I’m standing in the middle of a potential oil field. But it’s a rather unusual one: it isn’t in the Middle East, the USA, or even out in the North Sea. It’s in a quiet woodland glade near Coldharbour in the middle of Surrey.
‘Listen to that,’ says Neil Maltby, chairman of the Surrey Hills Society. ‘What can you hear? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Silence. And just the sound of birdsong.’
He’s right. This rural setting is quite surprising, as we’re standing less than 40 kilometres from the urban hustle of central London. But this is part of the Surrey Hills, designated an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) back in 1958.
Like much of the rest of the AONB, which stretches over the North Downs and the Greensand Hills, this site sits in an idyllic area of pine woodland on top of sandy hillside, a surprisingly wild and untamed landscape that has been largely left to forestry and grazing because the ‘poor’ soil wasn’t suitable for intensive farming.
The hydrocarbon exploration – for which Europa Oil & Gas has already requested planning permission – would be carried out over a number of weeks using a 35-metre-high rig on a site that would be lit 24 hours a day. Europa looked at six sites in the area and says that this one will have the least environmental impact, but locals are concerned about the effects of the exploration phase and what happens if Europa strikes black gold.
‘It’s not NIMBYism,’ says Maltby, ‘it’s just the wrong place to do it. It would desecrate an AONB. There would be light pollution and noise pollution, and although they say they’re going to put it back how they found it, it would change the landscape completely – trees such as Scots pines don’t grow back in five minutes.’
The AONB team has officially objected to the proposed exploration, but are concerned that it will still go ahead because it’s part of a national strategy to ensure that the UK is more energy self-sufficient. ‘In deepest winter, when gas use is at its highest, we only have about three or four days’ reserves,’ says Rob Fairbanks, AONB officer. ‘And the fear is, what if someone such as [Russian prime minister Vladimir] Putin shuts off the supplies?’
But many locals think it’s wrong for exploration to take place on what is supposed to be a protected landscape. ‘It shouldn’t be allowed,’ says Maltby. ‘If it was worth protecting when it was originally designated, it’s worth protecting now. No other development would be allowed here, so why allow this? You can’t just set aside a national protection when you feel like it.’
Staying on track
As manager of one of the busiest AONBs in the UK – although only 36,000 people live within it, more than 1.5 million live within ten kilometres of its boundaries – Fairbanks is used to balancing the competing demands on the landscape that he has been entrusted to protect.
One such clash is between local residents and visiting mountain bikers. ‘It’s a mountain-biking Mecca,’ says Fairbanks, explaining how the green sands create exhilarating well-drained routes all year round. ‘Some people say it’s the country’s best mountain biking.’
This has led to concerns about the effect on the delicate landscapes as adventurous bikers start deviating off the bridleways. ‘The vast majority are fine, but some are riding over earth monuments and building jumps in the forests,’ says Maltby, who is working with landowners to create dedicated bike trails, which are already popular elsewhere in the AONB.
But this won’t appease all the residents, some of whom are fed up with their villages being invaded by Lycra-clad townies. ‘In some areas of Britain, these visitors might be seen as an opportunity, but in Surrey, we talk about managing visitors rather than encouraging them,’ says Fairbanks. ‘People have bought a patch of tranquillity and they often don’t want it invaded.’
But the visitors can also bring benefits. While village shops around the UK are closing down, Peaslake’s is thriving, largely thanks to visiting cyclists. ‘There’s just more profit to be made from selling a cup of tea to a visitor than there is in selling a can of baked beans to a villager,’ says Fairbanks, who hopes other businesses will be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by day-trippers.
Back to the devil
Elsewhere in the AONB, peace is being restored to the countryside, as a stretch of road that for years has bisected an area of heathland and been home to one of the most notorious traffic jams in southern England is being taken underground. The road is the A3, which currently runs through the village of Hindhead, creating a bottleneck, and past the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a natural amphitheatre and site of special scientific interest that has the arresting appearance of a giant wooded crater.
