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The Battle for Banstead Commons

A popular, well-wooded route in the Chipstead valley.

Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 295ft (90m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Woodland and field edge paths, muddy after rain, 7 stiles

Landscape Wooded downland and working farmland

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

Start/finish TQ 273583

Dog friendliness Can run free on Banstead Commons, although parts may be grazed. Keep on lead around Perrotts Farm

Parking Holly Lane, Banstead

Public toilets At start

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1 Leave the car park by the wicket gate at the top left-hand (south east) corner, and follow the waymarked gravel path. After 80yds (73m), join the public footpath towards Perrotts Farm. The path climbs steadily through a tunnel of trees along the woodland edge. Look out for the old beeches on your right, nuzzling against one another and joined at the roots; these may once have formed part of an old boundary hedge.

2 At the three-way wooden signpost ½ mile (800m) from the car park, you have the option of a diversion to the Ramblers Rest. Continue straight along the permissive path, signposted towards Fames Rough. Then, 200yds (183m) further on, bear right at another three-way signpost, towards Banstead Wood. Carry on through Fames Rough, turn left onto the Banstead Countryside Walk at the next three-way signpost, and follow it to a waymark, 220yds (201m) further on.

3 Here the Banstead Countryside Walk dives off into the undergrowth on the left. Keep straight ahead, nipping over the fallen tree trunk a few paces further on. Soon the path narrows and bears to the right, and you leave Fames Rough by the stile at the corner of an open field. Follow the edge of the woods on your right, as far as the buildings of Perrotts Farm.

4 Jump the stile here, cross the farm road, and take the signposted footpath towards Holly Lane. Follow it along the left hand side of the field and over a stile, onto a gravelled farm track. Continue in the same direction along the edge of Ruffett Wood, and carry on along the signposted path towards Park Downs. The path crosses the grandly named Chipstead Road - little more than a track, really - at a stile, before bearing right and meeting Holly Lane.

5 Cross Holly Lane, and nip over the stile opposite, still signposted towards Park Downs. Follow the hedgerow trees on your left until you come to the stile 50yds (46m) beyond the top corner of this field. Turn left over the stile, then bear left along the edge of Park Downs. Keep straight on at the four-way signpost, and follow the waymarked Banstead Countryside Walk back to the car park at the junction of Park Road and Holly Lane.

The fight for London's countryside is nothing new, and the battle for Banstead Commons had all the ingredients of a good Victorian melodrama - an evil Baronet, who was defeated in the nick of time by the hand of fate.

Meet Sir John Hartopp MP, a Yorkshire Baronet. In 1873, Sir John bought the Lordship of the Manor of Banstead, together with a huge area of land that included the Banstead Commons. You'll be walking through Park Downs, a part of his holding, to the north of Holly Lane.

Most of the Commons were subject to grazing and other rights. This could have thwarted Sir John's plans for a housing development on Banstead Downs, and the sale of minerals from Banstead Heath. In practice, the rights were all but extinct, but Sir John began to consolidate his position by buying them up for himself.

Determined to see some return on his investment, Hartopp raised his game. In 1876 he built a row of houses on Banstead Downs, and enclosed a part of Banstead Heath. The locals were furious, and formed the Banstead Commons Protection Society. They enlisted the help of the newly formed Commons Society, as well as the Corporation of London and the area's largest landowner, the seventh Earl of Egmont.

Battle was joined. In 1877 the protesters began court proceedings to challenge the enclosure of the heath, and a hugely expensive case dragged on until 1884. Just as a compromise seemed certain, fate intervened. Sir John's solicitors suddenly became insolvent, and Hartopp himself was dragged down with them. It strengthened the protesters' hand - but it delayed their ultimate victory until 1889.

Realising that the future was far from secure, the commoners went on to petition for an Act of Parliament to protect the Commons. The result was the appointment of the Banstead Commons Conservators in 1893, and the Conservators continue to manage the Commons to this day.

But the countryside didn't always come out on top. When you cross over Holly Lane, you'll notice some mature houses on each side of the road. By coincidence, their story also begins in 1893, when C harles Garton bought the Banstead Wood Estate. He was destined to become Chairman of the Parish Council, and the last of the area's big, patriarchal landowners. When Charles Garton died in 1934, the land on each side of Holly Lane was sold for development, and Banstead Wood House itself formed the basis of a new hospital. As I write, you can still see the hospital's tower from Park Downs; but the 'For Sale' boards have gone up again, and the next chapter is waiting to be written.

What to look for

Go quietly along the woodland edges, and there's a good chance that you'll see an engaging little group of long tailed tits. Listen for their thin tseep-tseep calls as they bounce restlessly through the trees in their distinctive black, white and pink plumage. These tiny birds roam the woods feeding on small insects, and they're the only common British birds of their size with such a long tail. Despite being only 5½ inches (14cm) long - including a 3-inch (8cm) tail - they can travel as far as 25 miles (40.5km) in a single day.

Where to eat and drink

There's a simple refreshment hut at the start of the walk for teas and ice creams, but if you're hankering after something more substantial try the Mint on Park Road in Banstead, It's a welcoming old pub festooned with flower baskets in summer. The cosy stone-flagged bars have beamed ceilings and log fires, and there's real ale and a well-presented menu of hot and cold bar food. The Rambler's Rest in Chipstead will always be attractive to walkers. It is a large, sprawling half-timbered farmhouse complex with parts dating back to 1301. Dogs are welcome but it can get very busy at weekends.

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