The town most closely associated with Reigate isn't Banstead, it's Redhill. The two 'R's sit side by side on the Surrey Weald, the one's suburbs merging into the other, and a fairly straightforward walk apart. One has history and character, the other has better trains to London. Residents pay their money and take their choice.[5 photos]
Somewhere historic: Reigate
You'll find Reigate twenty miles south of central London on a low lumpy section of the Greensand Ridge. It's a damned obvious place for a settlement, hence the town has Anglo-Saxon, medieval and Tudor layers if you dig deep enough, and a cave system if you dig deeper still. Most of the good bits are hidden within the central core behind the shops, while others can be found a little further out in the rather posh park. To make sure you miss nothing, grab a Reigate History Treasure Trailleaflet from the Library (just inside the door on the right) and try to follow the mapless path around town.
Priory Park: As municipal parks go, this one's out of the ordinary. It started out as the estate of a priory dissolved by Henry VIII and given to the family of his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. The mansion they created still stands, heavily upgraded, and is now a Grade I listed (non-private) primary school. Out front is a splendid sunken garden, an echo of the past, while one small wing houses the town's only museum. It's nominally open on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, but has been closed for years since the Priory's roof suffered significant snow damage in 2010. Thwarted in my visit, I set off round the park to follow the same two mile waymarked trail that 18th century houseguests would have followed around the estate. Past the mirrored pavilion cafe (bah, closed for refurbishment), past Priory Lake (home to some needy swans and ducks) and up a slippery sandy footpath (where the UK's tallest hornbeam tree is supposedly located). The highlight of the circuit should have been the ridgetop path in the southern woodland, but the rain was relentless and I succeeded only in getting very wet. Only the park's regular Saturday afternoon footballers seemed to be out enjoying the facilities, and then perhaps only reluctantly with a mudbath anticipated.
Reigate High Street: When your shopping district is a conservation area, your shops tend to be a little upmarket. From a gunmaker and gentleman's outfitter at one end to an interior designer and old coaching inn at the other, Reigate knows its target audience. I felt a little out of place in my walking boots, although a little less so when I found the Morrisons concealed up an alley behind the babywear boutique. Thanks to my leaflet I also found the town lock-up, the ex-market beneath the Old Town Hall (now a Caffè Nero) and a proper timber-framed Tudor house up the side of Boots.
Reigate Castle: Originally Norman, the outcrop of rock in the centre of Reigate made for a perfect defensive stronghold. All that's left of the original is the dry moat, around which a tarmac footpath runs, and a wet moat slightly to the north. There is a 'Castle Keep' in the centre with arrowslit windows, but that's a 19th century folly and looks like it would be more at home on a crazy golf course. I got a bit lost following the History Treasure Trail round the site, in part because the paths are laid out like a 3D maze, but eventually found the large garden in the centre which I assume was once the bailey. Find the right way down and you can follow the Donkey Steps, a narrow cobbled descent leading to another alleyway in the High Street, and lethally slippery in wet weather, so take care.
Reigate Caves: Oh yes, Reigate's tourist claim to fame is that it has not one but two underground cave systems at its heart. Even better they're open to the public, but only on five Saturdays a year and, alas, never between October and April. Instead I had to make do with staring at each cave's entrance, wistfully, starting with the caves in Tunnel Road. This is a very special street, incorporating the oldest road tunnel in Britain, dug in 1823 through the heart of the sandstone on which Reigate Castle stands. Sand mines were opened up to either side, additionally used for storing wines and beers, and also as a public air raid shelter during World War Two. Equally artificial, but much older, are the Barons' Caves accessed from the upper moat. Legend says King John's barons met here before riding to Runnymede to sign Magna Carta, but more likely is that the underground system is the Earl of Surrey's wine cellar. The pair reopen, I'd wager, on the second Saturday in May, courtesy of the Wealden Cave and Mine Society.
What with a museum that was closed, a park cafe that was closed, two caves that were closed and several millimetres of rain, I've certainly had more successful visits to places. But when all of Reigate's stars are again in alignment, I feel I should come back and try again. by train: Reigate
Somewhere retail: Redhill
No offence to Redhill, but it's not as special as Reigate. Before the 19th century it was simply fields, but emerged as a town when the London to Brighton turnpike was built, and burst forth when the London to Brighton railway followed. You'll look in vain for that Victorian heritage in the town centre today because a 1980s ring road plus pedestrianisation replaced pretty much everything. Most typically Eighties is the Warwick Quadranttheatre/cinema complex, a brick box with arched glass canopy out front, joined to a long low Sainsbury's of minimal architectural merit. Chas and Dave are playing this Friday, while this year's big panto star is Hev from Eastenders playing neither Beauty nor the Beast. Shoppers are drawn to the thrice weekly street market, less artisan foods and more household staples, should you need brushed flannel check shirts, bedding plants or a cigarette lighter. Saturday's weather kept trade less than brisk, and the Christian fellowship stall nearly lost half their stock thanks to an Act of God as the wind whipped through. Far better to be shopping under cover in the half-decent Belfry mall, run over several stacked floors, where a display of Irish dancing was almost drawing the crowds.
I went in search of a brighter Redhill, in character if not radiant sunshine. Memorial Park was closed for a million pound makeover, its reopening unfortunately overdue. The area by the station offered roadworks and demolition, where one listed wall of a former nightclub has been retained so it can be incorporated into a new apartment development. I thought things were looking up for Redhill when I stumbled on a nearby windmill, but I'm told this is just over the border in Reigate so doesn't count. Ditto the splendid fingerpost on Wray Common, with two directions labelled "Dangerous Hill", and Brighton a terribly accurate 32¼ miles distant. In the end I had to climb up and out to the south to reach Redhill Common, the sandy summit here the feature after which the town was named. Where the woodland opened out to an open grassy plateau, I stood by the jubilee viewpoint and looked out past a church spire towards Gatwick and beyond. And even though the rain had paused I stood there entirely alone, the temporary king of Redhill and all I surveyed. by train: Redhill; by bus: 405