A Swamp, a witch’s cave, Jonathan Swift, and dragon’s teeth: a short walk from Farnham

Last weekend I took my eldest daughter to a training session in Farnham in Surrey, I had five and a half hours to fill, so I went for a walk. I prefer a walk either to have a point or things of interest on the route – this walk had both and turned out to be a particularly interesting one, even though it can’t have been much more than 4 or 5 miles.

Farnham is ‘a fine town, generally ranked as one of the best Georgian towns in England. This is over-praise; it has two superb Georgian set-pieces in Castle Street and West Street, but not the perpetual surprise of Georgian buildings throughout the fabric of the town of places such as Lancaster or Blandford. The rest is nicely scaled old cottages, a fair bit of breezy C19 building, and a depressing amount of Neo-Georgian. … Today preservation has become stultification, so that there are now streets … where there are more Neo-Georgian houses than true Georgian ones.’ Thus said Pevsner, and it is typical of his opinion – he  never liked anything that pretended to be what it wasn’t.

I wandered round the town for a bit, just looking at the buildings, and for somewhere to get some information, without much success; stopped off at the Lion & Lamb Bistro for a pot of tea, and then walked up Castle Hill, past the castle and its keep and into Farnham Park. The castle originated as a Norman motte and bailey, built for the Bishops of Winchester; the park was theirs for their deer, horses and cattle, and as it’s on a steep south-facing slope there was a vineyard here in the C13. It was emparked in 1376, and is now a Grade II Park & Garden of Special Historic Interest. It’s on part of the chalk ridge, an extension of the Hog’s Back, capped with clay so there are ponds higher up and streams which disappear part way down. The clay/chalk/upper greensand sequenced is very narrow here, turned through 90 degrees; the lower greensand is very broad, however.

Back down the hill, into Bear Lane and Park Row, and past some of the nicely scaled cottages, through the main streets and then along a path behind the fire station and along the River Wey, which is as clear as a chalk stream here.

It was a case of waiting for a gap in the traffic to dash across the A31 dual carriageway, and then attempting to take a small footpath to join the North Downs Way. The path was very narrow and the nettles were about 2m tall, so after a short retracing and a longer walk along the A31, the next path was passable, and led down onto the greensand and the North Downs Way.

Hop KilnJust after crossing a bridge over the River Wey the path ran through the garden of a hop kiln that had been converted to residential use. The Farnham area was a major hop producer from the late C17 onward, also producing malt for brewing (there still is a small brewery working in the area, the Hog’s Back Brewery).

Continuing on through fields that have the appearance of being used exclusively for horsiculture (the only animal I saw, however, was a rather startled-looking, recently-sheared llama), and then on to a short section of road walking through archetypical greensand topography – a sunken road with steep banks and exposed tree roots.

Anti Tank CylinderCrossing another bridge over the Wey, and then right into the carriage drive for Moor Park House, leaving the North Downs Way for the Greensand Way long-distance path, and  approximately following the route of the Second World War GHQ Stop Line ‘B’. Hence the two concrete cylinders, one either side of the drive, which formed part of a roadblock.

The drive passes immediately past Moor Park House, the main fabric of the house being late eighteenth century, but enclosing a house of c.1630. It was acquired in c.1684 by Sir William Temple, a Whig statesman, diplomat, member of King Charles II’s Privy Council, and who was apparently instrumental in arranging the marriage of Mary (daughter of James II) to William of Orange.

Sir William tired of politics and retired to his house, landscaping his gardens to illustrate the ideas in his earlier essay Upon the Gardens of Epicurus, or Of Gardening in the Year 1685. His heart was buried in a silver casket under the sundial. A shame the gardens are now a building site, but little of the garden had remained before. There was a small archaeological dig undertaken before the current redevelopment started, but it didn’t turn much up.

The garden was admired in 1833 by William Cobbett in The English Gardener: ‘On the outside of the grass-walks were borders of beautiful flowers. I have stood for hours to look at this canal, for the good-natured manners of those days had led the proprietor to make an opening in the outer wall in order that his neighbours might enjoy the sight as well as himself. I have stood for hours, when a little boy, looking at this object; I have travelled far since, and have seen a great deal; but I have never seen anything of the gardening kind so beautiful in the whole course of my life.’

The house descended through Temple’s family, and there were major changes to the house and gardens in the C18.

One of the most well-known inhabitants of the house was probably JonatMoor Park Househan Swift, who was Sir William’s secretary for some years from 1689, when he was aged 22. One of the maid’s daughters was Esther Johnson, then aged 8; Swift became her tutor, gave her the name Stella, writing about her in some of his poems and his journal; they had a relationship which lasted many years, until she died in 1728. Some have suggested that they were secretly married. Swift wrote A Tale of a Tub and Battle of the Books while living at Moor Park.

Between 1850 and 1860 Charles Darwin visited here when it was a hydropathic institution and spa. He wrote: ‘…I strolled a little beyond the glade for an hour and a half…the fresh yet dark green of the grand old Scotch firs, the brown of the catkins of the old birches, with their white stems, and a fringe of distant green from the larches, made an excessively pretty view…a chorus of birds singing around me, and squirrels running up the trees, and some woodpeckers laughing…it was as pleasant and rural a scene as ever I saw and did not care one penny how the beasts or birds had been formed.’

