Surrey

Chilworth, Surrey: Chilworth Gunpowder Mills

Faced with the problem of what to do on an excursion with a friend I hadn’t seen since November on a Saturday when every ticketed outdoor attraction was already booked up, after a lengthy search to find an interesting looking walk in Surrey that I hadn’t already been on (i.e. one with actual sites to see other than gorse), I discovered the Chilworth Gunpowder Mills. Set in the idyllic countryside near Guildford, these are the ruins of what was once the sole legal producer of gunpowder in England, and since they’re part of a public walking trail, you can just rock up and visit any time you like, no booking required.

 

Unfortunately, the day we picked for our excursion was full of intermittent downpours (like basically all of May this year), so the terrain was pretty damn muddy, and we were being pelted with rain on and off, but armed with waterproof jackets, we set off undaunted. The websites I found about the mills didn’t initially make it super clear where we had to go, but you want to aim for the Percy Arms Pub in Chilworth. You can park for free on the main road if the pub carpark is full, and the entrance to the trail is just a little ways down the road, next to a primary school. I ended up downloading the 4.5km walk guide from this website, which is what we used to navigate, though you will encounter some leaflets on site that will direct you on a 2km walk just around the mills if you don’t fancy climbing up a hill (I didn’t really, but 2km isn’t a very long walk, so we had to extend it somehow).

  

Gunpowder was manufactured in the Tillingbourne valley from 1626, when the East India Company established the first mill, until 1920, when all the mills closed, although people continued to reside in buildings on the site until 1963 (it was known as “tin town”). Guildford Council’s website claims that there are 100 buildings on the site, but my friend, being skeptical of this claim, went out of his way to count them all, and even being generous and including things like the remains of bridges as “buildings” he only counted 24. Maybe the rest are on private land so we couldn’t actually see them on the walk. And don’t ask me why this site was specifically chosen for gunpowder, as this was never explained. My best guess would be that it was close enough to London to be relatively easy to reach, but still far enough away from the city and other major towns that any explosions would have left them unaffected, and it is surrounded by a couple of rivers, so it would be easy to transport materials in and out.

  

Following the walk took us through the right side of the site first, which included the largest building still standing. The map in the leaflet didn’t seem to match up with what the online map was telling me, but I think this was the expense magazine, which was used to store materials in between stages of manufacturing. You can actually still go inside (very much at your own risk) and a set of concrete steps has been built at some stage in the recent past to aid this, though it was still quite wet and slippery inside, so we had to walk with care. Carrying on along the river, on the route of what was once a tramway around the site, we passed the ruins of a few other buildings nowhere near as well preserved as the magazines. You can carry on along this path, or do as we did and pass through a gate and through a couple of fields to reach Postford Pond.

  

You can see the roofs of the WWI cordite works from along this trail, and will also pass some horses, cows, and a couple of very hairy pigs. Postford Pond, and its neighbour Waterloo Pond, are positively bucolic. In fact, the whole area is incredibly lovely, disturbed only by our brief encounter with a group of students presumably doing DofE award related activities who were blaring extremely obnoxious and terrible music. There’s a housing development that you have to walk through after the ponds where you basically have to cut across someone’s garden, which feels a bit wrong, but it’s apparently a right of way (fortunately, no one was outside, so we didn’t have to make awkward eye contact whilst doing so).

 

After passing the houses, we ended up in a forest scattered with bluebells, walking steadily uphill along a winding dirt path with the Tillingbourne “meandering” below. This would have been lovely were it not for the uphill aspects of it, and the fact that this was when the sun chose to come out, so I started overheating and had to hastily shed my outer layers, but still ended up drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top of the hill. This area was where charcoal was produced. At this point, we had to option to extend the walk by half a kilometre by walking up to St. Martha’s Church, but I was pretty hot and cranky and not in the mood to walk up any more hills, so we instead headed downhill back to the gunpowder mill, passing a vineyard and some alpacas (living in an “alpaca hotel”) en route. There’s also a WWII pillbox next to a farm. It’s on private land, but you can see it from the trail.

