diamond geezer

 Saturday, April 19, 2014

Southeast England's not renowned for its mountains. The best we have are hills, and even they aren't much compared to what the rest of the country boasts. But there are some significant peaks in the Chilterns and along the Downs, even if you don't need your climbing boots to reach the summit. And the highest of the lot - at 294 metres the highest point in southeast England - is Leith Hill.

Leith Hill's in Surrey, a few miles south of Dorking on the Greensand Ridge. Box Hill's not far away on the parallel North Downs, but a full 70 metres shorter. It's also much easier to get to, whereas Leith Hill provides more of a challenge. It's a drive-to sort of place, which suits Surrey down to the ground, with five separate car parks spaced out a reasonable distance from its base. A rambler-friendly minibus runs from Dorking on summer Sundays, which saves a five mile hike. Or you can get the train from Victoria down to Holmwood station, any day of the week except Sunday, and from there it's a couple of miles cross-country. Yesterday I did the latter, a most pleasant stroll, and made my assault on the hill from the east.

Much of the surrounding area is owned by the National Trust, and a lot of it's undulating and wooded. Not for nothing did the Olympic cycling road race head for the lanes of Surrey, and I passed a lot of men in lycra yesterday enjoying the contours hereabouts. I also passed a heck of a lot of pheasants, ambling across the fields and skulking into copses, so presumably a lot of the local residents enjoy a good shoot. Plus there were bluebells, oh boy were there bluebells, probably more and more widely spread than I've ever seen anywhere else. Several slopes were a veritable carpet of blue, like some sort of Countryfile porn, ideal for lustful admiration and the taking of copious photos.

After the relative peace of the surrounding slopes the summit of Leith Hill can be rather busy. All those families who've trooped up from the car park slump here and stare out across the view, which it has to be said is damned good. Cyclists rest and drop their bikes awhile, and dogs enjoying longer walkies than usual pause to frolic on the grass. Yesterday there was a lengthy queue at the servery hatch waiting for hot and cold drinks, home-cooked flapjacks and freshly-prepared sandwiches. The previous proprietor moved on last year when the NT demanded a 7-days-a-week franchise, and the new lot are more expensive but one suspects more likely to impress.

At the very summit, beside the trig point, stands a mock gothic tower. This was built by local resident Richard Hull in 1765, partly to act as an observation point, but mostly because the hill fell fractionally short of the magic height of one thousand feet. Richard's 20m Prospect Tower made all the difference, rising above the trees to afford a broader panorama, and he was duly buried underneath when he died. Today the tower's accessible on payment of £1.50, or a flash of one's National Trust Card, including a brief historical display in the tiny room halfway up the spiral staircase.

On a clear day they say you can see 13 counties from the top, so swiftly does the land fall away in each direction. To the south it's easy to watch planes coming into land at Gatwick Airport, considerably lower than you, while if visibility's good the Shoreham Gap may permit sight of the English Channel. To the north you should see London, and maybe Dunstable Downs, although it was a little grey in the distance to catch that yesterday. There is a free telescope, but I'd brought binoculars, and I definitely spotted the Wembley Arch, London Eye, Shard and Docklands cluster. Indeed standing on the top of Leith Hill Tower I was rather higher than Canary Wharf, even slightly higher than the Shard, and absolutely grinning at the prospect.

When you've finally tired of the view, or if you'd like to enjoy it from a different angle, the National Trust have laid on several well-signed walking routes around the estate. The green route's perhaps the least thrilling, but passes the highest cricket ground in southeast England above the village of Coldharbour. The pink route tours the bluebells in Frank's Wood so is magnificent at present, although the mile-long circuit is perhaps less of a must for the rest of the year. The 2½ mile orange route is more definitely the way to go, touring various chunks of woodland and also the Rhododendron Wood, whose flowers are coming into their own at the moment and putting on quite a display.

I thought Leith Hill made a damned excellent day out, if quite a tiring one, and made all the better by the spring sunshine. Plus it had one more treasure to impart, of which more tomorrow (unless you visit today).

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