During the Second World War it was requisitioned to billet Canadian troops, and was left in a sorry state. Subsequently it has been used as a finishing school, a Constance Spry Flower School, offices, and currently: “Planning permission has been secured for the conversion of Moor Park House, Farnham, to 13 dwellings together with the erection of 11 new dwellings as enabling development.”

The garden is a Grade II site, the house is Grade II*. Pevsner described several aspects of its architecture as ‘grumpy’ but says it’s ‘as successful as anything of its style in England’. At present the building work has resulted in piles of bits of the interior sharing the field of ragwort beyond the house with a couple of highland cattle.

Carrying on down the carriage drive, some of the beeches that formed the avenue are still fine trees, others are stumps or thrown, of which a large number have coppiced themselves.

PillboxPassing a couple of, quite substantial, derelict buildings on the right, one brick but the other apparently an ironstone construction, it’s possible to make out the course of the Wey across the fields. The river is why the GHQ Line is here, and shortly some more evidence of this appears. A Type 24 pillbox on the right (SU8666446099), with an iron gate across the entrance. The gate isn’t actually attached to anything, so it is possible to enter the pillbox; I remember exploring a pillbox when I was a child and it being disgustingly smelly – this one is clean, dry, with no smell, although there are a number of beer cans underfoot. The loopholes give complete cover across the meadows to the river, and the pillbox stands on slightly higher ground, just at the edge of the trees. Unusually, it still has its hooks around the edge of the roof for attaching camouflage netting.

Gun EmplacementNot many yards further on (SU8671946028) and a more substantial building comes into sight: a hexagonal field gun emplacement with a large embrasure and an indentation to take the trail legs of the gun; there’s a loopholed courtyard to protect the rear of the gun which would have been defended by an infantry section. The river meanders here, and there were anti-tank ditches dug between the river loops; with the ditches, the pillbox and the field gun, this was a heavily defended area.

The river loops away to the west here, and within the meander is Moor Park Nature Reserve, an alder carr and the largest area of deepwater swamp in Surrey. This would have been helpful to the defenders too.

Mother Ludlam's CaveA little further again down the carriage drive it gets wet underfoot as water seeps from the slope on the left, trickling down to the alder carr which is intermittently visible on the right; and then, Mother Ludlam’s Cave (SU8691445842). In the Middle Ages there was a Luddwelle in the area, possibly from the Anglo Saxon hlud+well meaning ‘loud spring’ or similar, or maybe from ‘Lud’  but there is a bit of folklore that’s grown up about it. Apparently the water supply for nearby Waverley Abbey (which in some accounts was the Ludwell) dried up and Simon, a monk, channelled the springs by digging back into the sand cliff and creating a cave. Subsequently, according to The Antiquities of England and Wales (1775), Mother Ludlam lived in the cave helping the poor by lending them cooking utensils, until someone neglected to return a copper cauldron, which so annoyed her she refused to lend anything further. Other sources refer to her as a witch (the White Witch of Waverley), but not lending someone a saucepan is not a very frightening thing for a witch to do. The cauldron was supposed to have been taken to Waverley Abbey, and is now to be seen in Frensham Church, a medieval hammered copper vessel. Another version of the legend reports that the Devil stole her cauldron (which she used to make potions), Mother Ludlam chased him on her broomstick, and he leapt across the countryside (hence the range of hills called The Devil’s Jumps), leaving the cauldron behind; Mother Ludlam took it to Frensham Church for safekeeping.

The cave was subsequently gentrified into a grotto, and Swift was supposed to have sat in here to compose A Tale of a Tub, but by 1825 when William Cobbett visited, it had deteriorated: ‘…but alas! It not the enchanted place that I knew it…the basins to catch the never-ending pure stream, are gone; the iron cups fastened by chains for people to drink out of are gone; the pavement all broken to pieces…’ He’s be even more disappointed now, the sandy roof fell in during the drought of 1976; new ornate iron gates close it off, and it’s now the habitat of three species of bat – Natterer’s, Daubenton’s, and Long-eared.

PillboxThis is almost at the end of the carriage drive; on the left corner is Stella Lodge, and on the right, Stella Cottage. There’s nothing to suggest that Esther Johnson ever lived here, but the name was passed on to ‘Stella Cottage’ the defended locality which was part of the GHQ Line. Four roadblocks, of the concrete cylinder variety, were set up, one on Waverleymill Bridge, the others on the three approaches, the bridge was commanded by an anti-tank gun emplacement in the garden of Stella Cottage. Over the bridge and past the mill weir to the entrance to 1940 LoopholeWaverley Mill House and Waverley Abbey, a Type 24 pillbox is visible across a field by the river, and in the car park is another, larger field gun emplacement (SU8700145480). This has a larger, brick-walled, loopholed enclosure, and unusually has rough castellations on the tops of the walls; one of the loopholes has ‘1940’ in metal above. The emplacement would have taken a 18pdr or 75mm QF field gun, and has a commanding view across the meadow towards the ruins of Waverley Abbey standing by the river; there was an anti-tank ditch east of the Abbey.

