Outdoor Spaces in Oxshott

Oxshott Heath

Most residents of Oxshott are familiar with the beauty of Oxshott Heath and Woods, whether as casual walkers, runners, dog owners or horse riders; but how many know of its history?

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 the management of the Heath in nine honorary Conservators. Three of the Conservators were appointed by Elmbridge Council, one by the Crown Estate and five were elected by those local residents who lived within one and a half miles of Oxshott railway bridge, paid not less than ten shillings (50p!) for the privilege and who wished to vote. So even though Elmbridge Council owned the land, its management was 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 were 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 recent 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.

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.

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.

In 1999 FEDORA asked local schools to put forward ideas for celebrating the Millennium in our village. One of the ideas put forward by a pupil of Danes Hill School was for a Trail 2000 on Oxshott Heath. Whilst the original idea envisaged an adventure playground as well as a trail through the woods, the Conservators were unable to consider the adventure playground as the Heath is regulated by English Nature (now, Natural England) as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Trail 2000 was marked out during 2000 by a series of posts around the route. These were manufactured by The Lower Mole Countryside Management Project and paid for by FEDORA. The posts show the route in either direction which means that there are effectively two routes, as a footpath looks entirely different when walked in the opposite direction. The Trail is approximately two kilometres long and provides the walker with a variety of different aspects of the Heath. The Conservators also placed maps on notice boards at each of the access points onto the Heath to show this route and other footpaths on the Heath.

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 funding was provided by subscriptions from local residents, supplemented by grants from the local council and bodies such as the Forestry Commission. None of these were guaranteed however, and Elmbridge Council increasingly cut its grant to the Conservators. The number of local residents who were subscribers persistently declined and as a consequence the income of the Conservators became significantly less than the ever-increasing outgoings. In the end it was no longer viable for the Conservators to continue managing Oxshott Heath, and the running of the Heath was handed over to Elmbridge Council.

Prince’s Coverts

Prince’s Coverts is located on the east side of the A244 to the south of Oxshott village.  It consists of 864 acres of managed woodland owned by the Crown Estates.  The land was originally acquired in 1821 by Prince Leopold of Belgium as a shooting estate; at that time the Prince lived at Claremont Park in Esher.  He became King of the Belgians in 1831, and passed away in 1865 at which time the whole Claremont Estate was re-acquired by the Crown. 

Prince’s Coverts is very popular for walking, cycling and running.  Horse-riding is allowed under a permit system and the permits can be purchased at a cost of £250 per annum but you will need to go in person to the Savill Building in Englefield Green. More information is available from www.windsorgreatparks.co.uk.  A map is also available from the same website and a copy can be downloaded here.

An excellent brochure was produced by the Crown Estate in about 2000 and provides a lot of fascinating information about Prince’s Coverts, its features and history, the flora and fauna, and a map of walking routes. Apparently the brochure is now out-of-print but you can download a copy of it by clicking on the image.  If you just want the map and not the complete brochure, then click on the image of the map. 

If you go walking there, please be sure to follow the instructions in the brochure and stay clear of areas that are being worked.  Note that the brochure mentions a small, refundable key deposit to unlock the gates – this is no longer required and the pedestrian gates are not locked.  Note also that the thick London Clay underlying Prince’s Coverts means that in wet weather it becomes very soggy, and in those conditions it is best to keep to the better-maintained paths.

Clay Pit

The “Clay Pit” is also known as the “Brick Pit”, and both names give an indication of its origin. It is a small attractive lake that is very deep – up to 100 feet.  It is a result of the extraction of clay for John Early’s brickworks, which started in 1866 and continued in production until 1958. Hence the name. At the bottom of the lake, it is said that there is a workman’s cottage and/or hut, and also some brick-making machinery.

Today, the lake is used for fishing (permit only) and for boating, although given the depth and coldness of the water and the steep sides it is very dangerous; there was a tragic boating accident in 2011 when a young boy lost his life.

The photograph to the right is provided courtesy of Mike Crute, and is dated approximately 1934. It shows the brick-works and the area that is now the Clay Pit, plus the railway and Cook’s Crossing clearly identifiable. Brown’s Corner is just outside the top of the photograph. The cottages along Littleheath Lane can be clearly seen.

This industrial scene, which would be shocking to think of in Oxshott today, contrasts with the beauty, recreational utility and environmental benefit of the Clay Pit today, and is a helpful reminder of how nature can repair and restore the results of industrial activities.

The Clay Pit can be accessed from Heathfield and Hawkhurst via Somerville Road, and also from Blundel Lane via Irene Road, carefully using the pedestrian crossing over the railway line.  It is a lovely place to walk and spend a tranquil hour feeding the water birds.

a large pond with one duck, surrounded by green bank and trees.

The Clay Pit – March 2005