Surrey, I’m sorry to say, has a garnered a bit of a bad name for itself. Well within commuting distance of London, much of the property does come with price tags to match. But away from the gated estates of Virginia Water, Weybridge and Cobham, there’s plenty to do and see in the county – including some amazing views.
The Surrey Hills
The obvious place to head if you’re in search of long walks and English vistas are the Surrey Hills. An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, they stretch from Farnham in the West, to Oxted in the East. The highest point in the AONB is Leith Hill, marked with an 18thcentury gothic tower which serves excellent homemade cakes (the chocolate brownies are particularly good), drinks and so on. If you climb the 74 steps to the top of the tower, you’ll be standing at the highest point in South East England, and from here you can see all the way to London in one direction, and to the south coast in the other. You can of course walk to the top of Leith Hill – or neighbouring Holmbury Hill – but in recent years mountain bikers have become an increasingly common site. In fact cycling is so popular (the road aspect thanks, in part, to the London 2012 Olympics) that many of the Surrey Hills villages have their own bike shops: Westcott, Albury and Peaslake to name just three.
Don’t worry if you aren’t feeling quite that active, though. Refreshments are very much available, of both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties. In recent years, Surrey has become something of hotbed for vineyards. Denbies is probably the most famous, situated just north of Dorking. Now one of the largest wine producers in the UK, you can explore the vineyard on one of their outdoor tours. They even have a little train which takes you round the estate, so you can put your feet up if you’ve had enough of walking.
(Incidentally, while we are in Dorking, one of my favourite pieces of artwork is the huge cockerel on the main roundabout. It’s hard to miss, and celebrates the Dorking, a type of chicken first bred by the Romans. The Dorking one even sports outfits; in the past he’s worn an Easter Bonnet, a crown, and a festive red cape for Christmas.)
Other beverages have followed in Denbies’ wake: the family-owned Hog’s Back brewery in Tongham, near Farnham, make a wide range of beers, including the world’s first chocolate lager, and have their own hop garden. The Silent Pool gin distillery, in Albury, is also putting Surrey on the map with their delicate gins and even more beautiful bottles. In fact Silent Pool was already famous before the gin came along. This eerie lake is supposed to be haunted. Legend has it that a local girl was chased to her death here by King John in the 1200s, and in 1926 it was believed that Agatha Christie had drowned herself here, after her car was found parked nearby. The pool was dragged and planes send out to look for her, but 11 days later she was found in Harrogate.
Just around the corner from the Denbies Estate is the Polesden Lacey Estate. Now under the care of the National Trust, the estate and its Regency house were previously owned by society hostess Dame Margaret Greville (who Cecil Beaton referred to as: ‘a galumphing, greedy, snobbish old toad’. Not a fan, then.) A great friend of Queen Mary, Greville left her jewellery to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in her will. The tiara that Princess Eugenie wore at her Windsor Castle wedding in the autumn was the Greville Emerald Kokoshnik Tiara; one that Dame Margaret had given to her great-grandmother. And in fact the future King George VI and his wife spent some of their honeymoon at Polesden, playing golf and enjoying the views.
Polesden is a beautiful house, and it was designed to be admired. But there are plenty of beautiful buildings in Surrey. Two of my favourites are St Martha’s Church in Chilworth, perched on a hill surrounded by woodland with a view down to Newland’s Corner, and situated on the Pilgrim’s Way. The other is Loseley Park, a Tudor house which is home to panels from Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace and his banqueting tents, George IV’s coronation chair, carving by Grinling Gibbons, and a ceiling commissioned for the visit of James !. Even the embroidery on the cushions in the drawing room are supposed to have been Elizabeth I’s handiwork. The gardens are also stunning, and even though the More-Molyneux family still live in the house, the whole place is open to the public in the summer months.
Break into a gallop
Head a bit further north from Dorking and you’ll get to Epsom. Here on the Epsom downs you’ll find Epsom Downs Racecourse – most famous for hosting the Derby and the Oaks at the beginning of June. As well as the racecourse, the Downs are also a training grounds, with almost 200 racehorses using the gallops, which are manged by the Jockey Club. The Downs are of course also open to members of the public for jogging, dog-walking, cycling or whatever else takes you pick, so if you can get out early enough on a weekday then watch out, as you might just see a racehorse thundering by on the gallops.
Where to eat
William IV, Little London, Albury: https://www.thewilliamivpub.com/
Salt Pig, Dorking: https://www.saltpigrestaurant.co.uk/
Denbies Gallery Restaurant: https://www.denbies.co.uk/visit-us/gallery-restaurant/
Where to stay
The Hurtwood Hotel, Peaslake: https://www.hurtwoodhotel.co.uk/
Wooton House Hotel, Dorking: https://www.phcompany.com/principal/wotton-house/
Brooklands Hotel, Weybridge: https://www.brooklandshotelsurrey.com/