tell me there are more mines, less easily accessible and so not open to the public. These are in nearby Merstham. (The first mines at Merstham were recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086.) Entry involves climbing down long scary ladders. I'm both claustrophobic and afraid of heights. But, as you can see, I survived.

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