Wax­ing lyri­cal over wooded Sur­rey Hills

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - CHRISTO­PHER WINN

I live in the old­est vil­lage in Eng­land. How come? Well, in a field be­low the big house, there is a Mesolithic pit dwelling dat­ing back about 10,000 years.

This is the old­est known man-made dwelling in Eng­land, or at least ac­cord­ing to Louis Leakey, who ex­ca­vated it and wrote about it in The Spec­ta­tor in De­cem­ber 1950. Pre­his­toric man in­stinc­tively knew that the Sur­rey Hills, in the na­tion’s south­east, are a won­der­ful place in which to live.

To­day I sus­pect most peo­ple see them as a slightly blurry back­drop to the an­nual RideLon­don-Sur­rey cy­cle in­fes­ta­tion. I see them as a hid­den gem.

Sur­rey is Eng­land’s most wooded county and if you drive east from Guild­ford, birth­place of PG Wode­house and pos­sessed of “the most beau­ti­ful high street in Eng­land”, ac­cord­ing to Charles Dick­ens, you en­ter a mag­i­cal land of hills and trees, car­peted blue in spring, dap­pled green in summer, blaz­ing red and gold in au­tumn.

On the banks of the mys­te­ri­ous Silent Pool, where Agatha Christie parked her car and dis­ap­peared in 1926, is Al­bury, Eng­land’s small­est vine­yard. (The Silent Pool Rose pro­duced here was served on the royal barge dur­ing the Queen’s Di­a­mond Ju­bilee river pageant in 2012.)

Next to Al­bury Park, where Ge­orge III’s coro­na­tion ban­quet was held in 1761, a beau­ti­ful Saxon church hides a se­cret chapel, richly dec­o­rated in daz­zling colours by Augustus Pu­gin for banker Henry Drum­mond.

The rec­tor here in the 17th cen­tury was Wil­liam Oughtred, in­ven­tor of the slide rule and the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion sign (X) and tu­tor to Christo­pher Wren. Oughtred, who “died of ec­stasy’’ at the Restora­tion of Charles II, lies some­where among the Saxon stones.

The gar­dens at Al­bury were laid out with what was once the long­est yew hedge in the world by the di­arist John Eve­lyn, who also cre­ated Eng­land’s first Ital­ian gar­den at Wot­ton House, his an­ces­tral home a few kilo­me­tres away.

Eve­lyn, whose grand­fa­ther in­tro­duced gun­pow­der to Eng­land, was a noted herbal­ist and gives his name in part to those pur­vey­ors of fine soaps and fra­grances Crab­tree & Eve­lyn.

The grounds of Wot­ton House oc­cupy the slopes of Leith Hill, the high­est point in south­east Eng­land, made a moun­tain by the tower at its sum­mit, from which there are glo­ri­ous views — north to Lon­don, south across the Weald to the South Downs and the sea.

Be­low is Leith Hill Place, now part of the Na­tional Trust and where, on the oc­ca­sional en­chanted summer evening, you can hear a per­for­mance of The Lark As­cend­ing in the very gar­den where Ralph Vaughan Wil­liams grew up and first heard a lark, well, as­cend­ing.

To the east, on Pitch Hill, is the gar­den where Ge­orge Har­ri­son wrote Here Comes the Sun. There’s mu­sic in th­ese here hills.

And so to Dork­ing, birth­place of Lau­rence Olivier and home to Eng­land’s big­gest vine­yard, Den­bies, as well as the only sur­viv­ing house of a Mayflower pil­grim fa­ther, Wil­liam Mullins, a shoe­maker whose de­scen­dants in­clude four pres­i­dents and Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe.

I rest my case.


Wot­ton House, above; Den­bies vine­yard, above right

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