About halfway between Portsmouth and London, precisely where a road builder wouldn't want it, stands Gibbet Hill. The first road linking the port to the capital headed over the summit, which didn't make for an easy trip and encouraged lurking highwaymen. In 1826 a new route was taken, slightly below around the rim of a huge depression called the Devil's Punchbowl. This was scenic but impractical, and until recently was the sole section of single-carriageway on the A3 and a notorious bottleneck. So the government grasped the hyper-expensive option and bored a tunnel under the hill instead, allowing traffic to dive underneath with ease and the original road to be returned to nature. It's a bit of a triumph. [9 photos]
The National Trust own most of the land around Gibbet Hill, such is the environmental value of the landscape. They kept a tiny stump of the old A3 for access to their cafe and car park, but the remaining hundreds of acres are absolutely premier walking territory. An excellent free leaflet provides details of six different trails, from a gentle mile up to the summit to a 'demanding' six mile circuit, so there's no excuse for inactivity. But most visitors appear to do the short one, or merely hang around by the cafe because that's got fantastic views over the punchbowl so why go further? I went further.
I started with Gibbet Hill itself, because that's the second highest hill in Surrey and not to be missed. The name commemorates the tale of a sailor tricked into coming this way by three drinking companions who promptly murdered him, but ended up caged and dangling here as a show of local justice. A Celtic Cross stands on the site of the scaffold, and a smaller Sailor's Stone slightly further down. Stand by the trig point at the peak (272m) and the view to the northeast is outstanding, including Leith Hill (294m) on the Greensand Ridge and central London as a series of grey geometric spikes on the horizon. I marvelled at being able to distinguish between skyscrapers at a distance of 40 miles.
Not far below is the swoosh of the former A3. It hugs the edge of the punchbowl, bending sharply and descending gently, and is still plainly visible as a curving terrace. No attempt has been made to plant it with trees, merely to return it to a grassy path, which at this time of year shimmers with a glorious yellow carpet. Look closer and you'll see it's mostly birdsfoot trefoil, abuzz with bumblebees, mixed in with lush grasses and intermittent speedwell. It's amazing to think that only ten years ago cars and lorries thundered through, indeed I've been driven round the bend here numerous times, but now it's a haven to nature.
I couldn't visit with dropping down into the punchbowl itself, despite the fact that almost nobody else seemed to be doing so. The track looked innocuous to start with, then turned and dipped sharply into the great depression, and kept on heading down. Legend tells how it was created by the Devil scooping up a handful of earth to hurl at Thor, who lived nearby, but in reality it formed when chalk streams undermined the upper layer of sandstone which collapsed. On the walk down you can still spot the level where the soil underfoot changes from sand to chalk.
One side of the basin is open heathland, the other thickly wooded, with an abundance of wildlife and a boggy stream braiding through. I managed to keep my boots mostly dry crossing the latter, but I hate to think how much of a quagmire it might be during the winter months. I was also surprised by the narrowness of some of the paths, and how few paths there were, making even a short circuit a navigational challenge. And all the time I was thinking "if it took this long to get down, how knackering is it going to be to slog 100m all the way back up?", and it very much was.
Exploring elsewhere, I revelled in the solitude of stepping even fractionally beyond the main trails. I loved yomping across the heights of Hindhead Common following elevated heathland trails, even if the best views were cropped behind a ferny fringe. I detoured to cross a green bridge across the mouth of the Hindhead Tunnel, built to ensure animals can still cross the valley. And on the hour-long trek to/from Haslemere station I stumbled upon numerous cottages and mansions tucked away up dead-end lanes amid a deeply grooved verdant landscape. Oh to have the dosh to live in hideaways like these.
Haslemere is a highly desirable and attractive town, it turns out, located in the far southwest corner of Surrey. The main street is broad and climbs past timbered buildings to a war memorial and the old town hall. The mayor's latest wheeze is an art display comprising 100 decorated dogs, the Haslemere Hounds, positioned on and in front of innumerable shops and businesses. The post office is to be found, temporarily, at the back of an off-licence. A fair spread of disposable income is evident, with outlets offering Curated Living, Complementary Health and Versatile Ceramics. But then we are within the constituency of the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and local residents are very much the type who'll be voting for our country's next leader.
I must also mention Haslemere's award-winning museum which, for a town of fifteen thousand residents, hits far above its weight. It grew from a Victorian surgeon's private collection and focuses more on the wider world than the town itself, but always with a local nod. Its three long galleries major on geology, the natural world and human history, including an actual meteorite, Arthur the stuffed bear and an Egyptian mummy with its toes showing. I particularly enjoyed the corridor lined by labelled specimens of wild flowers, freshly picked. Not for nothing is it called Haslemere Educational Museum (but it does cost nothing to get in).