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Surrey, England, UK

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A row of houses in leafy Surrey.

The county of Surrey, one of the Home Counties1 of England, lies just to the south-west of Greater London, with its northern edge predominantly bound by the river Thames. It shares its border with five counties: Berkshire to the north-west, Hampshire to the west, West Sussex to the south, East Sussex to the south-east and Kent to the east. At 56km by 40km, it is one of the smaller counties of England, encompassing an overall area of 1,679 sq km. Still, what it lacks in size it more than compensates for with its beauty and history.

Kent may be 'The Garden of England' but Surrey has been referred to as 'the Cockney's back garden', or 'Cockney's patio'2 as it has been dominated by the close proximity of a major city in a way no other county in the British Isles has. The encroachment of London, inexorably spreading into the county over the years as its population increased, has resulted in a significant loss of its overall area. Early 18th-Century maps of London show it to have covered an expanse of only eight and-a-half square miles, but by the 20th Century it covered some 200 square miles, over half of which had extended into Surrey. The original Surrey border stretched as far eastward along the Thames as Rotherhithe, but in 1889 the westward spreading urban sprawl of London resulted in the loss of the north-eastern corner of the county to London, while at the same time the town of Croydon was separated from Surrey and created a county borough in its own right.

A further, larger swathe, including the towns of Croydon, Merton, Richmond and Sutton, were all lost in 1965 to the Greater London Council, and with it went Surrey's county town, Kingston-upon-Thames. This placed the county's administration and judicial centre outside its borders. Excessive urban growth has now been largely halted with the introduction of the Metropolitan Green Belt legislation which prevents further commercial building on designated areas without planning permission.

Surrey is divided into 11 boroughs: Elmbridge, Epsom and Ewell, Guildford, Mole Valley, Reigate and Banstead, Runnymede, Spelthorne, Surrey Heath, Tandridge and Waverly and Woking. It has a population of 1,059,0153 the greater part of which is concentrated in the suburbs where it joins the Greater London area, making it one of the most densely-populated counties in the country. Car ownership is 30% higher than anywhere else in the country, averaging out at one car for every two heads of population. It also has the highest house prices index and the greatest population of horses per head of population.

Despite this, Surrey has the greatest area of woodland in the country, with 36,800 hectares - of which 7,000 are ancient wildwood. It also has some of the oldest trees in the country with the Crouch oak at Runnymede, one of the boundary trees of the Windsor forest, reputed to be approximately 800 years old. There are also two ancient yew trees in churchyards at the villages of Crowhurst and Tandridge which are much older. The foundations of an early Saxon vault of the church beside the younger tree at Tandridge shows evidence of being skewed to avoid the tree's roots, implying an age of well over a thousand years. The Crowhurst yew has a hollow trunk and is of an uncertain age and clearly predates it. A door in the trunk reveals a space eight feet in diameter which at one time was furnished with a table and benches. Estimates of its age range from 2000 to 4000 years, making it the oldest tree in England and possibly Europe.


For a small county, Surrey's geology varies considerably across its width. When the ice sheets of the last Ice Age began to retreat from their most southerly point just 20 miles north of what is now London, they left the Thames river near its present position with heavy deposits of London clay in the river's valley. The North Downs, a line of chalk hills, traverse the county, splitting it in two longitudinally on an east-west line, separating the clay vale of the Thames valley from the lower Greensand hills to their south. The hills and downs provide some of the most magnificent views, particularly southward over the low weald to the county's southern edge and beyond. The Surrey hills have also been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

These hills include Leith hill, the highest point in Surrey, the Hog's Back, a prominent five-miles-long ridge, Newlands Corner and Box Hill. The chain of hills across Surrey has a significant break where the Mole river has carved its way through the limestone to create a broad valley running north-south. Named the Mole Gap it provided an easier access for travellers between north and south sides of the county before the introduction of turnpikes. The dead straight line of the Roman Stane Street takes the course of the gap in its southward progress from London. More modern modes of transport use the gap today in the form of the railway and dual carriageway road. The Mole is the longest of several rivers within the county and derives its name from its disappearance underground within the gap.


