A thing of beauty is a joy forever.
Endymion – John Keats
Mark Easton and his partner gave me a lovely stay at their house in Dorking. We stayed up chatting until well past 10pm! Mark sent me on moy way with another ‘Full English’ – my fourth of the week!
The day started by crossing the iconic Stepping Stones across the River Mole in the lee of Box Hill. As a child I can remember being brought to Box Hill on frequent occasions and the thrill of walking across the stepping stones. I imagined the stones had been there since time immemorial. It was slightly sobering to have these childhood images subsequently destroyef by the discovery that they were laid out in 1946 by the then Home Secretary who lived in nearby Dorking!
The path up Box Hill passes the Burford Bridge Hotel, the place where Keats stayed in 1817 while he completed the final 500 lines of his epic poem ‘Endymion’. At that time it was called the Fox and Hounds. Keats had been bored and distracted by London life and ( according to his biographer Andrew Motion) had been invigorated by the beautiful surroundings at Box Hill.
The hotel has fond memories for me growing up 5 miles away at Headley. On baking hot summer days my mother used to take me to the hotel to use their swimming pool, which was open to the public. Happy days.
Walking up Box Hill first thing in the morning isn’t for the faint hearted even if you’ve benefitted from ‘the full English’! However, the views are spectacular. It’s not entirely surprising that Box Hill has been a magnet for stir crazy visitors from London during lockdown. Local resident Mark, with whom I stayed the previous night, suggested that so many people had congregated at Box Hill during the last 18 months that it had effectively become off limits to local residents.
The most interesting feature of the morning’s walk were the hearthstone mines at Colley Hill just north of Reigate. Colley Hill lies on the Greensand beds which stretch across the North Downs east of Farnham to the Kent Weald. The chalky soil from this area was used as a cleaning product in the ninetenth and twentieth centuries, hence why it was called hearthstone.
From 1890 hearthstone was mined from Colley Hill in 13-25 kg blocks and then transported by horses to mills where it was crushed and then transported to London by train. The mine also produced stone powder in popular brands such as ‘Panda’, ‘Osowhite’ and ‘Snowdrift’. The heyday of the mines was in the 1920s when a carriage a day would transport hearthstone to London. The mine suffered damage from a doodle bug bomb in 1944 and was eventually closed down in 1961.
I never cease to be amazed by people’s generosity. At Merstham Cricket Club I stopped to chat with the Club Vice President – an Irishman called Mike Griffins. No sooner had heard about my walk to Rome than he fished out £10 from his pocket and thrust it into my hand before beckoning a father and his two children to also come and join him. The father also offered to sponsor me £10!
The church at Merstham was sadly closed ( a common occurrence on the PW this week) which meant that when I reached Chaldon I didn’t bother to make a one mile diversion to view the church and the 13th century purgatorial wall painting of a drunk pilgrim in case the church was also closed.
By mid afternoon I was getting slightly bored of following the official route (which was quite desultory and comprised long stretches of woodland with restricted views) so decided to go ‘off piste’ in order to reach my final destination for the day at Tatsfield in good time.
Some of my friends have long held the view that these ‘off piste’ moments are possibly linked to Aspergers! I’m not convinced, having recently done an online test for Aspergers which suggested I was in the median quartile (v low risk) for this condition. I think I am just easily distracted and that my ‘off piste’ moments may owe more to my Briggs Myers personality type (‘Adventurer’) rather than a congenital inability to focus on the here and now!
Anyways some heavy tarmac slogging meant that I was able to get to Tatsfield church shortly after 5pm where I was met by my host for the night, the Rev’d Vince Short.
I must confess that, prior to embarking on my walk, I had never heard of Tatsfield. However, as the Rev’d Vince Short explained, the church and village have an interesting history. At 244 metres above sea level, St Mary’s Tatsfield is one of the highest and smallest churches in Surrey. Until recently the church and village used to regularly get snowed in during the winter. And the first recorded rector of Tatsfield? None other than one William de Dutton, possibly a distant relative!
After a short tour of Tatsfield village ( pop 1,800) which includes a charming village pond, bistro pub, tea room and post office, it was back to the Rectory for a hot bath and a delicious supper of lasagne ( 2 helpings) and crumble prepared by Vince’s wife Veronica.
Vince is very much a rock and roll vicar – he regularly plays his guitar in the local pub as well as in church. The congregation at the weekly Sunday service, regularly exceeds 35 which isn’t bad for a church with seating capacity for 60 or so.
Over supper Vince and Veronica entertained me with stories from the parish including one related to Tatsfield’s most infamous resident – the British diplomat-turned-traitor Donald Maclean who fled Tatsfield on May 25, 1951 after he had been tipped off that MI5 knew he was a Russian spy.
Maclean caught a ferry to the continent with fellow spy Guy Burgess – their disappearance sparking a massive manhunt and furore.
Their deception wasn’t confirmed until five years later when the former senior Foreign Office diplomat and Burgess surfaced in Moscow at a press conference.
According to local newspaper reports, 30 bullets as well as coded documents found in the attic of Donald Maclean’s house in Tatsfield when it was sold in 2017! Mrs Rhule ventured up into the loft she noticed a cut in the wooden flooring. She pulled away a piece of wood and found the bullets in the space below. Analysis suggests that the bullets are 70 years old!
Local gossip also suggests that the BBC knew that there was a radio transmitter in Donald Maclean’s house in Tatsfield which he used to transmit information to his Soviet handlers in Moscow!
The BBC set up a radio transmitting station in Tatsfield in 1929 which played an important role in World War 2 ( Biggin Hill Airfield, which played such a crucial role during the Battle if Britain in 1940 is nearby) .
Tatsfield’s work continued during the Cold War. Signals from Sputnik 1were received at Tatsfield in October 1957, and the station also monitored transmissions from subsequent Soviet space missions. In July 1958 it picked up signals from the US Explorer 4 satellite. The station was finally closed in 1974.
So the sleepy village of Tatsfield played a critical role during the Cold War, something I would never have discovered had the Rev’d Vince Short and his wife Veronica not kindly offered to put me up for the night on my walk!