‘The Olympics is probably the reason [the work] is happening now, as it’s the only non-dual carriageway between London and the South Coast,’ says Caroline White, coordinator of Hindhead Together, a partnership of agencies involved in the A3 project, as we walk past some empty shops coated in thick road dust. ‘But it’s also going to reunite a village that has been blighted for decades.’
The £370million project will create 1.8 kilometres of underground road beneath the Devil’s Punch Bowl, resulting in the UK’s longest land tunnel and the largest area of heathland in the southeast of England. And White, who aims to ensure that the development is a success for Hindhead, believes that the economic downturn has actually been a blessing, because it has stopped unsuitable commercial projects being built here. ‘We want to make the village a thriving mix of shops, houses and cafés, and a place that’s really pedestrian-friendly,’ she says.
White is also hoping to raise enough money to buy Undershaw, the former home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It currently lies derelict by a set of traffic lights in Hindhead, and the National Trust has said that it might take it on as one of its properties if enough public support and funds can be raised.
The writer, famous for creating the Sherlock Holmes character, designed the house around the turn of the 20th century for his disabled wife after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. At the time, Hindhead was a spa town – known as ‘Little Switzerland’, where wealthy Londoners would come to take the air – and the house was built on a particularly favourable location overlooking a valley.
Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula and one of the house’s many visitors, wrote: ‘It is so sheltered from cold winds that the architect felt justified in having lots of windows, so that the whole place is full of light. Nevertheless, it is cosy and snug to a remarkable degree and has everywhere that sense of “home” which is so delightful to occupant and stranger alike.’
After Conan Doyle left, the house was used as a hotel until 2004, when it fell into disrepair. ‘If we could buy it, it would be such an attraction,’ says White. ‘There are so many Conan Doyle fans. People could visit the house then go to the village to shop or have tea. It would really give Hindhead back its heart.’
Erasing the lines
Stopping people seeing Surrey as simply somewhere to drive through is another of Fairbanks’s projects. ‘We want to stop the creeping suburbanisation of the area and reinstall its rural character by replacing metal road signs with wooden ones and taking the white lines off the middle of the road,’ he says. ‘Research shows people actually drive more slowly when there are no lines on the road because they feel more vulnerable.’
Fairbanks believes a lack of white lines also lets people know that they are in the countryside and, as a result, they look at the landscape differently. ‘A lot of my job is about changing perceptions of Surrey,’ he says. ‘People see it as this transport corridor you use to get from London to the South Coast, but there’s so much more here than that.’
Best views—Leith Hill.
‘The highest point in southeastern England. On a clear day, you can see both the City of London and the English Channel.’
Neil Maltby, chairman of the Surrey Hills Society
Local produce and art— Hambledon (for food) and the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden (for art).
‘Visit the Hambledon village shop. It was bought by the villagers when it closed down in 1990 and is now run as a community venture. And one of my favourite places is the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden. They have some lovely landscape pieces and it’s set in a beautiful water garden.’
Rob Fairbanks, AONB officer
To see the hindhead tunnel being built, there are two viewing platforms at either end of the tunnel.
‘One is in Tyndall’s Wood, and just a five-minute walk from the current A3. The other can be reached by following the signs from the National Trust café car park on the current A3. It takes about 20 minutes to walk there and goes via Gibbet Hill.’
Caroline White, Hindhead Together coordinator
For wildlife, head to Thundry Meadows, near Elstead.
‘It’s a brilliant reserve on the River Wey. It’s quite small but there’s a lot there, including meadows, wet alder woodland and a couple of mires. I’ve seen kingfishers, buzzards and even hobbies at the reserve, and there are lots of different reptiles and rare wetland plants there, including the marsh cinquefoil, which is absolutely stunning and flowers in June and July.’
Rachel O’Hara, reserves officer, Surrey Wildlife Trust
First published June 2009