The name Surrey is first recorded in 722 and is derived from the Anglo Saxon Suthrige meaning 'south region', suggesting that Surrey was the southern part of a Saxon kingdom that included the now-defunct county of Middlesex on the opposite bank of the Thames. Traces of early human habitation in the county are rare but have been found in the form of flints and axeheads, the earliest of which is believed to date from around 400,000 years ago. The remains of early habitation exist on the terraces of the Wey valley near Farnham. An ancient track named the Pilgrim's Way ran along the sunny, southern flanks of the North Downs linking Winchester to Canterbury. A more modern track, the North Downs Way runs parallel with it making a continuous track where the old one has been lost to modern roads. The Romans also left some evidence of their passing with a road, Stane Street, connecting London with Chichester and near the road, several sites of villas.

The county formed part of the kingdom of Wessex and in 851 invading Danes, making their way from the Thames to Chichester along Stane street, were stopped west of London at the village of Ockley. According to surviving records, in the ensuing bloody battle between armies of 15,000 on each side, '...hardly a Dane escaped and blood stood ankle-deep'. Some Saxon influence remains in Surrey, not only in the remains of churches and buildings but in the layout of roads and trackways that mark the routes used by ancient drovers of livestock to and from winter and summer quarters.

From the 15th Century, Surrey has been a place of retreat for the well-heeled merchants and gentry of London, as a sanctuary from the stench, squalor and disease of an ever-expanding and overcrowded city, with the result that many fine country houses and estates nestle in the folds and valleys of the Surrey hills. Even today a large stretch of the central part of the county around Weybridge is referred to as the 'stockbroker's belt'.

In 1940, the first great air battle of the Second World War took place in the skies above the home counties of Surrey, Kent and London when the Battle of Britain was fought between Britain's Royal Air Force and Germany's Luftwaffe for air supremacy prior to invasion. Later, in 1944 - 45, the same counties received the onslaught of the 'vengeance weapons' - V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets launched at London from France and Holland in the final throes of World War II.

Principal Towns

The Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames

Although Kingston is now outside the county boundary it remains the administrative centre. Kingston's royal associations stem from the seven Saxon kings of England that are alleged to have been crowned there. The Coronation stone, on which the crownings are said to have taken place, is displayed outside the Guildhall near the marketplace. Kingston has received a number of royal warrants that to this day protect its monopoly as a market town and prevent any market being set up within a seven-mile radius. The market is a shadow of its former self, but Kingston flourishes as a shopping centre with the predominant Bentall's centre and all the major chain stores being represented in the surrounding market area.

One of Kingston's main industries was the production of military and civil aircraft. This began when the Sopwith Aviation Company was started in a converted roller-skating rink near Kingston's town centre. It produced mainly military aircraft, such as the famously-named Sopwith Camel during World War One, but over the years underwent several transformations and expansions through the Hawker Aircraft Co and eventually British Aerospace, a major provider of military aircraft primarily for the Royal Air Force and civil aircraft for the world's airlines, until its closure in 1992.


With a cathedral, a university and a castle, Guildford is almost a city, centrally placed in the county and now regarded as the current county town. Initially it gained its prosperity from the wool and clothing trade, and later with the coaching trade plying between London, Portsmouth and Southampton. Evidence of this still exists in the form of the Angel inn and posting house in Guildford's main thoroughfare. The remains of its medieval castle, destroyed by government forces during the English Civil War, are still to be seen near the town's centre, while its prominent feature, John Aylward's town clock, affixed to the 17th Century Guildhall, overhangs the high street.

Guildford is situated on the river Wey, which is navigable from the Thames where it joins at Weybridge. One of the Wey barges, Reliance, which traded between Guildford and London, is preserved and exhibited at the Museum and exhibition at Guildford's Dapdune wharf. A levy on loads passing through Guildford provided the finance to pave its streets. A modern cathedral, consecrated in 1962, overlooks the town which it serves and is built from bricks made from the clay on which it stands. Nearby stands the new redbrick University of Surrey, opened in 1968.


