The Hurtwood Is Full Of Surprises

The first surprise is that the name Hurtwood may not derive – as is generally believed – from the hurts (the local name for wild blueberries) whose bushes carpet the woods and hills, but from the Old English word ‘ceart’ or ‘churt’ meaning a rough common overrun with gorse, broom and bracken.

The second surprise is that although The Hurtwood is the largest area of commonland in Surrey, it is still privately owned. Most of it lies within two of the ancient manors that make up the Shere Manor Estate – the Manor of Gomshall Towerhill and part the Manor of ‘Shire cum Vacherie et Cranley’, which was given to Sir Reginald Bray by Henry VII over 500 years ago and has remained in the ownership of the Bray family ever since.

Legend has it that the knight found Richard III’s crown in a thorn bush after his defeat at Bosworth Field and he presented the symbolic trophy to Henry. The manors were his reward. The parts of the Hurtwood at Albury, Blackheath and Farley Heath lie within the Albury Estate, which is owned by the Duke of Northumberland. By a twist of historical fate, the summit of Holmbury Hill, with the hillfort and Bray family memorial cairn, is part of the Ockley Estate.

Dedication Of The Hurtwood

On October 13, 1926, the deed of dedication of The Hurtwood was signed by R.A. Bray and the Bray family has upheld the dedication ever since. The Duke of Northumberland also signed a deed of dedication. Soon afterwards, the Hurtwood Control Committee was formed; a few basic rules and regulations were adopted, and subscriptions invited; tree planting resumed. The Hurtwood, as we know it, was reborn. In over three-quarters of a century since then, Hurtwood Control Committee has gone from strength to strength. It became a registered charity and established a network of Friends, whose loyal support makes it possible to maintain the beauty of the The Hurtwood and its access to a higher standard than ever before, for the benefit of an ever-increasing number of people. Most recently the Hurtwood Control renamed itself  Friends of the Hurtwood to better reflect the importance of Friends to the Hurtwood. In 2000, the CROW (Countryside & Rights of Way) Act gave everyone the legal right to walk throughout common land – but The Hurtwood dedication goes further. It gives people permission to ride over The Hurtwood, either on horseback or on bicycle – and in recent years mountain bikers have become some of our most active supporters. With no statutory funding, the committee relies on people who love The Hurtwood to contribute financial support so that this beautiful landscape can be maintained, the paths and views kept open and wildlife habitats protected. The Hurtwood is dedicated to the public, and in return, we ask that our visitors respect  its forestry, its wildlife, and one another – and that, whenever possible, they become our Friends, to help the Friends of the Hurtwood to preserve and share the enjoyment of this unique place, in partnership with its landowners, and fulfil Reggie Bray’s vision for generations to come.

Gypsy History

There had been Gypsies on the common for generations. While numbers were limited, they lived in harmony with the woodland and with their village neighbours. But increased numbers led to pressure on the land and Reggie Bray allowed a maximum of 100 to stay in what became known as ‘the camp’. He issued a five shilling (25p) licence to each head of a family, allowing them to stay provided they behaved and disposed of their rubbish.

Local Cranleigh people worked to help educate the gypsy children and in 1926 Surrey County Council founded the first gypsy school in England near Wickets Well, due north of Jelley’s Hollow, in what is now part of Winterfold Forest. It had around 70 children.

Hurtwood cottagers from the early 20th century recall the gypsies of Peaslake and Holmbury as friendly folk. These were the settled gypsies, but the sheer number of travellers moving into The Hurtwood after the war created real problems, causing the landowners led by Reggie Bray, to form a committee – the HurtwoodControl – to organise a patrol of the common. A retired policeman was the first Hurtwood Ranger employed to keep things under control. The Hurtwood Control was enthusiastically supported and helped maintain conditions in the Hurtwood. However an article in Cranleigh Afternoon Women’s Institute’s scrapbook in 1949 begins:

“A line of larches defines the boundary between the Manors of Shere and Albury. The Ranger of the Shere Manor would chase travellers off the common and they would go through the larches and be safe on the Albury side. The Albury ranger would chase them away and they would mover their camp back through the larches to the Shere side and so it went on.”



Public Access

At the time when elsewhere in England thousands of acres were being enclosed by their landowners, The Hurtwood remained accessible common land, where local people could exercise the rights of pasture for cattle, sheep and pigs and also goats and donkey, which were not considered ‘commonable cattle’; estovers – the right to cut underwood or bracken; and turbary – the right to dig turf or peat for use as fuel in the commoner’s house. The land was used and lived in by the cottagers and by Romany gypsies; it provided them with their daily necessities and was a busy place.
Only a few of these rights were ever formally registered but from time immemorial local people exercised unwritten rights and privileges and the Lord of the Manor honoured them: “I am not anxious to sell dead trees, as I want to leave plenty of dead trees for the cottagers to cut up as fuel”; “No stone should be dug where there is grass.  What grass there is, besides being ornamental, is very useful for grazing goats. I am most anxious to protect this.” Those words were written by RA. Bray, the Lord of the Manor of Shere not so very long ago – and it was R.A. Bray, ‘Reggie’ to his friends, who gave us The Hurtwood that we know today.