  

We then explored the other half of the mill site, including the spot where six people were killed in 1901 after someone’s hobnail boot gave off a spark (hobnail boots are probably not a great idea when you’re working with gunpowder), a number of mill stones from an incorporating mill (whatever that is), and a gate house where workers were checked for any explosive materials before they entered the mills (I guess someone was asleep on hobnail boot day). I was especially intrigued by the dragon notation on the map, which marked the “dragon stones” on the WWII home defence line protecting London from tank invasion (no idea how they worked though. They were just conical stones). It had started absolutely pissing it down again as soon as we got down to the mills, so my raincoat came back out, which was not a great combination with my now-sweaty long-sleeved shirt. Needless to say, I was tired and hungry by the end of this (not to mention wet), so I was relieved when we headed to a brewery that at least had seating under a marquee for pizzas and a refreshing St. Clements after our walk.

 

It’s nice that Guildford council provides free maps to the site, though as I indicated, I could have done with a LOT more information about the mills, which isn’t readily forthcoming online either (though there is apparently a book you can buy about them). Some signage on the site or at least QR codes you could scan for more info certainly wouldn’t go amiss! However, it is a free site, so I can’t really demand too much, and I am glad it hasn’t been taken over by the National Trust and cleaned up, as I think it would lose a large portion of its charm (and some of the thrill of discovery), not to mention that the National Trust would definitely charge for entry if they owned it. It is genuinely a really gorgeous place to walk (with riparian entertainments!), and not too crowded, even on a Saturday, though the rain probably helped with that somewhat. Highly recommended if you find yourself in Surrey and fancy a bit of industrial archaeology! In other news, I finally got my first jab last week (just in time to go back to work), so there will definitely be some museum visits coming up in the near future.

 

 

 

Surrey: Lavender Fields and a Walk through Puttenham

As I said in my previous post, we wanted to take advantage of our rental car as much as possible whilst we had it and venture into the countryside a bit. A friend of mine is always raving about the lavender fields near Epsom, and the end of July/early August is peak lavender season, so we’d thought we’d give it a go. Unfortunately, apparently everyone else in London had the same thought, because the place was completely rammed, even though it was early afternoon on a Monday. With cars queuing down the road just to get in the car park, and another queuing system set up once you got out of your car that didn’t look like it was allowing for proper social distancing, plus the £4 charge just to walk around a field, I was most decidedly not keen, so we gave up on that idea. (I had to laugh when I saw the lavender farm posted on Secret London’s Instagram a few days later. Sorry mate, secret’s out.)

However, all was not lost, because we spotted another lavender farm down the road that made a point of advertising their free admission. The fact that the car park was almost empty probably should have been a clue that there was a reason it was free, if the appearance of the place as soon as we got out of the car didn’t make that clear. Still, we’d come all that way, so we persevered. And boy, it’s good we did, since you can see all the fun attractions we spotted! There’s the random hay bales and empty greenhouses surrounded by hoarding, and the big dirt/rubbish heap.

 

And of course the beautiful lush ankle-high lavender fields, filled with millions of bees and other insects that flew up into our faces when we walked past. Just like being in Provence (actually, sort of, since I don’t like Provence much either, but their lavender is definitely more impressive)! There was a small stall set up selling lavender products, but I think lavender in food is vile, and I’m not all that keen on lavender soap either, so we went home empty handed. I probably shouldn’t be too hard on them, because they are a new farm and it takes time for lavender plants to grow to impressive heights, and at least we didn’t pay for the experience or have to encounter other people in a significant way, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it or Mayfield Lavender Farms, which is the insanely crowded place down the road, to anyone at the moment. Total waste of a trip.

 

Our walk in the North Downs was more successful. We used to go for walks in the North and South Downs quite frequently back when we had a car, but I’ve never been very into walking, so we would usually have to combine it with a visit to an ice cream shop so I had some motivation. However, we sold our car back in 2016 to finance our trip to New Zealand, and have only rented them occasionally since then. So we thought it might be nice to visit the North Downs again, since I’ve gotten sick of Richmond Park even though I’ve really only started going for regular walks there fairly recently. (I know I’m lucky to live near it and have a massive green space to use practically on my doorstep, but it does get old after a while. There’s just too many damn people to dodge.) I checked out the North Downs walks on the National Trails website, and we settled on the Puttenham Circular based mainly on the length of the walk (I get real sick of walking after 4 miles or so, so 3.5 miles is usually perfect) and the ease of driving there (I think Marcus may also have been enticed by the mention of hops, though we didn’t end up seeing any).

