International visitors on a stop-over at London Heathrow or Gatwick, or staying in the city itself have found a delightful interlude in visiting Reigate and its neighbouring towns, villages and country estates.
To choose your itinerary, scroll down to view some of my homemade videos.
Historically this area of Surrey has been a tourist attraction for centuries. The high chalkland of the North Downs commands magnificent open views, especially from Reigate Hill, Colley Hill and Box Hill near Dorking. The ancient Pilgrims Way towards Canterbury can be traced on foot as part of the National Trail, right across the region, and much of the countryside is now owned and cared for by the National Trust.
At the foot of the Downs in the Holmesdale valley, the River Mole wends its way northwards towards Hampton Court and the River Thames over Wealden clay. A few of the old watermills are still in evidence, especially in Dorking and Pixham. 20 were listed in the Doomsday Book of 1086.
Much of the undulating landscape, agricultural and pleasantly residential, is on sand. For many centuries there have been man-made caves and tunnels to explore in the centre of Reigate under the old castle mound and behind the main street - with beautiful white sand of the highest quality suitable for glassmaking. Many of these caves are open to the public occasionally during summer months. Other tunnels connecting houses and churches have become legendary as they have been filled in and blocked off for safety reasons, but still within living memory, for example connecting Reigate Priory to the farm in Park Lane, and Mickleham village church to the Running Horses inn across the road.
Dorking town also has ancient tunnels - in South Street towards Rose Hill, and in the extensive grounds of The Deepdene, no longer accessible to the public but properly documented and photographed for posterity. The 17th century Deepdene caves were the brainchild of the original landowner, and they would have been a favourite of the young Winston Churchill and his brother Jack on their visits to their fabulously wealthy American aunt Lily, the Duchess of Marlborough. She rented the property at the end of the Victorian era. Visitors would simply catch the train from London to Deepdene Station near Box Hill and stay for days at a time - Christmases, banquets with the Prince of Wales, horseriding and carriages to local beauty spots and so on. During the war those secret Deepdene tunnels were put to use as an underground bunker, whereas the Reigate Tunnel caves became public air-raid shelters, an additional emergency telephone exchange and later, a Cold War bunker.
Another line of slightly higher ground - the Greensand Ridge, runs parallel to and south of the chalk escarpments of the North Downs. This too has its public footpaths and historically has served a purpose for the bronze-age Holmbury Hillfort, Betchworth Castle, Reigate Heath windmill, Reigate Park (with its famous view from the Frith seat, named after the photographer and manufacturer of postcards)and then eastwards, Bletchingley Castle.
There are several Grade 1 listed historic houses in this area including Polesden Lacey, Chartwell, Reigate Priory and its Museum, all with surrounding gardens and parkland. A variety of modern facilities and attractions can be found at Denbies in Dorking - the largest vineyard in England, and Priory Farm in Nutfield with its farm shop, garden centre and nature trails. Old country inns and town hotels have stories of their own, such as Burford Bridge where Admiral Nelson famously stayed, and the old White Hart crown insignia in Reigate of whom Queen Victoria was a patron and where lunch was served during the inaugural run from London to Brighton after the repeal, in 1896, of the Red Flag Act. Many of the buildings on the A217 up Reigate Hill may not look very interesting but they held a secret in World War 2 - there are also numerous wartime pillboxes on set walks and 2 forts to explore. Redhill Common, Earlswood Common and Reigate Heath can also supply a healthy breath of fresh air and picnic locations in the summer.
What do we know of the people who lived in this area throughout history? There is a wealth of information in books, thousands of gravestones and a few statues that give us clues, for example of the much-loved composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams outside the Dorking Halls. The Dorking Heritage Trail includes a blue plaque commemorating the birthplace of Sir Laurence Olivier, the actor and another for the 18th century novelist, Fanny Burney, and another in West Street for one of the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed on the Mayflower - well, he was one pioneering soul who left the area for good, then. In Dorking, informative signs are incorporated in the street furniture, for example outside the United Reformed Church in West Street on the magnificent early 18th century iron railings.
