Christopher Winn

The Surrey hills

The Surrey hills
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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 some 10,000 years. This is the oldest known man-made dwelling in England — at least according to Dr Louis Leakey, who excavated it and wrote about it in The Spectator in December 1950. Prehistoric man instinctively knew that the Surrey Hills 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 P.G. 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 Rosé produced here was served aboard the royal barge during the Diamond Jubilee river pageant.) 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 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 miles 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, er, 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.