Belligerent bulls, Second World War artefacts, wonderful woodlands, an awesome ancient yew, all under changeable skies in the Surrey countryside
Oxted to Lingfield, SurreyThis part of southern England is perhaps not high on the list of most people’s walking hotspots. But it’s pleasant walking country, gently rolling and bordered to the north by the dramatic North Downs escarpment. It is typically rural English landscape, of mixed agriculture and ancient woodlands, crossed by streams and divided by hedgerows, retaining links to hundreds of years of history, if you look for them, and relatively unspoilt despite the proximity to London and the threat of urbanisation that this brings. Unlike Flatford which I visited recently, there are few real honeypot sites, few brown-signed tourist attractions, which is part of the charm: you have to explore and discover it for yourself.
Start: Oxted Station TQ393528
Finish: Lingfield Station TQ393438
Length: 12 miles/6 hours
How to get there: both stations are on the East Grinstead branch. Southern services from London Bridge and Victoria take less than an hour.
The rain lashes relentlessly against the windows as the train heads south, the only respite coming as we pass through tunnels, one at Riddlesdown and the mile and half long Oxted tunnel that takes the railway beneath the North Downs ridge. Thankfully, the downpour eases as we pull into Oxted station where I alight. I head along the High Street, past mock Tudor boutiques and coffee shops, before turning off through a housing estate overlooked by an enormous rusting gas holder, unused since 1999. Dodging the traffic, I cross the busy A25 where it passes beneath the three latticework iron spans of Oxted viaduct, just as a train to Uckfield rumbles over.A steep sided gully, tall beeches clinging precariously to the slopes either side, leads uphill onto the Greensand Ridge (which I last encountered last autumn in the vicinity of Leith Hill) and onto National Trust owned Limpsfield Common. I weave through the trees, mature moss covered oaks and sweet chestnut, seedling birch and rowan. All is glistening green, as the rain begins to fall once more. Deciding to swap fleece for waterproof, I juggle with camera and map, swapping items between pockets and hastily stuffing unwanted belongings into my rucksack as the deluge continues. Above my head, the raindrops hammer noisily onto foliage; although the air is still, it is as if a strong breeze is rustling the twigs and branches.
On the edge of the woodland, an imposing Gothic building reminiscent of the Grand Midland Hotel at St Pancras can be glimpsed through the trees. Ostentatiously decorated with towers and lucarned spires, sandstone lancet windows contrasting with highly decorative red brick, this is the former St Michael’s School. The Grade II listed building is clad in scaffolding, having recently been converted into exclusive (and expensive) flats, although given the weather the builders have sensibly retreated indoors and there is little sign of any work to the exterior going on today.
Back beneath the trees once more. Dense dark patches of holly and thick impenetrable stands of young birch trees intermingle with more open oak woodland. Where sufficient light reaches the woodland floor, I find patches of delicately pink flowered herb robert. I push through waist-high bracken bent over the path by the weight of water on the delicate fronds and my trousers are soon soaked; not that I mind, woodland in the rain is a great place to be.The rain finally eases as I reach the edge of Limpsfield village. Being on the east-west trade route along the high ground of the North Downs and Greensand Ridge, a settlement has existed here for thousands of years. Neolithic flints and Roman pottery have been found nearby, and the Domesday Book records the village as Limenesfeld (recorded assets: 1 church, 1 mill, 19 teams of ploughmen, 1 fishery, 4 acres of meadow and woodland worth 150 swine) with a population of 25 villagers, 6 smallholders and 10 slaves. But it is an artefact of Limpsfield’s more recent history I have come to see. I cross a patch of open heathland, where a bedraggled crow hops from one grassy tussock to another, to skirt round the primary school, in the playground of which cagouled children are lined up, chatting and eagerly waiting to begin afternoon lessons.
