The Ghosts of Old Roads

So, for a change of pace, let me take a break from talking about Resistance (which is out next Tuesday–did I mention that? Did I mention it enough? Tuesday! Meep) and instead tell you of murder most foul, of vanishing roads and bizarre Edwardian spectacle.

Because today, for the first time in weeks, the sun shone and I went a-rambling, out of Haslemere and up to Hindhead Common and the Devil’s Punchbowl.

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And a very nice day for walking it was too.

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I had no set route in mind, so once I reached the edge of Polecat Valley, I idly picked up one of the trails recommended on the board in the little National Trust car park. It turned out to be a good choice as it led me along the ridge towards the Punchbowl.

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This may not look like much, but the first time I walked around the top of the Punchbowl, it would have been impossible to take this picture. This used to be the A3, the main trunk road from London to Portsmouth. Always busy and over-capacity, it was most narrow and dangerous stretch of the road. In 2011, a tunnel was opened under these hills and the road given to the National Trust, who have been managing its return to nature ever since.

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You can see a little more of the scar of the old road from here.

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And here is the bottom of the Punchbowl. I was conscious of the time and the light today, so I didn’t climb down into it (there’s a youth hostel down there somewhere and a maze of footpaths). The Punchbowl is a deep natural depression, probably formed by springs under the local sandstone weakening it until it collapsed. Or, if you prefer local legends, the Devil was so enraged by the number of churches being built in Sussex, to the south of here, that he started digging a channel to the sea in order to flood the Weald. He was making good progress, until a cock crowed and he leapt into Surrey, clearly his true home, creating this dent with the force of his landing. Other stories involve Thor and the Devil having a mudslinging fight, or giants. There’s even one that claims the scooped up earth landed in the channel and formed the Isle of Wight, although this one was clearly concocted by someone who has no idea how large the Isle of Wight actually is. 

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The A3 wasn’t the first road to run around the top of the Punchbowl. This trail follows the route of the old Portsmouth road, which was relocated further down the slope in the 1830s to become the A3. Now neither are roads at all. This particular stretch of the old turnpike road was the scene of a brutal murder in September 1786. A sailor, on his way from London to Portsmouth, had been drinking in the inn in Thursley, a few miles to the north. He fell into company with some fellow travellers, brought them drinks and paid for their meal, and then they all set off together to brave this stretch of road. This stretch was notorious for highwaymen, and it was a foolish man who travelled it alone, but the unknown sailor had made a poor choice of companions. Near to the highest point of the road, they murdered him: the local newspaper of the time tells us they ‘nearly severed his head from his body, stripped him quite naked, and threw him into a valley.’

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A memorial stone still stands by the road, marking the death. On its back, a warning reads ‘curseth be the Man who injureth or removeth this Stone.’ 

The front reads:

ERECTED
In detestation of a barbarous Murder
Committed here on an unknown Sailor
On Sep, 24th 1786
By Edwd. Lonegon, Mich. Casey & Jas. Marshall
Who were all taken the same day
And hung in Chains near this place
Whoso sheddeth Man’s Blood by Man shall his
Blood be shed. Gen Chap 9 Ver 6

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But the story’s connection to the Punchbowl doesn’t end there. This is the rather idyllic view from Gibbet Hill, the actual highest point. At 272m above sea level, it is the second highest hill in Surrey. I could see Guildford, 10 miles away, today and on a clear day you can supposedly see the top of the London skyline. Unfortunately, as the name suggests, it isn’t the views that made it famous. The three murderers were swiftly caught and sentenced to death. They were hung in chains from a 9m (30ft) gibbet on the hilltop very near the place their victim had died. In 1790, Gilbert White mentions that a terrible storm had knocked one of the bodies down–they were still there. Turner created a very Gothic mezzotint of Hind Head in 1808, complete with gallows. In those days, the land would have been primarily heath, not wooded, and gallows would have been visible from the valleys on every side.

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The gibbet is long gone, but by the mid-nineteenth century, the hill top had a reputation for being haunted. In 1851, a local landowner addressed this superstition by erecting this granite cross on the site of the gallows. I don’t know how successful his ploy was at the time, but these days the cross and viewpoint are mostly visited by people walking along from the National Trust cafe half a mile away. 

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I then headed downhill again, in search of the next historical highlight. The way was somewhat tricky in places. The local rock, Greensand, drains excess water away pretty fast (which is why I was here today and not tackling a walk on chalk) but mulch is mulch, and it’s rained a lot over the last few weeks. I did my fair share of squelching along paths today.

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This is, or once was, the Temple of the Four Winds (not to be confused with the Temple of the Winds, which is on the next ridge south). It was once a rather elaborate hunting lodge, built in 1910 by the landowner, Viscount Pirrie, the shipbuilder most famous today for applying the word ‘unsinkable’ to the Titanic. Pirrie bought the land in 1909 when it became available due to the death of its previous owner, Whitaker Wright, in 1904. Wright was an interesting character, one who I can’t describe properly in an already lengthy post, but suffice to say he was so successful a swindler that he could afford to build a smoking room under a lake in his Surrey estate and race his yacht against the Kaiser (and win). He was eventually caught out and brought to trial, but committed suicide immediately after his conviction. The break up of his Surrey estate after Wright’s death enabled local people to buy much of Hindhead Common and donate it to the then nascent National Trust, who still manage the land today. 

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These sweet chestnuts on the right have been coppiced in the last few years and are now springing back. Their wood is sold locally to be used for fence posts and in other rural industries, including repairs to listed buildings where imported materials are vetoed.

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I have no idea if this lake has a name, but it was pretty, so I stood in the mud and took a picture of it 😉

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Walking through the holly woods in the final stretch of the walk. At the end of this path, I turned back uphill to the ridge and from there made my way back to the station.

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This little chap was just opposite the end of the trail, completely unperturbed by the various hikers passing him by.

And that was my Christmas Eve Eve. I hope you all enjoyed yours as much as I did 🙂

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