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Surrey Hills Landscape Assessment

Essay: Simon Read

Field Work

So far as field work is concerned, I spent two days walking in the area, since I am not well acquainted with Surrey, it really made little difference where I went to get a taste. However, to simplify matters, I chose to use the North Downs Way as an established and focused contact with the landscape on the first day and by way of comparison on the next, the area around Frensham Ponds and Farnham.

On my walks, as usual, I found myself drifting between perceptions. It is quite hard work, and to me would seem perverse to stay in top gear so far as an awareness of the environment is concerned; as a walk continues, depending on whether there is company or not, there is a tendency to skip from mood to mood. Much of our time is spent dreaming, the wandering can be finely tuned by an activity which is at the same time purposeful and automatic, like walking. For William Cobbett, his rural rides threw up encounters and observations which set him off fulminating about the evils of the manufacture of gunpowder or speculating upon the formation of the Devils Jumps.

This does bring me to what I have already touched upon concerning the different perceptions of those who actively conserve the environment against those who spend their free time in it. A walk is a walk and it just as easily sets a mind roving as concentrates it.

16th August: A walk along the North Downs Way from Farnham to Dorking, approximately 24 miles. I made notes and took photographs, this is basically the form it took.

On the train: Conserve a particular landscape, why? Because it has always been that way within living memory? Because of its status as a habitat? Does public demand come into this and how?

Our perception of what we see depends upon what we bring with us, these are other rhythms which we lay over what is there, making one a cue for the other.

From Farnham Station:

I was agreeably surprised that quite swiftly I could drop into a woody lane serving the backs of gardens away from the ghastly A31 dual carriageway. Traffic noise decreases to a murmur, and screened by the trees, I cannot see it. This is a place for horses, reflecting the society that lives here, it does however have its own homogeneity. I stop by a field where some particularly fine fellows come over to nuzzle and chew at my notebook.

A young woman appears with her dog, passes and looks apprehensively over her shoulder twice before disappearing around the corner. She smiles a greeting when she passes again on her way home.

Horses heads nodding vigorously, annoyed by flies which begin to annoy me also. How sensible the arrangement is that horses stand in pairs, side by side, head to tail, that the whisk of a tail clears the flies from the others head.

The trees are huge and impressive here, Beech, Sweet Chestnut, Oak with Ash in the water meadow. There are particular groupings and types of tree which put me in mind of a country park landscape and sure enough, there is the house to which it relates but may well no longer belong.

A sandy landscape, The Sands, Sandy Cross, Sandy Farm, sand pits screened by recent planting, Bullace for the travellers refreshment, for those who know.

Birdsong has become the clearest sound; the Great Tit warning the Wren who passes on the message to the woodpecker who flies laughing to the trees. There is one I recognise but cannot place, a song like drops of water falling a long way into a deep dark and still pool, in a perfect woodland echo.

The experience of the walk begins to become quite sensual, a completely enclosed sunken lane dappled brilliantly with sunlight, above which I can hear somewhere the squeal of martins hawking for insects. Only upon regaining a sight of the sky at Puttenham do I see them, the air is full of them, I would like to assume that they are Sand Martins which considering the absence of mud nests under cottage eaves, they could well be.

I have been walking for hours and have encountered no-one, this is uncanny, but I can hear the sounds of unseen activity all around; a klaxon telephone bleating from a big red house, a lady calling a dog somewhere, a lawnmower, a chainsaw.

It is a pleasant surprise for me in this country to be able to walk for miles and not be stopped, not to feel furtive.

Sandy Lane near Compton, The Losely Estate nature reserve; an owl hooting in the woods by day, a Shakespearean omen.

George Frederic Watts Gallery, Compton: quite extraordinary, a beguiling insight into Victorian cultural life. In an unforced way, I feel that I have stepped into the psyche of the time; portraits of Ellen Terry, Florence Nightingale, paintings of conscience of the time, working class poverty, the Irish Potato Famine. I had the shock upon first entering the gallery of seeing a man in earnest conversation with a visitor, he was soberly dressed with mutton chop sidewhiskers wearing a high formal Victorian collar. He turned out to be the curator, who on second sight was wearing a surgical neck brace.

A little further up the lane from the Watts Gallery, there was a small red brick cottage, its garden split into two sections, one a neat vegetable patch, and the other awash with wild flowers strewn in apparently random disorder, suddenly quite enchanting. A little lady came down the path and we agreed together that the flowers were not wild so much as encouraged, when I said how beautiful the garden was, her rejoinder was how much more beautiful it would have been if she had been at the door when I photographed it.

From Newlands Corner, much of the way is through dense woodland, a tarmac track with an aggregate as big as cobblestones, most odd, It is 19.05 and the light is beginning to fail and I have little choice but to try to make Dorking before dark. The smells are stronger in the gloom, horseshit and humus.

In Great Kings Wood, I saw a small deer that only disappeared as I lifted my camera to my eye. It was similar to a Roe Deer but without the white rump, its horns had a slight twist; a Chinese deer perhaps.

A peculiar buzzing sound, coming closer, in the gloaming, unnerving because unidentifiable. Six boys appear on mountain bikes all kitted out in black lycra, goggles and helmets and rush past in a testosterone breeze. The whirring of gears and the buzzing of heavy tread tyres fades to silence.

What with the convolutions of the landscape itself and what must have been the torturous negotiations over rights of way to establish the path, it has turned out quite labyrinthine, leaving me entirely disorientated and dependent upon the little white acorns to find my way. Anyone who has tried to travel directly across South London by bus will be familiar with this particular variety of English Wilderness.