On the far side of the cricket pitch I find reminders of Limpsfield’s life in the Second World War. On the woodland edge is a concrete column in a sandbag-lined pit – the mount for a spigot mortar or ‘Blacker Bombard‘, a weapon capable of firing a 20lb anti-tank mortar to a distance of 100 yds. This doesn’t sound very effective, but this weapon was a cheap and easily produced armament invented by Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Blacker to quickly replace the vast amount of munitions lost during the retreat from Dunkirk. Not the most successful design (the mortar would explode on impact which at only 100 yards away was potentially lethal for the operator), it was rejected by the regular Army, but issued to Home Guard units.Hiding in the trees are 6 low linear mounds, each with brick and concrete lined steps leading to a dark subterranean space. These are the shelters built for the village school – in the event of an air raid the children would run across the cricket field, dodging the barbed wire laid to prevent enemy aircraft landing and hamper invading forces, into the shelter to sit along wooden benches where lessons would continue, or the teacher would lead a morale boosting sing-song. Conditions in the shelters were very basic – lit by oil lamps (although electric light was installed later) with a bucket behind a curtain for a toilet – but even so the children sometimes had to remain below ground all day.
After peace finally returned, the shelters and spigot mortar bunker lay hidden by undergrowth for years before being restored in 2006. Five of the shelters have been adapted to house roosting bats – like some of the pillboxes I have encountered elsewhere – but one has been restored to near-original condition and is opened to the public occasionally. Today is not one of those days unfortunately – the shelter that protected the children from bombs would as easily provide cover from the deluge that begins as I’m exploring the site. Luckily, the downpour is as short lived as it is heavy and eases off as I’m admiring the spectacular view over the North Downs from a clearing beyond the shelters. The countryside beyond springs to life, suddenly illuminated by the emerging sun as the cloud cover races across the clearing sky.I head south, across the busy A25 and back under dripping tree cover along a path colourfully carpeted with enchanter’s nightshade and red campion, selfheal and buttercups; the green leaves of what might be annual mercury are all held at an identical oblique angle towards the light, like an expectant theatre audience awaiting a performance. Winding through the trees, now back on the Greensand Way, I cross a corner of Limpsfield Chart golf course which brings me to Pains Hill Chapel, which is rather plain and nondescript, with little ostentation. The footpath crosses the lane to continue between high close boarded fences guarding the privacy of the residents of the exclusive detached houses either side, emerging on Pastens Road by the side of an attractive cottage with pink roses in the garden and wisteria round the door. Turning left, the timber fences are replaced by tall closely clipped beech and laurel hedges, interrupted only by ornate gates behind which expensive cars sit on driveways beneath mature beeches and oaks. Past the last house, the elevation here, 143 metres above sea level according to the map, becomes apparent as a splendid view southwards opens up.
A moment’s hesitation: the footpath appears to continue down a driveway guarded by a five bar gate inscribed ‘Private’. Reassured by Ordnance Survey, I press on regardless and a few yards later come to a ledged and braced garden gate marked ‘footpath’. Through the gate and on the other side, a hand-written washed-out notice asks me to close the gate, which I do, realising that there’s no way to open it again from this side. The notice also indicates the footpath in the direction in which I have just come lies through some trees and not along the driveway – a surreptitious (and probably illegal) right-of-way diversion?
I head downhill, ducking beneath branches along Tenchleys Lane, a dark gullied path in woodland, the floor slippery with last year’s leaves. The chestnut paling fence to the side of the path occasionally hops up and over mounds of earth – the spoil heaps from badger diggings spilling from higher up the steeply sloping woodland edge. The land drops away quite quickly; half way down the slope and over a stile the trees give way to grassland. Continuing downhill, three beautiful chestnut horses look nonchalantly in my direction but soon return to grazing.At the foot of the slope, I follow the signposted ‘Alternative path avoiding garden’, which seems perfectly reasonable, alongside paddocks of horses and donkeys, to the entrance to Tenchleys Manor. Grade II* listed, parts of this grand timber-framed house date back to the 16th century, when it was believed to be the manor house of the old manor of Limpsfield. Tall chimneyed and with steeply pitched roof, it looks imposing, sitting behind a stout stone wall; the duck pond adjacent to the entrance could almost be a moat.
