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.