HISTORY OF THE HURTWOOD
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.
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.”
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.
THE 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 DOMESDAY SURVEY
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
THE NEW THREAT WAS THE ADVENT OF THE COMBUSTION ENGINE.
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?
SUMMER OF ’76
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
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.