Southwards through the gently swaying hay meadows of Itchingwood Common, then along an untidy hedgerow of brambles and long-dead elms in which blue tits flit from one tree to the next, chattering noisily. The track, now lined with wide-crowned, deep green oak trees, continues across fields of rich, fruitful farmland, lace-bordered with corn chamomile and other wildflowers missed by the sprayer. Fields of barley wave to and fro in the breeze, their long awns like hazy spray whipped up from a rolling sea. The flowers of a field of flax, white instead of the more common blue, give the appearance of a light unseasonal dusting of snow.
Crooked River, a tributary of the Eden, flows under the cover of a ribbon of woodland, the damp soil and shade encouraging hazel and creamy-flowered meadowsweet to flourish. Less than full flowing, its waters trickle over a ford, but still too deep for me to cross on foot, and I use the adjacent footbridge. This brings me to the farmhouse at Stockenden Farm, which sits in an extensive garden dominated by a mature walnut tree. But its 15th century features, grade I listed no less, that I had been keen to see hide behind scaffolding, which, combined with the beginnings of more rain, gives me no reason to linger.Full of grazing horses and sheep, the fields are flecked with white clover, as though a heavy but brief hailstorm has just passed over. But it is rain not hail that begins to fall from the sky in a deluge that blurs the landscape and sends ewes running for the meagre cover offered by the hedgerow trees. The ewes are followed by their bleating lambs; I like to think they’re calling ‘mu-u-u-u-u-u-m!, mu-u-u-u-u-u-m!’. They shelter crouched against the hawthorn, heads bowed, ears drooping, looking downbeat and resigned to a drenching. I too take refuge, in the scrub at the edge of Stockenden’s pond, beneath scrappy elm and elder, as the open field beyond smoulders.
As I’m impatient to be on my way, I only wait until the rain begins to ease off. I follow the line of the hedgerow southwards, unsettling the sheltering sheep and forcing them to forego what little respite from the downpour they are able to find. Along the edge of woodland, to cross the railway to Uckfield; wet steel ribbons of rail glimmer and steam in the light from a sun breaking through the rain cloud. Then over stiles and across paddocks, colourful with selfheal, buttercups and red bartsia, and past traditional brushwood steeplechase hurdles – the proximity to Lingfield racecourse makes this a popular area for racing stables.
I’m heading for Staffhurst Wood, which lies across pasture occupied by beef cattle, mostly sheltering under the cover of the distant trees. One though, a huge thick-necked bull, stands side-on in the middle of the field, this stance emphasising the muscular solidity of his body. He looks at me, quite nonchalantly, largely disinterested. But this is enough to unnerve. I follow a curving path and try to avoid eye contact, while surreptitiously glancing in his direction occasionally to reassure myself that he’s still in the same spot, and not about to charge. His gaze follows me until his neck is almost bent double, but otherwise he doesn’t move, expect for twitching ears flicking off raindrops. Near the treeline, I begin to feel a sense of relief, but this is short lived as the cattle lined up along the woodland edge begin to walk towards me intently. Oh great, I’m about to be trampled to death in a stampede, my body to be pressed into the soft mud, my remains perfectly preserved by the waterlogged ground, to be found by a future archaeologist, the period of my death determined not by carbon dating but by Gore-tex.I try to reassure them (and myself, more so) with soothing and calming words. Having trotted eagerly over towards me, as I get nearer to the cattle, their inquisitiveness and confidence seems to leave them, and, unnerved, they turn away hurriedly, bumping clumsily into each other. Nonetheless, I’m glad to quickly climb the stile into the wood, to put a barbed wire fence between myself and several skittish yet substantial cows.
