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Holmwood's Highway and its Men

Squatters and smugglers, highwaymen and a hero - Holmwood has them all!

Distance 3.4 miles (5.5km)

Minimum time 1hr 15min

Ascent/gradient 164ft (50m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Forest and farm tracks, muddy in places, some minor roads

Landscape Wooded common, with clearings and scattered houses

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 146 Dorking, Box Hill & Reigate

Start/finish TQ 183454

Dog friendliness Welcome on Holmwood Common, please remember to poop scoop, especially in car park area

Parking National Trust car park at Fourwents Pond

Public toilets None on route

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1 Head out of the car park towards Fourwents Pond, and bear right along the waterside track, keeping the pond on your left. At the far corner of the pond, cross a small plank bridge, walk through the smaller car park, and turn right into Mill Road. After 400yds (366m), turn right up the lane signposted 'Gable End, Applegarth and Went Cottage'; then, 30yds (27m) further on, fork left onto the waymarked public footpath.
Continue under a set of power lines, then follow the blue waymarks across the parting of two rough gravel tracks before re-crossing one of them at another blue waymark. Follow the path to the next waymarker post and swing left at the yellow arrow that points your way to Clematis Cottage. Turn right here, and join the gravelled track as far as Uplands Cottage.

2 Turn left for 20yds (18m), then slip away to the right onto a grassy footpath. At the end of the footpath turn right, dodge through a wooden post and rail barrier, then turn left at the blue and yellow waymarker post, 25yds (23m) further on. Fork right at the next junction of paths to a clearing in the woods and drop down the grassy slope straight ahead, now following the blue waymarked route onto a gravelled surface at the foot of the hill. After 300yds (274m), keep a sharp eye out for a blue and yellow waymarker to the left of the path, and turn right here, onto another gravelled path.

3 This yellow waymarked route leads purposefully across the Common beside the National Trust estate boundary, and brings you out opposite the Plough pub at Blackbrook. Turn right onto Blackbrook Road, then left into Red Lane (signposted towards Leigh and Brockham) and follow it for about ½ mile (800m).

4 Turn right into Brimstone Lane at the public bridleway signpost. Continue through a five-bar gate and down the right-hand side of an open field, leaving through a second gate at the far end. Follow the track as far as Lodge Farm, then turn right onto Lodge Lane, which leads you back to the Fourwents Pond. Turn right here, for the last 100yds (91m) back to the start.

Visit Holmwood today, and you'll find a peaceful tangle of woodland, bracken and grass, with several decent car parks and the placid Fourwents Pond glistening calmly in the south east corner of the common. Pretty much what you'd expect, really, from an area that's been in the hands of the National Trust since 1956. Nevertheless, the common has a rather more turbulent history than you might guess.

Holmwood was part of the Manor of Dorking and was held by King Harold until William took over at the time of the Norman conquest. Perhaps the area had little to interest the Conqueror; at that time Holmwood was something of a wasteland, and it didn't even get a mention in the Domesday Book.

By the Middle Ages, squatters had begun to move in. They built makeshift houses, grazed a few animals, and cleared the woodland for timber and fuel. The new residents also went in for sheep stealing and smuggling, as well as the more honest trade of making brooms.

Smuggling remained rife well into the 18th century. Nearby Leith Hill tower was used for signalling during the 1770s, and the bootleggers also met in pubs and cottages on the common itself. One of these, the Old Nag's Head, once stood on the corner of Holmwood View Road and the A24. Brook Lodge Farm, just up the road from Fourwents Pond, stands on the site of another smugglers' haunt; the old Bottle and Glass.

Meanwhile, efforts were being made to improve local communications, which had become rather worse than when the Romans drove the road which became Stane Street across the common on its way from London to Chichester. In 1755 a turnpike road was built on the line of the modern A24, and up to 18 coaches a day began rolling through Holmwood. As a result, highwaymen prospered here until well into the 19th century.

But the new road had its fair share of gentlemen, too. The American millionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt regularly drove his coach along this stretch, and he made many English friends. He died tragically in May 1915, when the Cunard liner Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the southern coast of Ireland. Gallant to the last, Vanderbilt is said to have helped search for children on the sinking ship, and gave his own lifebelt to an elderly lady passenger.

You can see Vanderbilt's simple granite memorial, erected on his favourite road by a few of his British coaching friends and admirers, by making a short diversion along the roadside pavement from South Holmwood and crossing near the bus shelter.

What to look for

In the summer months of June, July and August, watch out for white admiral butterflies feeding on bramble blossom in the woodland glades. Somewhat confusingly, the white admiral's wings are mainly charcoal grey, but with a broad white streak running from front to back down each side. The butterfly has a slow, measured flight and, although it sometimes congregates when feeding, you'll generally see them alone. Its green caterpillars feed only on sweet-smelling honeysuckle.

Where to eat and drink

The whole family's welcome at the traditional Plough at Blackbrook, half-way around this route; you can even take the dog into the Blackbrook bar. You've a choice of three real ales, plus a good selection of competitively priced lunchtime bar snacks, salads and meals. If all you want is a quick bite on the hoof, pop into the Holmwood Garage Stores on the A24 at South Holmwood to stock up on chocolates, ice creams, soft drinks and snacks. For something a bit more substantial, head for the Holly and Laurel Emporium just up the road. Beyond the clutter of antiques you'll find an attractive tea room where you can get hot drinks, home made cakes, light lunches and cream teas.

While you're there

From Fourwents Pond, you're well placed to visit the Dorking Museum. Here you'll find collections of farm tools and equipment, clothing and household items, all with a local connection. There's a children's corner, and the collection of stuffed birds is popular with youngsters, too. Discover the story behind the Dorking cocks that feature in the Mole Valley coat of arms, and see the remains of Dorking's very own dinosaur - a 10ft (3m) iguanadon tail bone.

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