Waverley AbbeyThe Abbey (my goal on this walk) is reached by walking along a lakeside (Canada geese, coots, mallard ducks and a heron) with the quite impressive Waverley Abbey House on the right (Pevsner Tunnel Vaultingdescribes it as ‘puzzling’ – early or mid-C18 with additions and rebuilding). The Abbey itself is in the care of English Heritage, has their interpretation boards dotted around, and it’s possible to download an MP3 audio tour from the English Heritage website. According to the first board, Waverley Abbey was the inspiration for Walter Scott’s novel Waverley, but as the plot of that novel is about the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, I’m not sure how that idea was arrived at.

This was the first Cistercian Abbey in England, founded in 1128 by William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester. The visible ruins were the central group of buildings – at the Dissolution in 1536 the site was given to Sir William FitzWilliam who built a house incorporating some of the monastery buildings; after a succession of oLay Brothers' Refectorywners, Waverley Abbey House was built to the north and the ruins incorporated into a picturesque parkland. Much of what is known about the Abbey derives from archaeological excavations undertaken at the turn of the C20.

yewPevsner again: ‘the ruins themselves [are] an anticlimax, although as ruins they are charming masonry fragments beside the Wey, not tidied up or railed round (there is so little architectural detail left that there is no reason why they ever should be).’ I spent about an hour looking round, there’s also a very nice old yew tree growing by the corner of the church nave.

Dragon's teeth & monk's dormitoryOn the riverbank behind what was the monks’ dormitory is a field of dragon’s teeth – short (c0.9m) tetrahedral concrete blocks, a bit like a pyramid, designed as an anti-tank obstacle; more dragon’s teeth (aka ‘pimples’) on the opposite bank, along with a Type 26 pillbox (invisible).

It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like if the Germans , had invaded in 1940 as was feared, and had approached here from the west as expected, this tranquil area would have been one great killing field.

alder carrTime was running short now, so the easiest way back to Farnham was to retrace the route along the carriage drive, but I took a detour through the swamp. The path runs down from the wooded greensand ridge and along the riverbank beside the alder swamp and reedbeds; the problem being that the dry path is very narrow



and is heavily populated with 2m tall stinging nettles. Eventually emerging in a somewhat relieved but stung state onto the last section, which is a boardwalk through the reedbeds, the problem here being the 2m high reeds obscuring the whereabouts of the boardwalk.

Back onto the carriage drive to Moor Park House, thence straight on directly towards Farnham along more carriage drive, this time with a nice old cast-iron estate fence in an unfortunate state of repair, and then more dragon’s teeth between the drive and the river. There are two Carriage Drivepleasant-looking houses on the right, one of which is Temple Cottage, the other Swift’s Cottage (but I don’t think he actually lived there), a view across the meadow to an old watermill, another converted hop kiln, an ivy-covered structure that might be another pillbox, and then an anti-tank cylinder in a field. The carriage drive continues under a railway bridge, then almost immediately under a concrete underpass with a lodge for Moor Park hard under the road embankment. This takes you into an odd space, a small collection of Pevsner’s nicely scaled cottages (including another hop kiln) in the middle of a roundabout, it’s like a very rural area but the drive suddenly emerges from between the cottages to be confronted with traffic and a subway. Immediately Bourne Millopposite is Bourne Mill – a fine and large old corn mill (C17 & later) which is now a rambling antique shop and old-fashioned tearoom which provided me with a quick (late) lunch.

Some of the information in this post  came from personal knowledge, some from information boards en route and at the Abbey, but some also from these books:

  • Antiquities & Conservation Areas of Surrey (6th Edition), Surrey County Council 1976; this is obviously quite out-of-date, but still useful. The Surrey Historic Environment Record is searchable through Exploring Surrey’s Past; there’s a national (England) database from English Heritage at Pastscape.
  • Surrey (The Buildings of England) (2nd ed, & a new-style one long overdue) by Ian Nairn & Nikolaus Pevsner, revised by Bridget Cherry, Penguin 1971.
  • Beaches, Fields, Streets & Hills: the anti-invasion landscapes of England, 1940 (CBA Research Report 144) by William Foot, Council for British Archaeology 2006.
  • The Making of the British Landscape: How We Have Transformed the Land, from Prehistory to Today by Francis Pryor, Allen Lane 2010. Not a source for anything specific here, but required reading for an understanding of landscape history in general.
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3 Responses to A Swamp, a witch’s cave, Jonathan Swift, and dragon’s teeth: a short walk from Farnham

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  3. N F says:

    Thank you for such an informative and incisive account of the area we have just moved to. Wonderful! I look forward to deepening our understanding of the landscape. It is a pity about Moor Park House. It has lost its charm and sense of rich history. But much of what you describe survives and some walkways have been improved thankfully.

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