Woking is situated on the main railway line from London to Portsmouth and is now a major commuter town but its origins are in the 1840s and 50s. Cholera was a serious threat in any highly-populated area and with the burgeoning population growth, London's graveyards were close to bursting point. The government proposed a national cemetery for the whole country to be set up on the vast heath land of Woking common and created the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company with 2,268 acres of heathland enclosing the common and adjoining areas. This massive acquisition of land eventually led to the development of the new town of Woking in 1851 and Brookwood cemetery which is still the largest in the UK which included the first crematorium in the country.

Woking was also the home of the first purpose-built mosque in Britain, Shah Jehan, set up in 1889 to cater for the students at the nearby Oriental institute. Woking's most famous former resident is probably HG Wells who lived in Maybury Road. Other literary figures of note include WE Henley and George Bernard Shaw, who both stayed here at the early part of the 20th Century. More recently lead singer of the Jam and a celebrated artist in his own right, Paul Weller was brought up in Sheerwater and one of his solo albums, Stanley Road, is a reference to a street in Woking town centre.

Motorsport has a long history in the area. Brooklands Racetrack was the first purpose-built racetrack in the world. This tradition of motorsport continues today with the Mclaren Formula 1 team. Originally based in Albert Drive, Sheerwater, they are one of the most successful F1 teams with 11 driver's championships, eight constructor's championships and with Mclaren Cars, winner of Le Mans in 1995 on their first attempt. They have recently moved to the ultra-modern Mclaren Technology Centre designed by Norman Foster which houses the race and test team, a state-of-the-art wind tunnel and the production facility of the Mclaren Mercedes SLR supercar. This building is situated on the former Horsell common, inspiration for Wells's famous book, The War Of The Worlds as the original landing site for the Martian invasion of Earth. Sometimes it seems that just everyone wants to come to Surrey. Wells's association with Woking is commemorated by the erection of a 'life-sized' Martian fighting machine sculpture in a landscaped street near the town centre.

Town and Villages

Travelling west away from London takes you into the real heartland of Surrey where medium to smaller towns and villages predominate. Here can be found the typical Surrey village, as often as not a cluster of houses complete with a green and pond, a pub and perhaps the occasional thatched cottage with roses around the door. Many have a feature or a piece of history that warrants further investigation.

Here can also be found the legacy left by the Victorian architects who were inspired by the Surrey Style. Perhaps the greatest exponents of this style was the architect Edwin Lutyens who, in partnership with artist and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, created country-style houses for the nouveaux riches. Lutyens was influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement led by William Morris and typically used local materials and traditional skills to blend his designs with the landscape. Hand in hand with this, Jekyll's garden design used bold groupings of plants to paint a landscape and create 'a sense of place'.

Dorking and Leatherhead

These are two medium-sized market towns nestling in the Surrey Hills at either end of the Mole Gap. Both towns increased in size as dormitory commuter towns for London but still retain some of their own character. Dorking is a centre for the antique trade with over a hundred dealers in the area. There are a number of man-made caves under the town centre streets dating back to the 17th Century. Some extend over 50 feet down and are wide enough to accommodate a London underground tube train.


Farnham is a small, beautiful town which grew initially from its cloth and corn market and then from hops which were grown along the slopes of the Hog's back. Farnham prospered with the coaching trade, due to its ideal situation on the London to Winchester Turnpike and it retains much of its market town identity. Farnham castle and the palace of the Bishops of Winchester are the most significant buildings dating in parts back to 1138.


Cobham stands beside the Mole with an old watermill. Nearby is Painshill mansion in its 18th-Century gardens with fine Lebanon Cedar trees and several follies and grottoes. On the local heath is a five-storey tower, one of a chain of semaphore stations that passed messages between London and Portsmouth.

