Fol­low­ing in Oc­tavia’s foot­steps

A walk through leafy Kent in mem­ory of a Na­tional Trust hero­ine proves deeply mov­ing

Country Life Every Week - - A Walking Life - Fiona Reynolds

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

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