  

I was definitely irritated for a lot of this walk because the sun was much too strong, even though it wasn’t a particularly hot day, but I actually enjoyed following the route I downloaded from the National Trails site rather than the clearly marked trails everyone else was following, both because it meant we were the only people on our particular walk, and because it made it feel more like a scavenger hunt since I had to keep looking out for landmarks to know where to turn. On the downside, the fencing seems to have changed since the walk was written, and we were definitely lost for a bit, though we came out where we were supposed to in the end; also, there were portions of the walk where you had to walk along a winding road that had lots of blind corners, and even though there wasn’t much traffic, I was so paranoid I was going to get hit by a car that I fairly sprinted along those stretches to get back into a field again.

 

Most of the walk was just fields and small stretches of woodland, but we walked through the village of Puttenham, which was quite quaint (though undoubtedly still expensive to live in, as it’s close enough to London to be considered a commuter town), with a parish church and some oast houses (still not totally clear on what an oast house is, other than that it relates to hops somehow, but no matter). We also came across various fields full of horses, which was a bit stressful at one juncture where we had to open a gate right next to a horse. I warned the horse I was coming from across the field so it didn’t freak out, and tiptoed very quickly around it in case it tried to kick me or something (I was never one of those girls that loves horses. They kind of make me nervous because they’re so jumpy themselves. I feel more comfortable with cows because I think I’m a bit of a cow whisperer). I spared you the view of a different horse’s giant erect penis in the photo at the start of the post, which I took from an angle where the tumescence is blocked by the horse in front of it.

All in all, it’s not a terrible walk in dry conditions if you bear in mind that “gently undulating” is code for “there are lots of hills,” and don’t go in actually expecting to see hops, because we certainly didn’t (maybe it’s for the best. One of us might have ended up like Fanny Adams). The various “dog fouling” signs made me laugh anyway!

 

Surrey, UK: Polesden Lacey

P1090977  P1100011

I feel like I’ve been slightly lazy since I’ve been back in the UK.  I’ve been home for over a month, and haven’t managed to visit any museums in all that time.  In my defence, our America roadtrip was pretty tiring, and we went to loads of places, so I think I needed a little break, and I’ve also been busy trying to get stuff ready for the application for permanent settlement I have to make next month.  So, this is the only UK post before I’m back in America again for the holidays- sorry about that!  But today’s post is on somewhere in Britain – Polesden Lacey.  We’ve probably passed signs for it about a million times during our various wanderings around Surrey, but it is a National Trust property, so I was feeling meh about visiting until I read that they had some Christmas festivities on.  Funny how the promise of tinsel can be such a powerful motivator.

P1090969   P1090988

Polesden Lacey didn’t look all that Christmassy from the outside.  Although they’d made a show of serving up mince pies and mulled wine, and got a brass band in to play carols, the leaves have only just turned in Britain, so it felt far more autumnal than wintry (this is one of the reasons I go back to America every year during December.  I like to see snow at Christmastime).   But the house was meant to be decorated, so we parted with 11 quid each for the privilege of seeing it (the pricing was also a bit weird; there’s a £6.66 charge just to enter the grounds, but then an extra £4 for the house, which for some reason came out to £11 something, so I don’t know if they threw secret Gift Aid in somehow?  The normal price should have been £10.80 for both, so it was kind of odd).

P1100018    P1090970

The trees leading up to the house had one string of lights half-assedly strung up on them, honestly it probably would have been better if they hadn’t even bothered, so we wouldn’t have seen what a lame attempt it was.  There were no lights on the exterior of the manor, at least none that were visible by day, but upon entering the house, most of the rooms had Christmas trees in them.  It was a pretty standard National Trust property; one of my biggest problems with them is that because they are responsible for so many buildings, most of their houses feel pretty generic (as do the special events) and this was no exception.  It was a perfectly attractive house, but there was nothing special about it.  As is typical, only maybe a quarter of the rooms were open to the public, and in this case, it was probably even less than that, since we weren’t allowed upstairs.

P1090972   P1090973

Their Christmas theme was the “Three Kings,” a play on the three magi wherein the three British kings who had visited Polesden Lacey (Edward VII,George V, and George VI) would be portrayed by costumed actors.  Disappointingly, only Edward VII and George V were there that day; Edward was much too thin and George wasn’t quite beardy enough, but I didn’t really speak to either of them (aside from a nod of acknowledgement at Edward) so I can’t critique their acting skills.  That was another problem; the house was swarming with costumed employees, but only one of them took the time to talk to us.  The others basically ignored us and directed all their energy at the children, which annoys me.  Of course the Santa stuff is for kids, but I certainly think I would have appreciated the history of the house far more than most kids would.  Also, they were meant to have mulled wine and biscuits in the kitchen, but only mulled wine was there, and I had to push through a crowd of people to access it.  Promising me biscuits and then not having any is a sure-fire way to get on my bad side.