Abinger Hammer, Gomshall, Shere

Three of several small villages that developed along the Tillingbourne river between Dorking and Guildford. They have their roots in the iron-working industry that sprang up in the 16th Century using the river to power the forges and charcoal produced in the forests. Later, in the 17th Century, the same river powered mills for the production of gunpowder. Overhanging the A25 road in the centre of Abinger Hammer is an ornate clock on which a smithy strikes the hour on a bell as a reminder of its industrial past. Shere has been described as the jewel in Surrey's crown - it has half-timbered cottages on narrow picturesque streets, a stream and English pubs.

Betchworth, Chaldon, Charlewood

These are attractive villages with old medieval churches. Betchworth church contains a wooden font carved by Eric Kennington. Chaldon contains a medieval painting of St Michael weighing souls in the balance. Charlwood has a fine 15th-Century screen and traces of medieval wall paintings.

Things to Do, Places to See

Brooklands Motor Museum

In 1906 businessman Hugh Locke began construction of the first purpose-built motor-racing circuit, Brooklands, with a 3.25-mile banked circuit. At a cost of £150,000 it nearly bankrupted him but, nevertheless, it opened in 1907 and became the centre for motor-racing in the country. The large open centre of the track attracted the fledgling aviation industry with Sopwith, Hawkers and Vickers all having flight hangers at the site. Today, only a portion of the thirty-feet-high banked track and the clubhouse and hangers remain. The Brooklands Museum Trust now occupies the site, exhibiting cars, aeroplanes and memorabilia from the golden days of a unique history.

Leith Hill

At 965 feet Leith Hill is the highest in south-east England. In 1766 Richard Hull of Leith Hill Place built a tower at the highest point to provide a 'prospect house,' increasing the overall height to over 1,000 feet and technically qualifying it as a mountain. When Hull died in 1772 he was buried in the foundations of his tower. On a clear day, the panoramic views southward over the Weald and South Downs are incredible. It is claimed that 13 counties can be seen from the viewpoint and even a glimpse of the sea some 30 miles away at Shoreham is possible.

Epsom Downs

The grandstand of Epsom racecourse, home of the Oaks and the Derby horseraces in June, dominates the high ground of the downs. From here, views across London on a clear day are spectacular and many of the major buildings in the metropolis can be easily pinpointed. Nearby, in the Wells area of the town, is the original spring which made Epsom a spa for London's population where the waters could be taken or bathed in. The water contains a concentration of magnesium sulphate which gives it its unusual taste and beneficial purgative effect, and gives its name to the physic Epsom Salts.

Box Hill

Box Hill is named after the predominant tree on the hill, Buxus Sempervirens, long walks along the wooded brow of the hill provide spectacular views. On the way, look out for the grave of Major Peter Labilliere who, at his own request, was buried upside-down in a 100-feet-deep shaft, so that '...on judgement day when all things will be turned topsy-turvy', he will be the first one upright. At the foot of Box Hill lies the Burford Bridge hotel, an overnight stop for Admiral Horatio Nelson on his way to join the fleet just before Trafalgar. John Keats the poet also stayed there in 1817, gaining inspiration to complete his poem Endymion. The adjacent car park is the home of Rykers' café which is a meeting point for modern motorcyclists during summer weekends who use the dual carriageway of the A24 Michelham bypass with its 'deceptive bends' as a challenging test track to 'get the knee down.'

Denbies Wine Estate

Surrey's own vineyard nestles on the gentle slopes at the foot of Box Hill, between Bexhill and Dorking. It is the largest vineyard in England and provides wine-tasting, viniculture demonstrations and trips through the factory and cellars on people moving trains, providing an interesting and different day out.

The Devil's Punchbowl

Just to the east of Hindhead, the highest village in Surrey, the A3 trunk road curls around the lip of a huge bowl-shaped hollow in the hills, and is overlooked by the second highest point in Surrey, Gibbet Hill. The Devil's Punchbowl is said to have been carved out by the Devil himself while throwing the spoil at the god Thor, but actually it is the result of water washing away the hillside down to the impermeable clay underlay. The best time to visit is in the late autumn evenings after a sunny day when mists begin to rise from the punchbowl's floor giving spectacular views across the wooded slopes.

Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley

Near the junction of the A3 and the M25 motorway is the home of the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley. It encompasses extensive grounds of 240 acres with walks through gardens, woods and plant trial beds. Greenhouses cater for the more exotic hothouse flora.

The Basingstoke Canal

The 32-miles-long Basingstoke Canal with its 29 locks was constructed between 1788 and 1794 to provide a commercial route for market goods to be transported from Hampshire to London by connecting with the river Mole and onto London via the Thames. The canal fell into disrepair after World War II and it took a lengthy period of restoration beginning in the 1970s to make it fully navigable throughout its length to pleasurecraft, providing pleasant waterside walks and a habitat for wildlife.

The Greensand Way

This is a relatively modern long-distance trackway for walkers that compliments the Pilgrims and North Downs Way. Stretching 108 miles from Haslemere in Surrey to Hamstreet in Kent, it takes in quiet heath and woodland, farmland and hop fields at the base of the north downs.

Frensham Ponds

These are two ponds within Frensham Common which, being rather larger than you may expect from the description, would be more correctly described as lakes. Frensham Great Pond extends over 100 acres and is a centre for sailing activities and the smaller Frensham Little Pond is a scenic area for picnics.

Winkworth Arboretum

Winkworth is a National Trust property donated in 1952 by its founder Dr Wilfred Fox. It encompasses forty-six hectares of wooded valley and lakes, with walks through Azaleas, Maples and many rare and unusual trees including the national collection of Whitebeams.


South-west of the Thames between Old Windsor and Egham, Runnymede is where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. Runnymede is renowned as the birthplace of English freedom and is recognised by the United States Bar Association who erected a monument in the form of a circular classical temple to 'Freedom Under the Law'. Standing nearby on an acre of land given to the American people is another memorial to the United States President John F Kennedy, assassinated in 1963. At the time an appeal raised funds to provide the memorial and scholarships for British students to study at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A further Air Forces memorial on the nearby hill commemorates by name the 20,401 airmen that lost their lives during World War II and have no known graves.

Polsden Lacey

Polsden Lacey is a fine Regency villa and estate near Great Bookham. It houses a fine art collection and has a large formal garden including a Ha-ha.4 It was used by King George VI and his bride Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother for a part of their honeymoon in 1923.

Clandon Park

Three miles east of Guildford, this is another fine country house and estate that contains the Gubbay collection, including post-17-Century porcelain and the Queen's Royal Surrey Regiment Museum which was originally barracked at Kingston.

Wotten House

Wotten House5 is the home of the Evelyn family who made their fortune from the production of gunpowder. The diarist John Evelyn, a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, was born and died there. His diaries are to Surrey as those of Pepys are to London. He was influential in landscape gardening on an industrial scale. The Evelyn family are interred in the local 13th-Century church.

Waverley Abbey

These are ruins, near Farnham, of the first Cistercian abbey in England in a picturesque setting on the banks of the river Wey. Founded in 1128, it was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Much of the material of the abbey was purloined and used for later building projects locally, but a substantial part of the building remains.

Claremont Landscape Gardens

Claremont House near Esher was built for the Duke of Newcastle and is now owned by the National Trust. Over the years its extensive grounds have been landscaped at different times by four famous designers. The last of the four was 'Capability' Brown, although the influence of the others, Sir John Vanbrugh, Charles Bridgeman and William Kent are all still in evidence. Features include a lake, a walled parterre, and a grassy amphitheatre in which picnics and open-air music concerts take place during summer evenings.

Painshill Park

Only a couple of miles from Claremont is one of the premier 18th-Century parks in Europe. Created by the Hon Charles Hamilton between 1738 and 1773, the landscaping is a work of art. Views from almost any point within its 160 acres are take in follies, hills, lakes and wooded groves. The 14-acre Serpentine lake is fed by a waterwheel powered pump taking water from the Mole river, while the grounds also contain the largest Lebanon Cedar tree in Europe with a height of 120 feet.