Much of the walk from Newlands Corner to Dorking is through woodland so dense that only very infrequently could I get a glimpse out into the valley below. This became increasingly oppressive as the evening drew on, making the occasional little acorn symbols beacons which I would spot with a feeling of relief.

"Drear wood, the nodding horror of whose shady brow, threats the forlorn and wandering passenger". Milton in Comus could easily be describing woods like these at nightfall.

Owls, Tawny and Screech, heard but barely seen, and those unnameable rustles in the dim closeness; in spite of myself, I can feel the hair at the back of my neck beginning to rise.

Giving and Receiving:

British Society seems to have built into it habits of control; there are rules of giving and receiving in the landscape. In the absence of hereditary arbiters of taste and behaviour, other more bureaucratic bodies take on the role to tell the public what is good and how to use it. These patterns persist; public perception and access to the land are defined by the givers who in determining the identity of a site, then define a framework for allowing the public upon it. This relationship is quite largely reciprocal.

17th August

Starting again at Farnham Station a walk along the River Wey to Frensham Common, a visit to both ponds and back the same way; about 19 miles.

Down from the dual carriageway to the River Wey at Farnham, right away there is an acrid smell of cut nettles as redolent of scrubby riverbank as fresh sawn timber is to woodland.

Moor Park; once past the Constance Spry Finishing School I'm in a land of barely controllable brambly paths, nettles and high bracken. I cannot get over the sheer magnificence of mature broad leafed trees towering over the wreckage of what must have once been parkland. Beside the way there is a bunker to house a truly big gun; it appears to be constructed of brick but has a reinforced concrete core. I assume the brick facade is to make it appear more a part of the local architecture, innocuous at first sight.

Still by Moor Park, the path is wet and muddy, below there is boggy ground with alders growing thickly. Just here there is what appears to be a grotto, a rustic cave with a spring flowing from it; the roof is collapsing and the owner accepts no responsibility for injury to the public.

In William Cobbett's "Rural Rides", this must be "Mother Ludlum's Hole", an ornamental grotto which even by his time in the 1820s had become dilapidated.

"From Waverly we went to Moor Park, once the seat of Sir William Temple and when I was a very little boy, the scat of a lady or a Mrs Temple. Here, I showed Richard "Mother Ludlum's Hole"; but alas! It is not the enchanting place that I knew it, nor that which Grose describes in his Antiquities! The semicircular paling is gone; the basins to catch the never ceasing little stream are gone; the iron cups fastened by chains for people to drink out of, are gone; the pavement all broken to pieces; the seats, for people to sit on, on both sides of the cave, form up and gone; the stream that ran down a clean paved channel, now making a dirty gutter; and the ground opposite, which was a grove, chiefly of laurels, intersected by closely mowed grass walks, now become a poor ragged-looking Alder coppice".

This would be a fine subject for restoration.

At Tilford: a perfect "mini honeypot", a safe shallow bathing area in the river by the bridge where there is a low overfall weir, a small car park, children shrieking from the water, a tiny resort by a village green, a pub "The Barley Mow" and later in the day typically and captivating, a cricket match; a taste of an ideal England!

Tilhill House, at Tilford, has an extraordinary beech hedge, cantilevered out to make a square sheltered walk before a relatively simple classical home. The lawn is continued over the road in a kind of ha ha arrangement to blend in with the water-meadow landscape beyond. This has been immaculately managed and is made all the more delightful by just stumbling across it.

Frensham Ponds: I am certainly seeing this site at its most honeypot; sandy beaches smothered in sunbathers, swimmers in the ponds, very safe and controlled, it reminds me of the Bodensee in North Germany. Very few people are venturing on to the heathland, with which especially today I can sympathise; the going is difficult in deep fine sand, there is little protection from today's relentless heat, all in all it is not a particularly welcome sensual experience; not that it should be but I am concerned here with that dual perception of the landscape that I have discussed earlier. The heather is wonderful but as we are warned, vulnerable to trampling, so stick to slogging around the paths please. One is obliged to be a spectator, it is a relief to dive back into the woods.

The Countryside Commission and the County Council could be seen as solicitous hosts conducting guests along pathways insulated to as large an extent as possible from all that is discordant in contemporary landscape. The paths travelled may have always been there but they have been specifically negotiated and waymarked as such.

I have found myself wandering in woodland which could be a long way from anywhere, or any time for that matter, until perhaps I hear machinery or gain a glimpse through a thinner patch of a quarry working or a sandpit. How very different this must appear in winter.

I am aware that Surrey is a busy place and that perhaps we owe a great deal to the relative poorness of the upland soil for such a wealth of open heath and woodland. Obviously, there are other factors which come to bear here, such as planning regulations and green-belt in order to keep it open. However, there must be some kind of precedent for such a consistent landscape. It is interesting to me that much of what is considered a paradigm for a typical English landscape should be found in the counties immediately surrounding London, as though the City would hold up a Claude Glass to see an image of an ideal England. What is being very aggressively conserved here is a certain type of countryside, a notion or symbol even.

This area has looked towards London for its livelihood, wealth and identity for a very long time, however when it was not so heavily settled and was composed of smaller nuclear communities there appears to have been more of a balance between the identity of each place and its status as a satellite of London.

The very expression "Home Counties" underscores a centripetal relationship with the capital which through this century has become much more direct. The landscape is created and sustained by the city it serves; its identity now may be derived from those who may be in it when they are not working, rather than when they are. Perhaps this is what bothers me; that the principle of conservation becomes one of holding an area at a point of its development which is seen as desirable, but which because of the fallibility of human memory is dreadfully approximate.

© Countryside Agency/Simon Read