diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 05, 2014

Beyond London (4): Reigate & Banstead (part 1)

I'm continuing my outer orbit of London in Reigate and Banstead, two very different Surrey towns brought together solely for administrative purposes. Banstead's almost in London, indeed probably ought to be, a well-to-do commuter suburb on the Brighton Road. Reigate's much more Surrey proper, a historic settlement with a castle and everything, just far enough out to be generally overlooked. And inbetween the two there's rolling downland countryside, the M25 and a lot of big houses you probably couldn't afford to live in. I chose a relentlessly wet day to explore, which probably wasn't wise, but by setting out early I reached my first two stops before the heavens opened.

Somewhere famous: Kingswood Warren
OK, so it's not that famous. But Reigate and Banstead's not exactly dripping with places everyone knows, indeed even Gatwick Airport lies a few yards beyond the district's southern boundary. So I headed north to a stop on the Tattenham Corner railway line, that's Kingswood, to try to find a manorial outpost once owned by the BBC.

Private Roadway, the big sign said, just beyond the station at the entrance to Kingswood garden village. I wondered whether someone officious might pop out of the gatehouse (proudly bearing the name of Aspreys Estate Management) but nobody blinked, and in I stepped. The first cars to pass me on their way out were a Merc, a Land Rover and a Range Rover, which ought to have been a hint as to what was to come. I'd entered a particularly exclusive enclave, a swirl of leafy lanes where the moneyed hide away. A string of arcadian houses lined up on each side, some secured behind electronic gates, others with open gravel drives. Most are broad-gabled, with names like Fox Hollow, Bracken and Shepherd's Cot, as if the surrounding vegetation was somehow proper countryside rather than a lot of planted trees and a series of laurel hedges. You have to be seriously well off to afford to live on Beech Drive or Woodland Way, as a swimming pool count on an aerial photograph reveals. You can almost sense how someone back in the Thirties drew lines to divide up the fields into large plots, each big enough to satisfy a banker or a captain of industry. There are no pavements, walking's not really the done thing, although I did pass the occasional dressed-down gent in baseball cap or leading a dog. I thought I'd best keep moving, no photos.

Kingswood Warren lurks at the centre of the estate, the star around which the handful of private roads orbit. The building in its present form dates back to 1837, embellished by the first live-in Lord of the Manor. He created a mansion "embattled and ornamented with turrets in the castellated style", i.e. it looked like a Gothic castle, very much the home of someone pretending to be a country gentleman. The BBC's Research and Development team moved in in the late 1940s, holing up the cream of the corporation's scientists and engineers forever chasing after something new. And their achievements make a damned impressive list. Ceefax was developed at Kingswood Warren, as were Nicam Digital Stereo, DAB radio, High Definition TV, Freeview and the "red button". On a slightly less highbrow note Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men was filmed and recorded here, while Peter Snow's Swingometer came out of one of the backroom workshops. You'd expect at least a plaque.

But the BBC moved out in 2010, relocating their R&D team in Manchester and White City, leaving Kingswood Warren ripe for redevelopment. The mansion's been divided up into eight luxury apartments, while 14 mega-detached homes have been built in the grounds with a £2½m price tag, seemingly with a particular appeal to Middle Eastern owners. And no, of course mere mortals aren't allowed anywhere near. I got no further than the gates at the top of the gravel drive, peering through the bars to catch sight of part of the distant castellated frontage part-obscured by trees. One sign on the gateposts warned that CCTV was in operation "for public safety", while another pleaded with residents to keep an eye open for "our beloved cat Lionel" in case he was locked in a shed. As I stepped away a van turned up, either collecting or delivering a pampered pooch, and the gates swung open to let their urgent mission pass. How things change, replacing a public sector workplace with exclusive accommodation for footballers and oligarchs, but Kingswood's perhaps nothing out of the ordinary in that respect.
by train: Kingswood

Somewhere pretty: Reigate Fort
You'd expect a defensive structure on the North Downs to be quite old - a Saxon hillfort, perhaps, or a medieval castle. But Reigate Fort is very-late Victorian, dug out of the escarpment in the 1890s as part of the London Defence Scheme. About a dozen structures were built in total, in a chain from Essex to Surrey, the aim being to frustrate the bally French had they chosen to invade. Despite its elevated position there were never any big guns at Reigate, instead the site was used to store guns and other ammunition for distribution to ground troops in the event of landbased advance. Such an attack never came, of course, indeed the shape of warfare and the nature of the enemy changed utterly within only a few years. Reigate's earthworks were decommissioned in 1906 and fell into disrepair, restored only in the last decade courtesy of the National Trust and a lottery grant. It's one of their stranger properties. [listing] [leaflet] [map] [walk]

And the view is fantastic. Reigate Fort sits on the brow of a high chalk ridge, at the point where the North Downs tumble sharply down towards the town below. I was blown away by the panorama when I stepped out onto the summit of Colley Hill, despite the weather being less than ideal. A mix of gabled roofs and fields spread out across the Wealden plain below, with a sightline all the way to the South Downs many miles hence. Several dog walkers had made it up here for a morning stroll, plus a number of serious looking ramblers and the occasional family group. One such group had colonised the seats inside the Inglis Memorial, a low rotunda originally built for horses, now the ideal spot for checking the map or eating your sandwiches. Along the ridge I met a metal detectorist who showed me a silver spoon he'd uncovered, then gave me the lowdown on the fierce looking black sheep who graze the slopes of the fort. "Ignore the curly horns," he said, "they're tame as anything," then clambered down into the ditch in search of better treasure. [5 photos]

The fort's entrance is via a thick set of gates in the earthen bank. Normally you'd expect these to be locked, but no, there's free access for all to the structures within. At one end are a tool store and a magazine, the latter dug down deep for the safe storage of ammo. And along the rim of the hillside are two casemates, long blocks of flexible accommodation accessed down a steep set of steps. There's not much else, bar a large central space large enough to line up troops, or to play frisbee in if yesterday's antics are anything to go by. But I was drawn up to the top of the ramparts, behind the electric fence, to stare down over Surrey and Sussex as the autumn rains approached. Gatwick Airport could be clearly seen, illuminated by a final burst of sunlight, as planes took off into the seething grey clouds approaching from the west. I watched as visibility turned from decent to imminently appalling, flicked up my hood and fled for cover.
by train: Reigate

(part 2 tomorrow)

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