The Surrey Hills Explorer Bus

A weekend and Bank Holiday bus service from Dorking that takes a roundabout route to some of the historic houses and places of outstanding natural beauty in the Surrey Hills. Hop on and off the bus at any of the designated stops and catch the next one when you are ready to move on.

Outwood Windmill

On the outskirts of the village of Outwood is the oldest post windmill in the country that still works. Built in 1665, it has been renovated and is open to the public. A nearby companion mill collapsed in 1960.

Surrey County Show

An exhibition of rural pursuits, trades and produce taking place at Stoke Park near Guildford, usually on the May Bank Holiday Monday.

Horton Children's Farm

A children's petting farm on the outskirts of Epsom. The stock includes cows, pigs, sheep, ponies and small furry creatures. None of which are from anywhere near Alpha Centauri.


  • Surrey is well-catered for as far as horse-racing is concerned. Courses include tracks at Epsom, Kempton Park, Sandown Park and Lingfield.

  • Wentworth Golf Course has been host to the PGA Championship and the World Matchplay Championships.

  • Walton Heath Golf Club is one of the top 100 courses in the world and hosted the 1981 Ryder Cup.

  • Thorpe Park water sports centre.

  • Bisley shooting ranges near Pirbright. Now home to clay pigeon shooting.

  • Light aviation and flying schools operate from Redhill aerodrome, Fairoaks aerodrome near Cobham and Dunsfold aerodrome near Guildford.

Good and Famous

Many well-known figures from English history have lived, worked and died within the county.

  • Sir Tom Sopwith, aviation pioneer, started the Sopwith aviation Company at Kingston-upon-Thames in a converted roller-skating rink.

  • Admiral Lord Howard of Effingham. Commander of the English fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada is buried at St Mary Magdalene's Church, Reigate.

  • Donald Campbell, land and water speed record holder, was born at Kingston-upon-Thames.

  • Sir Barnes Wallis, Aircraft designer and inventor of the 'bouncing bomb' worked at the Vickers factory at Weybridge, and is buried in the churchyard at Effingham.

  • Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, lived and wrote at Guildford, and is buried there.

  • The head of Sir Walter Raleigh, importer of tobacco and potatoes, is reputedly buried with his son Carew at West Horsley, near Guildford.

  • Gertrude Jekyl, plantswoman and doyenne of the informal garden lived at Bramley near Godalming.

  • Eadweard Muybridge, pioneer of moving pictures and inventor of the Zoopractiscope, was born and worked in Kingston. A display of some of his equipment is currently displayed in the Kingston Heritage Centre.

  • Alfred Lord Tennyson, poet, lived at Blackdown near Haslemere.

  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author, lived at Haslemere.

  • Intergalactic hitchhiker Ford Prefect claimed to be from Guildford. Actually he was from Betelgeuse.

  • Boris Karloff, the horror movie actor, is buried at Guildford's Mount Cemetery.


  • The brass effigies of Sir John d'Abernon and his son in the church at Stoke d'Abernon dating from 1277 are the oldest in the country, as is a carved wooden Norman screen in the 12th-Century chapel at Compton near Godalming.

  • Nonsuch Park, near Epsom. A large palace built by Henry VIII. It was later given by Charles II to his mistress Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, who proceeded to dismantle the place and sell off the materials.

  • Did you ever wonder where all those larger than life statues of generals on horseback came from that grace city squares throughout the country? Many were cast at the Thames Ditton Statue Factory on the outskirts of Kingston. The factory's busiest time was just after World War One to meet the demand for war memorials.

  • Due to boundary changes The Surrey Cricket Club (SCC) home ground at the Kennington Oval is outside the county.

  • Fullers Earth, a very fine clay, is quarried near Redhill. It was originally used in cleaning (fullering) wool. It is currently used in cosmetics, paper-making and refining oil.

  • The World's Scariest Ride is apparently at Thorpe Park, Chertsey Surrey.

1A term used to describe the counties that border or surround London.2By Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear fame.32001 Census.4A sharp drop in the level of the surrounding lawn, away from the viewpoint of the house, which keeps livestock out without showing a physical barrier.5Pronounced Wooten.

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