The woodland enclosed by the fence is owned by the Woodland Trust, according to the sign tied to the fence with baling twine, on the back of which the farmer has helpfully scrawled ‘Bull In Field’; well, it would be helpful for walkers heading in the opposite direction, but a bit late for me. Over the stile, I’m dwarfed by tall pillars of ash and oak, top quality timber, but in places have to duck under the arching coppice of the hazel understorey. The woodland floor is covered with the raffia-like remains of Spring’s bluebell leaves – a few months ago, this would have been a stunning azure carpet. At some point, I cross the boundary where ownership of the woodland passes to Surrey Wildlife Trust, undefined on the ground, but possibly where the tree cover changes to a more open beech woodland type. A remnant of the Wildwood, Staffhurst shows signs of human use dating back thousands of years, such as a medieval ditch and bank and assarts – clearings within the woodland for growing crops. The wood suffered from excessive tree felling in the 1930s, and from use as an ammunition dump and troop camp during the Second World War, and even suffered direct hits from two large bombs. But today, the Trusts are doing a splendid job between them of managing the site, which clearly deserves its designation as a Site Of Special Scientific Interest.
At last, the rain stops. The sun finally re-appears from behind grey cloud, bright light filtering through the leaves, glinting diamond-like off water droplets shaken from the canopy by a strengthening breeze. A patch of woodland floor is bathed in a pool of light as if illuminated by theatrical spotlight; steam slowly rises, twirling gracefully skywards like some woodland sprite. Woodland after rain is a truly magical place.At the timber framed church of St Sylvan – a small rural chapel with steep gabled roof and weatherboarded bell tower – I cross the road into Great Earls Wood, also owned by the Woodland Trust. The path twists and turns through acres of sweet chestnut coppice, then turns north into the oak and hornbeam high forest of Little Earls Wood. Along a low moss-covered bank, and over fallen trees, I leave the tree cover and emerge onto open fields beneath a bright blue, cumulus-filled sky.
Swallows swoop and glide and dive over the grassland fly-catching. On the far side of the field, more cows are lined up along a hedgerow beneath the spreading crown of a stately oak. They jostle each other as I walk through the herd, some timid, others inquisitive, and one rejects my attempts at a friendly pat, bolting away. Through a gate, hastily shut behind me to avoid being followed by fugitive cattle, to follow a line of leafy oaks across more pasture. At a white wicket gate, the sound of a distant horn causes me to pause while a train on its way from East Grinstead to London rushes past. I cross the railway – perfectly straight in either direction, no deviation from this course as it disappears into the distance – onto grassland in which sheep are grazing. Most scatter at my approach, but one lamb, black faced and black legged, lies motionless until I begin to wonder if it may even be dead. But no, one eye opens lazily, and for few seconds sleepily takes in my form without seeming to acknowledge my presence; then, suddenly, in surprise, the lamb quickly jumps up and gambols away.
Climbing a stile, I reach Foyle Farm. A tractor buzzes around the farmyard stacking hay bales. Over a hedge I glimpse the warm red clay tiled roof of the farmhouse, parts of which date back to the 16th century. Heading south from the farmyard, I follow a grassy track; on one side fields of ripening wheat, on the other a sliver of woodland, in which a brook flows, almost hidden by lush green undergrowth.
The brook leaves the woodland behind near its confluence with the River Eden. Each of these watercourses twists its way back and forth across the open pasture in a grassy channel. In places the banks are bare, either trampled to mud by cows or undercut by the meandering watercourse, exposing a vertical face of red-brown sandy soil. I cross water several times, lastly over the Eden at a bridge under which the turbulent bubbling water tumbles into a peaceful shady pond beneath the crowns of alders. Once over the river, the land rises steadily: lush pasture fringed with hedgerows. On higher ground, next to another railway – this one from Redhill to Tonbridge – I disturb a flock of meadow pipits searching for insects in a huge pile of manure. With jerky flight, they rise up to settle on the railway boundary fence, only to ascend again as I climb the stile to cross the track, settling this time in rows on the rails, tails bobbing.Through Pound Farm, I turn onto the road south towards Crowhurst, its position marked by the shingle clad splayed-foot spire, sitting on a timber tower like a witch’s hat, of St George’s Church. An unassuming, simple, country church, dating from the late 12th century, it (luckily) largely escaped Victorian attempts at ‘restoration’. Stepping inside, it feels cosy and compact, with whitewashed walls and timber pews facing the beautifully decorated Pre-Raphaelite style eastern wall – painted in bright colours with gold mosaic.
