A Treasure on your Doorstep

by Ian Dilks, Honorary Treasurer, Oxshott Heath Conservators

 Most residents of Oxshott are familiar with the beauty of Oxshott Heath and Woods, whether as casual walkers (see: "Leisure Walks" from FEDORA magazine, Spring 2002), dog owners or horse riders but how many know of its history and the unique way it is run? (Location Map).

 Photo of Oxshott Heath

A View of Oxshott Heath; © Alec Robinson
The Heath is an area of approximately 200 acres, bounded by the railway line to the south, Browns’ corner to the west and extending just east of Warren Lane and north of Sandy Lane. The Heath’s soil of siliceous sand has never been suitable for crops but coarse grass, heather and pine thrive and together with a wide variety of deciduous trees and undergrowth make for a rich variety of flora, fauna and wildlife. The Heath is now designated a
Site of Special Scientific Interest.

But how did this come about? The land once belonged to the Abbey of Waverley. During Elizabethan times ownership passed to Thomas Lyfield and then, being part of the Claremont Estate, became part of the Manor of Esher and Milbourne. After the death of Leopold of Belgium (who for a time owned Claremont) the land was acquired in 1882 by Queen Victoria who willed it to her youngest son, the Duke of Albany. In 1884 it came into the possession of his son Charles, the Duke of Saxe Coburg Gotha who was of German nationality, and so in 1917 the land was appropriated by the Crown. In 1923, under the Alien Property Act, Esher Urban Council purchased the land for the princely sum of £300, and Elmbridge Council remains the owner to this day. However this misses an important part of the Heath’s history.

During the latter part of the 19th century the Heath was frequented by a range of people that the locals regarded as undesirable and the arrival of the railway in 1885 accentuated the difficulties. Heather and young trees were uprooted, there were frequent fires and the woods were rapidly becoming spoilt. Vandalism was rife and "old folk and children were fearful of going there". The locals decided they had to do something and so forced a public enquiry. It says something for the political influence of the residents of the day that this resulted in an Act of Parliament of 1904, which vested responsibility for management of the Heath in nine honorary Conservators, an arrangement that persists to this day. Three of the Conservators are appointed by Elmbridge Council, one by the Crown Estate and five are elected by those local residents who live within one and a half miles of Oxshott railway bridge, pay not less than ten shillings (50p!) for the privilege and who wish to vote. There are also three appointed officers who assist the Chairman in the day to day running of the Heath, all on a purely voluntary basis. The Conservators do however employ a warden (many of you will have seen Greg) who carries out routine clearance and maintenance. So even though Elmbridge Council owns the land, its management is uniquely in local hands!

The early Conservators had quite a job on their hands, cleaning up what they inherited in 1904 was not an easy task and there have been many challenges since. In 1939, after a long campaign, the Conservators successfully opposed the plans of Esher Council to build a new trunk road through the Heath parallel to the railway, a development that would have destroyed the Oxshott we know today. More recently the storms of 1987 and 1990 wreaked havoc in the woods, as many local residents will remember. The challenges may not be as great today but the last two years have seen an alarming increase in the dumping of building and household waste and old vehicles in the woods. This is not only unsightly and potentially dangerous but also costly to deal with.

Photo of the Sandpit 
East edge of the sandpit, © Alec Robinson

 The Heath has many well-known landmarks. The sandpit was originally formed by the commercial demand for building sand in the latter part of the 19th century, but was used again in WWII as a source of sand for sandbags. It is now beloved by dogs and cyclists alike.

The war memorial was, after some controversy, erected at the top of the south slope by Sir Robert McAlpine, then a resident of Fairmile Court. It affords one of the best views in Surrey on a clear day.

One feature that is no longer with us is the refreshment hut opposite the station. In its heyday between the wars this was a popular venue for day trippers and locals alike-legend has it that more than one local romance started at the end of the Station car park (and perhaps still does?). Sadly this was destroyed by fire in the mid-80’s. And it is not just locals who remember the woods with fondness. During both world wars Canadian soldiers were billeted near Oxshott and used the woods for training and recreation. It is said many kept up their lumberjack skills helping with the woodland management, in return for which the area below the south slope proved a natural baseball ground complete with grandstand slope.

So what do the Conservators actually do and how is it paid for?

Although the Conservators and the officers are all volunteers, the management of the Heath is far from amateurish. The Conservators receive expert advice from a specialist forestry management company on the management of the woodlands. In recent years this has resulted in much needed clearance work, essential for the long-term health of the woods and already showing benefits as healthy new saplings and undergrowth emerge. Advice is also received from bodies such as English Nature and the Forestry Commission, and the Conservators work closely with representatives of Elmbridge Council. Approximately two years ago the Conservators received an unexpected windfall gain and, have since embarked on a five-year programme of improvements to the woods, paths, steps, horse-rides and signage. Hopefully local residents have seen the benefits, including the recently completed Trail 2000, completed with the assistance of FEDORA.

And now for the rub. The Act of 1904 made no provision as to how the maintenance of the Heath should be paid for. Over the years much of the funds have been provided by subscriptions from local residents, supplemented by grants from the local council and bodies such as the Forestry Commission. None of these are guaranteed however, and following the windfall gain referred to above, Elmbridge Council has significantly cut its grant to the Conservators. As a consequence the income of the Conservators is now significantly less than the ever-increasing outgoings. Although the financial position of the Conservators is not currently in jeopardy, the number of local residents who are subscribers is persistently declining, now less than 150 compared to over 300 only a few years ago.

How can you help? Firstly, these are your woods. Please help take care of them and report those who don’t. Secondly, please consider making a donation or becoming a regular subscriber. The new Gift Aid rules mean that when gifts are given by a taxpayer the Conservators can reclaim the tax from the Inland Revenue, making any gift even more valuable. If you would like to become a subscriber, please download and complete the donation form (to download the form, right-click on the link and select "Save Target As.."), or contact the Honorary Treasurer, Ian Dilks, on 01372 844535, or e-mail oxshottheath@hotmail.com. If you would like to learn more about the Conservators please contact the Chairman, David Votier, on 01932 863919, or any of the Conservators you know.

 Photo of Oxshott Heath
Typical Fauna on Oxshott Heath (can you find all 4 of them?) - © Alec Robinson

To discover more about Oxshott or how to advertise in the FEDORA magazine or feature on these pages, contact the corresponding FEDORA committee member or send an e-mail to website@fedora.org.uk