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The Headley Heath Highlanders

A circular tour through an 8,000 year-old landscape.

Distance 4.5 miles (7.2km)

Minimum time 2hrs 15min

Ascent/gradient 425ft (160m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Mainly woodland tracks

Landscape Wooded heathland and chalk valleys

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

Start/finish TQ 205538

Dog friendliness Take care near grazing animals on heath

Parking National Trust car park, Headley Heath

Public toilets None on route

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1 Face the road, walk to the far right-hand corner of the car park, and take the bridleway on your right. Pass a bench and follow the track past a pond to a crossroads.

2 Turn right here, and follow the waymarked route down to a parting of the ways at the foot of the hill. Fork right along the National Trust's waymarked route, and follow it over a low rise and down to a crossroads in the valley bottom.
Turn left along a waymarked bridleway that climbs gently round to the left. After 100yds (91m) turn right, following the waymarked route that leaves the track and climbs steeply up through the woods to a National Trust sign, half hidden in the trees. If you reach the road at High Ashurst, you've gone too far; turn back, and fork left after 50yds (46m).

3 Double back to the right, and wind your way down out of the woods. Cross Lodgebottom Road at Cockshot Cottage, and climb steeply up the narrow path to a T-junction with a good, level track.

4 Turn right, and follow the track as far as Mill Way. Just short of the road, bear right onto the horse margin and follow it until it leads you across the road and onto a signposted byway.

5 If you don't want to visit Headley village, turn right at the end of the byway, and rejoin the route at Point 6. Otherwise fork left here, into Slough Lane, and walk up to the junction with Church Lane. Turn right onto the permissive bridleway that runs beside the road.
Just past the Cock Horse, fork right at the bus stop onto a signposted footpath. Follow it through to a road junction, turn hard right into Leech Lane, and drop down to the junction with Tumber Street.

6 Turn left and cross Mill Way into Crabtree Lane. Follow the waymarked horse track past Broom House, and up the hill to a pit on your left hand side. Bear left here, along the blue waymarked track. Pass a group of houses on your left and continue for 275yds (251m), until you see the car park between the trees on your left hand side. Turn left for the short stroll back to your car.

Look around you, for this is no ordinary place. About a tenth of all the world's lowland heaths are found in southern England, and Headley includes the largest remaining area of acid heathland on the North Downs. Although heathland is an artificial habitat, it's home to many rare and threatened species. Go quietly, and you may see stonechats, woodlarks and even the occasional Dartford warbler. Common lizards live here too, as well as slow worms. These plain, silvery little legless lizards are often mistaken for snakes, though in fact they're completely harmless.

The name Headley means a heather clearing surrounded by woodland, and that's pretty much what you'll see here today. But, around 8,000 years ago, this was a very different landscape. At that time most of Britain was covered with dense woodland and, without human intervention, that's how it would have stayed. Things altered when Neolithic people arrived in about 6000 bc, slashing and burning the forest to provide grazing for their animals. At Headley, they found just what they wanted; high ground, with an easily worked sandy soil. It was the beginning of organised farming and, in one way or another, the land has been grazed here ever since.

Well, almost. Photographs taken during the first half of the 20th century still show an open landscape of heather, gorse and bracken, with scarcely a tree in sight. But all that changed during the Second World War, when Headley Heath was used as a training area by the Canadian Army. Their tanks and earth moving equipment destroyed the open vegetation and, after the war, birch trees started to invade the disturbed ground. Now, Headley Heath is the setting for a very different type of warfare - the constant battle against encroaching woodland.

You'll see the National Trust's secret weapon as you walk around the heath. The brown woolly Highland cattle are probably related to the Celtic Longhorns once used by Scottish crofters to provide meat, milk, clothing and motive power. The Trust currently has 14 of these natural lawnmowers, keeping down the scrub in their two constantly moving enclosures. When I was last there, they were west of the car park, and near the little pond close to the start of the walk; however, the long term aim is to graze up to 35 cattle in a single large paddock. Besides chomping through the lower vegetation, these animals will happily push over 20ft (6m) birch trees and munch off the leaves. Their long, curved horns are every bit as fearsome as they look, so please treat the animals with respect.

What to look for

Headley churchyard boasts an odd little grotto, quite different from anything you're likely to see anywhere else. It's actually the Faithfull family vault. Ferdinand Faithfull was Rector of Headley during the mid-19th century; Emily Faithfull, who was born at Headley's Old Rectory in 1835, established a women's printing press and later became Printer-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria. Like the tower of the present Victorian church, the vault was built using flints from the original church, which was demolished in 1858. Inside is a small font, and slate tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

While you're there

For something a bit different, take a look around Reigate Castle grounds, just a few miles from Headley. The castle was built soon after the Norman Conquest, and strengthened in the 13th century. During the Civil Wars it was garrisoned first by the Royalists, and then by Cromwell's supporters. After that the building gradually fell derelict, but the grounds were renovated and a mock gateway was added during the 18th century. Beneath the castle lies the mysterious Baron's Cave, 'an extraordinary passage with a vaulted roof hewn with great labour out of the soft stone'. No one seems to know exactly why the cave was built, but there's a local tradition that the Barons met here whilst drawing up the Magna Carta in 1215.

Where to eat and drink

You'll find a good range of hot and cold snacks, teas and ices at the refreshment caravan in the car park at the start. It's open Tuesday to Sunday, all year round. Then, three-quarters of the way round the walk, you'll come to the Cock Horse, next to Headley church. This has a traditional public bar as well as a more food-orientated area. The nearby village stores also serves teas, coffees, cakes and snacks.

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