P1090975   P1090978

Anyway, the history of the house, as far as I could suss out for myself, was that it was owned by some Mrs. Greville woman in the Edwardian era, who clearly enjoyed entertaining royalty, including a number of Indian princes, in some overly gilded room (although there was no mention of the other sort of entertaining, which is odd, given Edward VII’s bawdy reputation).  She declared that George VI (just plain old Bertie at the time) would be her heir, but going by Wikipedia, that never happened, although this was never explained in the house.  Despite having iPads strewn about, there was a distinct lack of information available.

P1090980  P1090974

They did have some kind of treasure hunt thing for children, so perhaps they fared better.  There was also a Santa in the library, who I steered well clear of.  He freaked me out as a child, and I’m not particularly keen now (freaked out is perhaps an understatement; there was a Santa that rode around in a fire engine in my town, and I’d hide under my bed when I heard him coming, and would have to be dragged out kicking and screaming to go accept my candy cane.  And you could forget mall Santas entirely!).

P1090982   P1090997

There were of course extensive grounds, but it was cold and all the gardens were dead, so we only walked through part of them.  There were a lot of random huts around the place, and some chickens clucking away in their pen.  I did enjoy the lawn chairs, which featured black and white pictures of famous visitors to the manor; my favourite was of George VI and Elizabeth in snazzy hats, pictured above (probably taken during their honeymoon, which they spent on the estate).

P1100007   P1090999

They’re meant to have one of the largest shops of any National Trust property, so we poked around that for a little while and bought some postcards, but it was just the standard National Trust stuff (though I am most intrigued by St Clements flavoured curd.  Get on that, Fortnum’s!).  We decided to have some tea and cake to warm us up after walking the grounds, but the cafe only had muffins and flapjacks, which I think you’ll agree are not cake, so I had to end up going home to bake a cake to satiate my cake-lust.  Don’t get me wrong, I love muffins, but not when I’m craving tea and cake specifically.

P1100013   P1100012

Basically, I left hungry and not knowing anything more about Polesden Lacey than I did before my visit, so I wasn’t a very happy camper.  It wasn’t terrible, but when I compare it to somewhere like Stan Hywet, which does a different theme every year, and has the grounds and each room of the mansion decorated to the nines, I can’t help but feel what a poor effort it was.  The decorations inside Polesden really just consisted of a tree here and there, and not much else.  In fact, I think it might be better to forget about the seasonal offerings altogether and visit in the summer, when at least you’d be able to see the flowers in bloom, and maybe view the first floor of the house.  2/5 – not Christmassy enough for my liking!

P1100017   P1100006

Reigate, Surrey: Reigate Caves

20130608_144222

Last Saturday began much like every other weekend – with my boyfriend and I sitting around eating waffles in our jimjams, and debating what to do whilst waiting for vintage episodes of The Simpsons to come on.  Excitingly, it soon became apparent that this wasn’t like every other weekend, as we had actually found a reason to leave the house!  I’m totally a list-maker, though unfortunately, not well-organised enough to keep them all in one location.  One of the many lists I have is on Google Maps, and includes various attractions around Britain I want to visit.  We’ve already been to most of the caves within an easy drive from London, but Reigate Caves were ones we hadn’t visited, due to them only being open 5 days a year.  I happened to check their website for the next open day, not really expecting it to be any time soon, only to find out it was that very Saturday!  With a destination sorted, we hopped in the car, Reigate bound.

20130608_135836

The Reigate Caves consist of three separate caves (which aren’t actually caves as such, but old sand mines, which is fairly typical of “caves” in the Weald): Baron’s Cave, which is under the old Castle grounds, and the Tunnel Road Caves, which are opposite each other under (appropriately enough) Tunnel Road.  It was £3 for Tunnel Road Caves, and another £2 for Baron’s Cave, both of which included a guided tour.  The whole enterprise is run by the Wealden Cave Society, who honestly seemed like delightful people.  We began with a tour of the Western Caverns, led by a guide who was seriously pretty great.