More than 90 years ago, Reggie Bray granted the public a ‘right to roam’ on The Hurtwood – one of the first estates in England to do so, thereby setting a pioneering example of a landowner welcoming the public on to his land and finding a way of working with the public that would benefit both the land and the people. The way to achieve this infinitely desirable goal was to create Hurtwood Control.


Why Control? It sounds so fierce (this is why the Hurtwood Control was reorganised by its supporters at the turn of the century to become a recognised charity called  \’Friends of the Hurtwood\’) but in the early 1920s  ‘control’ was what The Hurtwood most urgently needed, to address the three issues of travellers, motorists and fire. All three came to a head after the First World War. First to be addressed were the travellers.

The Landscape


The Hurtwood given to Sir Reginald Bray in 1485 was probably deciduous forest as the Scots pine was not introduced until the 18th century. The Domesday survey described the manor as ‘as much woodland as produced to the Lord’s share 50 fat swine’ and it was the movement of pigs across the hills down to the forests of the Weald that produced many of the deep ‘sunken lanes’ so typical of Surrey.


Winterfold and Pitch Hill are dotted with old quarries. The honey coloured Hurtwood Stone is a high quality sandstone from the Hythe Beds, similar to Bargate Stone but a little bit softer, and it has been quarried in Surrey since the 12the century. It was used to build many of Cranleigh’s older building such as the old National School that is now Cranleigh Arts Centre and Shere Medical Centre. It was also a popular choice for church and listed building restorations. The last quarry to be worked was at Pitch Hill.


The heather moors of the Blackheath and Farley Heath area were traditionally grazed, keeping them clear and the trees at bay, and Blackheath in particular was known for its goats. The open nature of the heath and the fact that the 22nd Surrey Royal Volunteers had their rifle range just off Littleford Lane in Blackheath were probably the reasons why the area was chosen for a royal review of military might. The Volunteer Review took place on March 28, 1864, on the Blackheath edge of the Hurtwood. It was a massive event, drawing spectators from all over the South East, London and South Coast but the battle was pretty muddled and the vicar of Blackheath was accidentally killed by one of the soldiers.

The grazing of the heaths finally ended during the Second World War when the whole area was saturated with troops in the run-up to D Day. Since then, the heather has been forced out by invading pine trees that self seed liberally. By the 1980s the open land had largely become forest and conservationists were anxious to recreate lowland heath as historic landscape and wildlife habitat, as it had become so very rare. As a result in recent years there have been concerted efforts to clear the trees and scrub and allow the heather to regenerate. This requires constant management as birch and pine trees self seed liberally and with no animals grazing the heath, the seedlings have to be controlled by man.

The Motor Car & Fire

Cars and motorcycles poured out of the London suburbs into the nearest unspoiled countryside and – as common lands are not permitted to be enclosed – they drove wherever they pleased heedless of the destruction in their wake. Reggie Bray wrote: “At present they come only to disfigure and destroy: by their reckless carelessness in throwing down lighted matches and cigarettes, or by lighting fires and boiling water, they are steadily devastating the commons. In a relatively short time the lands will be bare of trees and in a state they were 100 years ago when planting first began. I am afraid we regard the general public as destroying angels who come in motor cars.”

By 1924 the ‘angels’ had destroyed by fire more than a quarter of the entire forest –  including the south side of Holmbury Hill, much of Pitch Hill and part of Reynards Hill – all the most popular, and most beautiful, parts of The Hurtwood. How could this havoc be controlled?

The answer lay in the Law of Property Act 1925, which gave landowners the power to regulate public access to common land and particularly to prohibit motor cars and cycles except in authorised places; in return for these restrictions, the land would be dedicated to the public ‘for air and exercise’, for the purpose of ‘quiet enjoyment’.


Fire continues to be a hazard and the fire-breaks across Holmbury Hill and Pitch Hill were created in the late 1960s early 70s. They proved their worth almost immediately when the 1976 drought wrought havoc across Surrey’s heaths and woodland. The Hurtwood escaped largely unscathed. The very wide rides from Hammonds Pond up to Holmbury Hill were created in the 1920s however, not as fire breaks but as racehorse gallops and the straight track from Blackheath Car Park to Farley Green was known as ‘the gallops’ and in the 1960s was regularly harrowed for the strings of racehorses that used it in the early mornings. More recently the rides were used for Husky rallies.

The Roman Temple


Farley Heath is famous for its Romano/Celtic Temple which may have marked the boundary between the land of the Regnenses of Sussex and East Surrey and the Atrebates of Hampshire.

The outer and inner walls of the temple are today marked out clearly in stone.


Victorian antiquarian Martin Tupper from Albury excavated the temple and described digging through the black mould of burnt huts and finding a green bronze ring, pottery, tiles and 1,200 coins. A 20th century professional dig sadly failed to find any more artefacts or unspoiled archaeology. There is believed to have been a Roman road branching off from Stane Street to go past the villa at Rapsley in Ewhurst, over Winterfold and on to the temple at Farley Green, so today’s walkers are following in very ancient footsteps.

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