But as beautiful as the church is, most visitors are drawn outside to the churchyard, for looming over the eastern wall of the church is an enormous mass of greenery: the Crowhurst Yew, reputedly 4000 years old, and (like the Sidney Oak at Penshurst I visited last year) one of fifty Great British Trees. With a wide spreading crown, it’s not the tallest tree by any means, but the gnarled, cracked and cleaved trunk is immense, almost oozing obesely as the sinuous fibres buckle under the tree’s own weight, many of the densely foliated branches supported by props. The portly trunk is around 30ft in girth, and is now largely hollow – access can be gained by a small door fitted in around 1850, although, as I find, it’s not a necessity as the bole is now split in several places, many of which are sufficiently wide to allow even my substantial frame to step through into the damp and musty yet somehow mysterious interior.Of course, being hollow, there are no tree rings to count which makes dating the Crowhurst Yew very difficult – the suggestion that it is 4000 years old may be an exaggeration and many sources propose an age of around 1000-1500 years. Certainly the tree was of substantial size during the 17th century, sufficiently large that a wayward English Civil War cannonball embedded itself in the trunk, later discovered when the tree was hollowed out in the 1820s. The stories of the hollow tree housing a table and sufficient chairs for 12, 14 or 15 people (depending on who you believe) are also likely to be exaggerated (it may be big, but it’s not that big; but then people were smaller in olden days, so who knows?). But it was certainly of sufficient size for one young lover to propose to his bride-to-be as they stood together within the hollow at 4pm the day before my visit, an occasion they then recorded in the church’s visitors’ book. Many congratulations Greg and Louise.
I spend a while in awe of this giant, studying it from inside and out, before leaving the churchyard and crossing the road to the footpath adjacent to Mansion House – a Royalist stronghold in the Civil War which adds credence to the tale of the cannonball. The grassy footpath continues eastwards along a blustery ridge between fields of ripening wheat. A rolling expanse of heavily wooded landscape stretches into the distance across the Weald to my right and to the North Downs ridge to my left; vivid colours: verdant trees, golden wheat, azure sky, grey-white cumulus. Skylarks spring up at my approach rising vertically to be buffeted by the strong breeze. One pair hover together, no more than a few feet above the swaying ears of wheat.I cross the East Grinstead railway again, this time by a brick bridge that nature is subtly reclaiming: birch and oak and field maple saplings grow from the parapets, rooted in the mortar and entangled with twining brambles, while beneath my feet a lush mix of grasses and wildflowers, including yellow spikes of antimony, flourishes. Over a stile and into a recently cropped meadow, the hay packed into black plastic wrapped silage bales dotted around the field ready for collection. At Homefield Farm (Oldhouse Farm on the map), two collared doves sit on a fence; they fly up as I approach to join others in the white cowl of a converted oast house that swings slowly in the breeze.
Turning south, the land drops gently away into a valley bottom, the path crossing the stream by a wooden footbridge beneath tall willows. Just beyond, a pond edged with sedges and bulrushes, from which a heron takes flight with long, powerful wing beats. The footpath continues over a meadow, then slashes its way across a field of ripening thistle-infested wheat to the paddocks surrounding Chellows Farm. As I reach a cottage, two dogs rush out from the garden to meet me, a yapping terrier that rushes round and round in a frenzy, and a gorgeous but lively brindle whippet that bounds towards me excitedly, leaping up to try and lick my face. Their owner interrupts her vegetable gardening to call them back, but they follow me for a while before sprinting for home.
