112. Forests of fire and iron – Surrey Hills 1

tillingbourne-albury-abinger-hammer-surrey-hills.jpgA drizzly morning, the last Sunday in March. And so, it’s come to this.

All those freezing January lunchtimes, seemingly endless February slogs into that slowly lengthening winter dusk, and forays into the primaeval darkness in the rain.

Looking back, it was nothing more than preparation for what lies ahead today.

Spring is here – I changed the clocks this morning – and at last it’s not that cold. My drink bottle is filled, my biscuits stashed, my MP3 is charged and I’m ready to go.

Twenty miles.

Ideally I’d run them next week, three weeks before London, and not when I’m recovering from a cold. But I’ve learned there is no ‘ideal’ in marathon training. No perfect progression of numbers across that spreadsheet, because life gets in the way. Next week I’ll be on the slopes in France, and so it’s now or never. Just slug a paracetamol and run. The music might cheer me up – if only the opening track today weren’t that little-heard yet somehow appropriate classic (You must be out of your) Brilliant Mind, doubtless sneaked onto the iPod under the extravagant hair gel of some old 80s compilation or other.

Wisely leaving the cultural ephemera of synthesizer-based electronica aside for a moment, I try to concentrate on the task in hand. Twenty miles is a daunting prospect at the best of times, and an easy start is always wise. I glance at my GPS and sketch a new route in my mind – a run of valley, hill and then ridgeway home.

South at first, and down the hill. Two easy miles of park and lane take me to Shalford. In mediaeval times King John granted the rector of Shalford the right to hold a gathering, which later expanded from the churchyard to take over much of the now tranquil common. Local legend tells that John Bunyan once lived here, with the Great Fair of Shalford providing inspiration for the fair at Vanity in The Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s a deserted scene this morning, and I fancy he might yet emerge from one of the pretty cottages as I lope along King Street and past the village green.

From here the Tilling Bourne valley stretches invitingly eastwards beneath the Surrey Hills. The land is home now to open meadows, scattered copse, and farmland, but in centuries past the poorly-drained valley soils and dense woodland offered little to sustain the farmer. Charcoal burners lived in the forests then, their smoking fires still recalled in local names – there’s a Colekitchen Lane which snakes up the Downs not far away in Gomshall, with a kiln nearby where chalk was burned for making lime. A mile further on, I find Blacksmiths’ Lane in Chilworth, too – recalling that iron has been mined from these hills since Roman times, extracted from sands beneath the rising slopes of St Martha’s Hill up ahead.

I turn off the lane at Chilworth Manor, onto a wooded footpath beside the Tilling Bourne. For much of its course I could almost jump across the stream. Yet in years before steam, its constancy and manageability lent itself perfectly to water power, and each of the villages along the valley boasts a water mill. And here, buried in the trees and ivy of the forest, lurks the darkest secret of them all. The broken, half-consumed buildings tell ghastly tales of mysterious explosions, each one more violent than the last. These are the Gunpowder Mills, founded by the East India Company in 1625, one of the most important in the country and active for four centuries until after the First World War. Perhaps the explosives for Guy Fawkes’ Plot were made right here.

It takes another half an hour to reach Albury. At first glance, there’s no more beautiful setting for a village in the whole of southern England, with cottages, post office and mill, looking out calmly over pretty fields and the highest Downs far ahead. And yet, it’s all entirely new. Even the church, strangely red-brick built, is from a younger age. The original village lay in the Albury Park Estate, until 1780 when the owner, Captain Finch, decided he needed more space and privacy. His solution then was simply to build new houses for the villagers at a hamlet down the road called Weston Street, where the present village of Albury now stands. I wonder what the villagers thought then of their unexpected move.

From here I shamble on to Shere, the most beautiful and up-market of all the villages in the Surrey Hills. I turn right down Upper Street, so different from its trendy Islington namesake, past the old water fountain and along the High Street. It’s full of pretty black and white houses, and over-sized SUVs. From Albury in 1780 to here in Shere today – it’s such a fault that affluence so often breeds unsocial arrogance in undesirable degree.

Ever onwards I gangle, through Gomshall. Abinger Hammer comes next. The village name recalls its proud past as centre of the iron trade. The brightly-painted figure of Jack-the-blacksmith strikes the village clock, and an ironsmith still works just nearby. Beyond the pretty green lie Abinger’s mill ponds, where the Tilling Bourne was dammed in Tudor times to power tilt-hammers for beating out iron artefacts. The waters are home to fishing and water cress beds today.

Nine miles gone, and I step inside the tiny local store to buy a Lucozade, which slips down smoothly, like it always did as the convalescence cure of my youth. Two mud-plastered mountain bikers rest outside, and I stop to chat, so afterwards I shouldn’t really walk, not now. And yet walk I do. Somehow I’ve decided that time and speed don’t matter, not this morning. Simple distance is my only goal today.

I finish my drink, and kick the verge once more. Another mile or two goes by, and now I’m over half way there. A few minutes further, and I’ll turn north to face the Downs, full on. A struggling climb and tiring legs stretch out from here with painful certainty. But the forest of fire and iron lies all behind me, and my twenty miles will soon be run.

(to be continued …)

Related articles:
113. The Pilgrim’s Progress – Surrey Hills 2
123. Bridge on the River Wey
34. Lines from the Battle of Guildford
83. Seven Bridges Road – the Wey floodplain
45. T-I-R-E-D
100. Half a million steps


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