In contrast, Reigate has no organised scheme for memorial blue plaques even though I did propose the idea to the council of The Reigate Society. It was met with a lukewarm reception and even one vote against it. However the background research has been done and my list of proposed people and places should still remain in the official records of the Society, as well as in the archives of the Holmesdale Natural History Club. A few enterprising individuals in Reigate have initiated and funded blue plaques for a couple of notables: W.E.Johns - author of the Biggles books and Bob Doe, the WW2 flying ace commemorated at Reigate Grammar School - sadly he died in this year of 2010, missing the 70th anniversary national celebrations of the Battle of Britain.
There are indeed other local heroes in the animal world that I think need to be remembered with civic pride. What about all the prizewinning racehorses that have grazed on our local pastureland? Reigate Priory's stables were home to many of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother's horses, where they were expertly trained.
The garden shed of one humble abode in Doods Road, Reigate was home to the famous Great Doods Loft - carrier pigeons that were commandeered during World War 2 and used as messengers for Reigate Battle HQ's South East Command under General Montgomery. This important role should be noted and treasured in some way - perhaps by the local Brownies and Girl Guides who have a site called Jordan Heights, near the foot of Reigate Hill and right beside the secret bunker. The Nissen hut there served as an additional temporary home for those poor birds - many of whom became innocent victims of war.
Whereas at least one person in The Reigate Society objected to the idea of commemorating valuable horses and birds, we can only imagine the reactions as anyone drives through Dorking these days. Right in the middle of the Deepdene roundabout is now a ten-foot tall shiny Dorking cock. Naturally this controversial art installation was to celebrate the breed of chicken with his famous extra 5th toe, and make a memorable impression on visitors from the Reigate and Holmwood direction - it greets the sun, you see, just as a cock crows at daybreak in the local countryside. Besides, Dorking's football team is affectionately known as The Chicks, with the symbol enblazoned on their shirts. The original idea of a huge metal statue was hatched by a Dorking town councillor who enterprisingly whisked up all the sponsorship and commissioned a local metalworker. However many feathers would that ruffle in Reigate?
No, the best bit of celebrated ironwork in Reigate - a national treasure and totally unique, is kept under lock and key in a damp and dreary council depot in Earlswood, next to the recycling centre. Tucked in the corner behind the mountains of road salt, you would not be able to see it and nobody would know it was there unless they were told or saw my photos. I doubt whether Reigate & Banstead Borough Council will ever get around to restoring that magnificent set of 18th century gates in my lifetime. With an eye on the future and knowing the present economic climate, perhaps the red-rusted remains will eventually be swept up with a broom and just thrown away. In 2007-8 an equivalent amount of heritage lottery money was spent on less sophisticated priorities like digging out an old brick ha-ha and constructing a circular metal pavilion in Prory Park for coffee and toilet provision. That in itself has become a tourist attraction for familes from miles around, with lake, wildfowl, tennis courts, skate board park and children's playgound with a massive wooden galleon as a central feature. It commemorates our distinguished naval history and victorius success fighting off the Spanish Armada so please don't call it a pirate ship. In true naval tradition it bears a female name - the Grey Lady! In fact, strangely it was the only female suggestion out of 100 made by local schoolchildren, so that huge, unique structure crafted in solid wood ended up being named after a phantom.
So if you do have some time to spare, there is plenty to see and enjoy in this area. If your family would like a historic guided tour, with a few surprising details and anecdotes thrown into the conversation, please note that I have a current CRB certificate and can select a route depending on your needs and interests. As well as any entrance costs and refreshments, I do ask for a realistic voluntary contribution for this service. There are ongoing costs of my research and local good causes that I like to support.
I also welcome invitations from local groups who require a speaker. Here are some of my mini-videos to feature this research on YouTube.