The Surrey Hills


Although Surrey is not far from metropolitan London, it famously has more mature woodland than any other county in England and has long been renowned for its rolling hills and valleys, ancient heathlands, beautiful waterways and charming villages. There is a surprisingly extensive network of local paths and bridleways and, to the south of the North Downs chalk ridge, the hills are intersected by three long-distance walking trails. All these feature in this collection of 40 walks, which explore glorious parklands, country estates, ruined abbeys, impressive castles and wildlife-rich woodlands along the way.

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The Surrey Hills

A little over 100 years ago, the writer Edward Thomas passed through the Surrey Hills on his journey by bicycle from London to the Quantocks. In the opening chapters of In Pursuit of Spring, his account of that Easter journey in March 1913, he describes how, leaving London behind, he pedals for Epsom and then for Leatherhead, beyond which the River Mole takes him through the gap in the North Downs past Mickleham and Box Hill to Dorking. Departing from the description of his route, he turns to reflect upon ‘the poet naturally thought of here’: George Meredith.

A detour follows on the ‘joy of woods and fields’ and, in passing, Thomas conjures up the presence of other literary lights – Wordsworth, W H Hudson, Shelley, Shakespeare, Byron and George Borrow. But ‘Meredith of Box Hill’ he sees not just as a lover of nature, like other poets, but one tempered by the Surrey landscape itself and above all as one ‘fit to be ranked with the whitebeam, the lark and the southwest wind’. As Thomas wheeled along, one of Meredith’s poems he had in mind was The Lark Ascending, set the following year to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, another artist who was intimately connected with the county and whose family home was nearby at Leith Hill Place.

Onward went the would-be poet Thomas that blustery Good Friday through the villages and commons of Westcott, Wotton, Gomshall and Shere. Criss-crossing the tiny Tillingbourne he passes under the shadow of St Martha’s Church, high on its steep hill above Chilworth. Here his mood changes and he shudders at the gunpowder mills, ‘something inhuman, diabolical’, but his spirits are raised by the sight of a ridge bristling westwards on the far side of Guildford, the Hog’s Back. On its height is the high road that will take him to Farnham and beyond, a route which he thinks of as fit for the gods ‘because it is as much in heaven as on earth’.

Any Edwardian nowadays finding themselves following this same route over the Hog’s Back by bike or on foot would be forgiven for thinking they had entered on a highway to hell, transformed as it is from Thomas’ majestic, dusty road to the thunderous dual carriageways of the A31, something he would no doubt have also found inhuman and diabolical. But for all the differences, the undulating crest still gives, in essence, the same view out over the same hills, woods and heaths, though inevitably changed by a century in which Greater London has expanded into what was northern Surrey, and the towns and villages in the folds of its valleys have become more populous and ever more frequented by people seeking open spaces and fresher air.

What might also surprise those earlier generations of pioneering ramblers, romantics and enthusiasts of the outdoors is the level of protection now afforded this landscape. In 1958 much of the area of the chalk North Downs running from Farnham in the west to Oxted in the east and the Greensand Ridge stretching from Haslemere to its high point on Leith Hill was included in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), now a landscape with status equivalent to a national park. This guarantee of protection covers over a quarter of the whole county and within its boundaries are to be found some of the most accessible and sought-after green spaces in South East England.

About this guide

This guide contains 40 circular routes ranging in length from a short stroll of one hour to half a day’s walk, divided into five sections broadly based on the topography and boundaries of the Surrey Hills AONB. Most of the routes are intended as comfortable walks and the majority can be completed inside two or three hours, while there are a few longer or more strenuous routes, especially those that venture over higher ground. In general the walking is on well-worn paths, lanes and tracks, with plenty of waymarks to help with route finding. The route descriptions concentrate on the salient points of navigation, but may not cover every twist and turn. If in doubt the obvious path is usually the line to take. In addition, the accompanying sketch maps serve an illustrative purpose and – for the longer or more complex routes – it would be a good idea to have access to the relevant OS Explorer mapping, details of which are given at the start of each walk.

