First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The sixteen hundred acres of Chobham Common form a scrubby stretch of heathland across north Surrey. The track we were following south across the common was floored with sandy yellow soil. It was a grey winter’s day, still and cold. Pine trees, broom and dormant heather added to the sombre effect. But there were signs of spring, too. Pussy willow buds, soft and furry, were just appearing on their twigs, and the gorse bushes were spattered with yellow flowers.
Two young girls clopped past on ponies, one of the animals sporting dayglo pink ear warmers. It was hard to imagine the fear in which travellers in olden times ventured the crossing of the common, an expanse of wilderness notorious for its footpads and highwaymen. ‘A vast tract of land given up to barrenness,’ wrote Daniel Defoe in 1724 in A Tour thro’ the whole Island of Great Britain, ‘horrid and frightful to look upon, not only good for little, but good for nothing.’
Goldcrests went flitting through the bare treetops. We watched a treecreeper dropping down to the base of a silver birch to start another upward scuttle, looking and listening for insects hiding in interstices of the papery bark.
From Burrowhill Green we headed north along a skein of tracks, gravel and flint crunching underfoot and the seashore murmur of the M3 motorway growing louder. On through the underpass, and then a straight climb among gorse and birch to the summit of Ship Hill.
A stubby granite cross marks the spot where Queen Victoria reviewed her troops on a summer’s day in 1853. Eight thousand men and fifteen hundred horses took part in a mock battle, swirling their noise and colour among the hollows of the heath. Among the gallant participants were the officers and men of the Light Brigade, destined to be decimated in the Crimea the following year during their famous charge at the Battle of Balaclava.
Also present were great barrels of molasses, brought to sweeten the tea of the soldiers. Long after the Great Camp, a rumour persisted that the barrels had been buried to await the soldiers’ return; and locals who prospected for them rejoiced in the nickname of ‘treacle miners’.
How hard is it? 6½ miles; easy; heath tracks
Start: Longcross car park, Chobham, Surrey KT16 0ED (OS ref SU 979651)
Getting there: Off B386 (Chertsey-Bagshot) beside M3 at Longcross
Walk (OS Explorer 160): Path south. In 50m fork right. In ¾ mile pass post (blue arrow/BA); in 100m, dogleg right/left (975638) across track. On under power lines. In ⅓ mile (973632, house on left) dogleg right/left (BA) to Gorse Lane (972631). Right to Four Horseshoes PH (972628). Return up Gorse Lane. At right bend, ahead into wood (972631). Just past electricity substation, dogleg right/left (973632, BAs). In 200m, left (974633, BA). In 100m, right (BA on tree) with field on right. In 300m cross trackway (973637). At road, left; cross Staple Hill Road (970639, BA, fingerpost). Ahead for ⅔ mile via Chickabiddy Hill (968644), to cross M3 through subway (970647), then B386 (970650 – take care!). Ahead for ½ mile to memorial cross on Ship Hill (965655). Return to cross track (967656); ahead on track. In ½ mile round right bend; in ⅓ mile ahead at junction (974658, bench on left). At next junction, right (974655) for ½ mile to T-junction (969651). Left through underpass; left to cross Staple Hill road (973646); left for 800m to car park.
Lunch: Four Horseshoes, Burrowhill Green GU24 8QP (01276-856257, fourhorseshoeschobham.co.uk)
Accommodation: The Inn at West End, Woking GU24 9PW (01276-858652, baronspubs.com)