20130608_144042

He was very laid back, to the point where he would just start talking whenever he got to a point of interest in the cave, whether or not the group was with him.  I thought that was fantastic, because why should everyone have to wait for stragglers?  That way, if people with children wanted to hang back, and didn’t really care about the tour, the rest of us didn’t have to wait for them to catch up.  There was a second guide to bring up the rear, to ensure the stragglers didn’t get completely lost, and help answer questions.  The main guide also reminded me a bit of Chris Packham (they had the same w’s for r’s speech thing going on), which I think is part of why I liked him so much, since I adore Chris Packham, (and agree with him that pandas are completely overrated).  He was clearly very passionate and knowledgeable about the caves, which I always like to see (people with slightly eccentric interests, that is, as I have many of those myself).

20130608_144059

The caves are currently owned by a gun club, who normally have target practice in the caves, though obviously not when the tours are going on.  Therefore, the caves were littered with spent casings, and we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the target areas.  I’m no fan of guns (perhaps surprising coming from an American), so I felt slightly uneasy at the start, until it became apparent that no one was going to emerge from a hidey-hole and start shooting at us.  Otherwise, I’d say the dominant feature of the caves was sand, which was apparently also scattered with bits of broken glass, so it’s probably not the best place to wear open toed shoes.

20130608_144119

The caves have what is an extensive, yet strangely poorly documented history.  Obviously, their main use was as a source of sand, which was used for glass making, ink blotting, and to soak up spillage on local pub floors, which I’m told is what gave rise to the local saying, “happy as a sand boy,” (which I must start using) as the sand boys would get a free drink at each pub they delivered sand to, thus ending up plastered by the end of the day.  During WWI, they were used to store explosives, which likely would have resulted in the complete annihilation of Reigate had any of them actually gone off. During WWII, the townspeople used it as a bomb shelter, which I also have to question the efficacy of, as sand isn’t the sturdiest material, but thankfully, it was never put to the test.  It seems like mostly what people did in them was carve things into the walls, judging by the enormous amount of graffiti (which included an excellent war-era caricature of Hitler, which I was unable to get a picture of).

20130608_144519


Me and some face graffiti

Being man-made, the caves had reasonably high ceilings, so might have more appeal for claustrophobics than the average cave. Though there was a large skull carved into one of the walls, which might manage to freak someone out if the caves themselves hadn’t.  I reckon the tour lasted about 35-45 minutes, after which we entered the Eastern Caverns, which were self-guided (though naturally, required hard hats).

20130608_144406

HAA!

The Eastern Caverns detailed more of the history of the caves with the use of posters (though our guide had already covered most of it during the tour), and featured things like a recreation of a bomb shelter (complete with scary sound effects), a Cold War room, and a men’s urinal trough.  I think it was meant to be more of a “spooky” experience, as they had fake bats hanging throughout for children to count, and little signs with a ghost on them, which is of course exactly my cup of tea (Earl Grey, two sugars and a splash of milk).  It even had authentic smells (as did the stairs leading down to Tunnel Road, come to think of it) thanks to a paraffin lamp, which also had the effect of making the air authentically smoky.

20130608_145326(0)    20130608_145821

Finally (after procuring a cookie sandwich from a local bakery, as there was no ice creamery on the high street.  Get on that, Reigate!), we hiked up the hill to Baron’s Cave, following the directional bat signs.  We were given lamps this time, in lieu of hard hats, and caught up with a group who had just begun the guided tour.  This guide was rather dour compared to the first one, but he was still informative (and was quite stern with an exceptionally bratty child, which I appreciated).  Baron’s Cave was originally constructed in the 11th century as part of Reigate Castle, and was probably used primarily as a wine cellar, and alternate exit from the castle.  It is also rumoured to have been the meeting spot for the barons on their way to Runnymede to sign the Magna Carta (hence the name), which is pretty cool.

20130608_160716

As such, although it was much smaller than the other caves, it had even older graffiti, including carvings of a horse and cow.  Most of the stuff we saw was from the 18th century, although much of it goes back even further, but has been covered over by newer carvings.  Other than the graffiti, the main attractions were a staircase that once led to a pyramid on the castle grounds, but now leads to nothing (though the pyramid is still there, and you can go up and see it!), the wine cellar room, and a random T-Rex.

20130608_154531

You can just see him hiding in the back. Rawr!

I’m happy we discovered the open day in time to go, because the Reigate Caves were a very nice experience.  I’m rating them as 4/5, and certainly better than Chislehurst Caves.  I think the fact that the Cave Society run the tours help turn it into a quality experience, as they clearly have a vested interest in all things underground.  The only other open days this year are the 13th July, 10th August, and 14th September, so I’d definitely recommend heading down to Reigate on one of them to take in the cavey goodness.

20130608_155752