A gradual rise follows, past grazing cattle and along the perimeter of a crop of rather droughted, weedy maize. Then over a stile shaded by wide-crowned oaks; in the base of the hedgerow I find a small stone monument of carved granite, no more than a foot high and partially hidden by long grass. With some difficulty I read the inscription: 2000 AD. To Mark The 00 Meridian Line. Erected by Lingfield and Dormansland Parish Council.The footpath turns right into the western hemisphere to run alongside the hedgerow, but I note, slightly worryingly, a huge muscly bull, several hundred pounds of solid brawn, a short distance further on. He’s aware of my presence, but seems more occupied with gazing over the hedgerow at the cows in the next field. Nonetheless, I decide it would be wise to give him a wide berth and head directly across the field to the far corner where a group of very elegant long-horned cattle are lying in the grass. They seem entirely uninterested in me, but those horns look very pointy and and very sharp, and I feel a slight sense of relief as I close the field gate behind me.
Beyond the hedge, a bare muddy field, electric fenced, occupied by two rather depressed-looking pigs, half-heartedly nosing the mud for non-existent scraps. They look sad and lacking in stimulation, so one receives a scratch behind the ear and some kind words before I press on. Gently downhill now, along a hedge, the bottom of which is bare of leaves but tufted with skeins of sheep’s wool, like a tide mark. A pillbox lurks in the trees to my left, a reminder that once again, I’m on the GHQ line. Then onto a lane for a brief stretch along tarmac, turning off where the road bridges a stream. The fractured branches of a decayed and collapsed ash tree lie across the channel, but the watercourse is lush with the glossy leaves and delicate flowers of water plantain.
At Rushford Farm, the farmer is busy with his sheep in the adjacent farmyard, while a Collie bounces around in the back of his Land Rover, barking at me frenziedly through the grille in the tailgate. Husbandry complete, the recently shorn sheep are released to run across a paddock towards the hedge which I’m following, but on noticing me, all stop abruptly in panic and turn, as one, to run back the way they came, all quite comically.
Lingfield, my destination, is just beyond the foot crossing over the railway, but I turn away to the east towards open countryside, over a field thick with white clover, swooping swallows overhead. I cross Eden Brook at a footbridge by a weir, the river bank colourful with vivid splashes of yellow St John’s Wort and purple loosestrife. Along the edge of a wheatfield, a filigree of corn chamomile and yarrow at the foot of the hedgerow busy with flitting songbirds, then over a stile beneath the shade of an oak, to follow a farm track fringed with meadowsweet and silverweed, pinky-purple vetch and hedge woundwort. Through Park Farm, then west back towards Lingfield between low hedges full of hop, pink rose and sweetly scented honeysuckle. Over the Eden Brook once more, a solitary duck floating on the still waters just below the bridge.I cross the railway into Lingfield. The village is quiet and feels like a dormitory for London commuters, largely uninspiring at first glance, with streets of nondescript modern housing lining cul-de-sacs. But the spire of the church of St Peter and St Paul above the rooftops promises historic interest and draws me in. The church itself is hidden behind scaffolding, but the path through the churchyard leads to the Old Town, a conservation area with some really splendid historic buildings: 15th and 16th century half timbered Wealden houses with jettied first floors, opposite the later 18th century brick former Star Inn. The current Star Inn, built in the 1930s, is over the road, so I pop in for a quick pint.
Time to head for home. I share the footpath through open fields at the heart of the village with dogwalkers and commuters back from London. A stout buttressed wall marks the boundary of New Place, a grand house in Horsham stone with tall chimneys and steep gabled roofs. Just over the road, and equally grand, but in warm red brick is Lingfield Station, opened by the London Brighton and South Coast Railway in 1884, welcoming surroundings for the short wait for the train home.