The Surrey Hills themselves are a compact but varied area. At their western end lies the busy town of Farnham, famous for its castle and Georgian streetscape with its open heaths stretching southwards past Frensham Ponds to Hindhead and The Devil’s Punch Bowl. Eastwards the villages of Seale, Puttenham and Shackleford with their fields, woods and parkland below the ridge of the Hog’s Back bring you to the busy A3, now finally rerouted underground through tunnels beneath Gibbet Hill. Haslemere and Godalming enclose an area of rolling countryside and pretty villages spread around and over the Greensand Ridge, with the county border of Sussex just to the south. Here, old industries such as glass, iron and charcoal-making and the arrival of the railway had transformed the area long before the advent of modern commuting and tourism.

Moving eastwards, Guildford – in medieval times the county capital and now its second most populous town – dominates the central area. Here are to be found the well-known villages of Chilworth, Shere, and Gomshall alongside the gentle Tilling Bourne. Beyond, the higher ground of Hurtwood Common, with its secluded, if highly popular, villages of Holmbury St Mary and Peaslake, gives long views from its southern escarpment over the Low Weald and beyond to the South Downs. Next in line to the east is Dorking and some of the best known and most visited parts of the Surrey Hills. The town of Leatherhead lies to the north through the famous gap in the North Downs, cut by the River Mole on its way to the Thames. Dorking itself is surrounded by the high ground of Box Hill, Ranmore Common and Leith Hill, its iconic tower topping the second highest point in the South East.

The final, most easterly section is centred on the town of Reigate. Here the proximity of London most keenly imposes its presence on the Surrey Hills. The orbital M25 carves its most southerly track here, intersected by the M23 on its way to Sussex and the coast. The older line of the A25 still gives the easiest access to many of the villages hereabouts, including Skimmington, Godstone and Limpsfield, while a pocket of the AONB away to the southeast near the county border with Kent has some easily-overlooked countryside around Lingfield and Dormansland.

Getting around and access

The main towns of the Surrey Hills are Farnham, Haslemere, Godalming, Dorking, Reigate, Redhill and Oxted. All benefit from regular bus routes and railway stations, making the Surrey Hills well-placed for travel by public transport. There are direct trains from London Victoria and Waterloo and many of the villages between the main towns can be accessed by rail. An effort has been made to start walks from places served by public transport and it is usually possible to plan the completion of a walk from a town to coincide with train times. However, some of the more secluded areas and villages of the Surrey Hills are only intermittently served by public buses on both a weekly and seasonal basis.

Access by car is still the preferred option for many, and while towns cater adequately for parking, this can be a sensitive issue in villages. An indication has been given where possible of parking options but it is very common in popular spots for all parking space to be filled early in the day, especially at weekends and during peak holiday season. Many of the routes are set relatively close together and it should be possible to amend plans and choose an alternative walk should parking be unavailable.

Despite its being one of the most populous counties with more than one million inhabitants, there is still plenty of farming to be found, mostly arable and some dairy and sheep. Local signs may indicate the need to keep dogs on a lead and dogs can be a problem for cows, especially if they have recently calved or been let out of winter sheds. If in doubt, it is usually advisable and possible to find a short detour.

Most paths covered in the routes are well-used and maintained by local agencies but, in spring and summer especially, hedges and undergrowth grow vigorously and nettles, brambles and thorn can infiltrate narrower gates and stile crossings. In addition, many of the walk locations are equally as popular with road cyclists, mountain-bikers, runners, horse-riders, or just those making a trip into the countryside, all visitors in search of spending time in this stunning part of the great outdoors, whose interests we can perhaps best serve by treading lightly.

Places of Interest

Bishop’s Palace
Black Down
Box Hill
Chart, The
Chinthurst Hill
Colley Hill
Crooksbury Hill
Devil’s Punch Bowl, The
Dry Hill
Farthing Downs
Friday Street
Gibbet Hill
Greensand Way
Happy Valley
Hog’s Back, The
Holmbury Hill
Holmwood Common
Hydon’s Ball
Leith Hill
Loseley Park
Marden Park
Mole Valley
Newlands Corner
Norbury Park
North Downs Way
Peper Harow
Pilgrims Way
Pitch Hill
Ranmore Common
St Martha’s Hill
St Swithun’s Way
Serpent Trail
Sidney Wood
Squire’s Great Wood
Sussex Border Path
Tandridge Border Path
Temple of the Winds
Tilburstow Hill
Vanguard Way
Watts Gallery Artists’ Village
Waverley Abbey
West Horsley
Wey South Path
Whitmoor Vale


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