Following in Octavia’s footsteps
A walk through leafy Kent in memory of a National Trust heroine proves deeply moving
I’Min the Weald of Kent in search of my heroine, Octavia Hill. She was a remarkable woman: a pioneer of social housing, a vigorous campaigner for green spaces— she invented the term ‘green belt’ a century before they came about—and a founder of the National Trust.
‘This small, determined woman led the way for conservation when too few saw the need or the light’
She was born in Wisbech, but spent her formative years at the Highgate home of her equally remarkable grandfather, Thomas Southwood Smith, the doctor who first linked cholera with poor living conditions. Growing up in leafy countryside, she and her sisters played outside and wandered freely in the flower-rich lanes.
Her upbringing was in stark contrast to that of the poor urban children she encountered when her mother set up the Ladies’ Guild in Red Lion Square. Octavia, a teenager, was assigned a class of ragged schoolchildren to supervise as they made doll’s-house toys.
Octavia was shocked by their poverty, dreadful living conditions and lack of access to Nature. On Saturday afternoons, she would walk the children into the countryside, sometimes as far as Epping Forest, to feel grass beneath their feet, to pick flowers and to breathe fresh air.
Moved to act, Octavia became a landlord to give poor families a decent place to live, a campaigner to save London’s green spaces and—because she failed to protect Swiss Cottage’s fields from greedy developers— a founder of the National Trust, which aimed to hold precious places in perpetuity for the benefit of the nation, for ever, for everyone.
In later life, she built a cottage, deep in beautiful Kent countryside, but threatened by London’s sprawl. To save it, she and her family bought land for the Trust, including Toys Hill, Mariners Hill, Crockham Hill and Ide Hill. In 2012, on the centenary of her death, the Trust devised a 10-mile walk there in her honour.
It’s a figure of eight, starting at Toys Hill, and includes not only countryside Octavia loved, but also the monuments dedicated to her and her family. Starting from the woodland car park at Toys Hill, it first takes in the village where a well, sunk by Octavia in 1898 for the villagers, stands proudly with spectacular views across the Weald.
The route then passes Chartwell, which was donated to the Trust by Winston Churchill’s family, before cutting west to Crockham, where Octavia is buried in the churchyard and movingly commemorated—tiny, standing on a pile of books and clutching a tract— by a stone effigy in the church.
Cutting back across the fields, the walk passes close to the cottage, Larksfield, that Octavia shared with her companion, Harriot Yorke, through Froghole to Mariners Hill, where there’s a monument to Octavia’s mother, Caroline, followed soon by another to Harriot. Both were generous donors to the Trust.
Continuing east, the path runs above Chartwell, with gorgeous views to the house and the Weald beyond, before continuing through woodland to the hamlet of French Street, then south and winding back to Toys Hill car park.
The second, shorter, loop runs north east from Toys Hill through charming woodland that must, in Octavia’s day, have been busy with coppicing, charcoal burning and chestnut harvesting. The path enters another Trust garden—emmetts—through the back gate, where I’m enticed by a cream tea.
Then, it’s due east to Ide Hill, where, in the woodland beyond the church, is the most important monument. The engraved stone seat has a commanding view of the Weald and represents all that Octavia cared for: outdoor spaces, open to everyone, peaceful and beautiful in a world threatened by cacophony and ugliness. As I walk back towards Toys Hill along the Greensand Way, I can’t help but be thankful that this small, determined and visionary woman led the way for conservation at a time when too few saw the need or the light. Fiona Reynolds is Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and the author of ‘The Fight for Beauty’ (Oneworld)
Follow her on Twitter: @fionacreynolds
The Weald of Kent by Samuel Palmer (1805–81), painted in about 1827–28