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Witley's Follies and Frauds

This walk sets out along the Greensand Way, and finishes in the Old Bailey!

Distance 6 miles (9.7km)

Minimum time 2hrs 45min

Ascent/gradient 558ft (170m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Woodland tracks and paths across farmland, some short sections on minor roads

Landscape Pretty landscape of small fields and wooded valleys

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 133 Haslemere & Petersfield

Start/finish SU 907397

Dog friendliness By law, dogs must be on lead through Furzefield Wood

Parking Lay-by on Dyehouse Road, 60yds (55m) west of junction with Old Portsmouth Road near Thursley

Public toilets None on route

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1 Follow the pavement towards Thursley, pass the village hall, and turn left into The Street. When the road bends sharp right, turn left onto the waymarked Greensand Way; this signposted bridleway will lead you through a small metal gate and across an open field to the A3. Cross carefully, and follow the waymarked route towards Cosford Farm. As the lane drops past Cosford Farm, continue along the green lane to the foot of the hill and fork left. The waymarked Greensand Way climbs steeply through the woods, crosses two stiles, and leads to French Lane.

2 Cross over, and continue through an avenue of small trees, over a stile, and around the edge of an field. Half-way along the side of the field, dodge left through a wicket gate, cross the drive to Heath Hall, and follow the waymarked route to the edge of Furzefield Wood. Turn left through the woods, then left onto Screw Corner Road.

3 Continue across the A286 and follow the Greensand Way until it turns off to the right, near the top of the hill. Keep straight on along the blue waymarked bridleway to Parsonage Farm Cottages; turn left here, and follow the footpath as it zig-zags around Parsonage Farm. Cross the farm lane, and head for the stile on the far side of the field. Nip over and follow the path through the gently curving valley until two stiles lead you past a pair of white cottages. Bear right up the cottage drive to Roke Lane.

4 Turn left, re-cross the A286 at Milford Lodge, and continue along Lea Coach Road to Thursley Lodge. You'll get a glimpse of Witley Park down the private drive here, but your route lies along the bridleway straight ahead. The lane drops down to a junction; swing left past Eastlake and Lake Lodge, then bear right onto a woodland path.

5 Turn left briefly onto French Lane, then fork right onto the signposted bridleway which winds through Milhanger's landscaped grounds and up to the A3. Cross the road, and continue onto the bridleway directly opposite. Follow it to the Old Portsmouth Road; turn right, then left into Dyehouse Road and back to the lay-by where your walk began.

As you head east along the edge of Witley Common on your way back towards Thursley, two grey stone lodges stand sentinel at the entrances to Witley Park. Nowadays, an exclusive business and conference centre lies beyond these gateways; but, at the close of the 19th century, the estate was put together by a very different kind of business man.

Whitaker Wright was a financier and self-made millionaire. He had mining interests around the world and, closer to home, his business empire included the London & Globe Finance Company, principal backers of London's Bakerloo line.

About 1890 Wright assembled a huge 9,000 acre (3,644ha) estate stretching from Thursley to the Devil's Punchbowl and engaged leading architects and engineers to construct a vast mansion and lavish pleasure gardens. But whatever the scale of the house and grounds, it's Wright's dream-like follies that send your imagination into overdrive.

Like a children's den, it all starts with a hollow tree and a door. Beyond the door, a ramp spirals down past musty subterranean rooms towards a flooded tunnel, 50ft (15m) below the ground. Your feet would take you no further; but luckily enough, there's a boat here. Climb aboard, and feel your way through the tunnel until it brings you out onto a lake.

There's an island over there. Row across and tie up the boat; things are starting to get interesting. A flight of stairs lead down to a light, airy room directly below the island. Time to change into party clothes here, before more steps and another tunnel take you through to the miniature iron and glass ballroom, totally submerged beneath the surface of the lake. If you'd like a dance, only the fish will notice. Another submarine tunnel leads us back into the warm sunshine, to ponder what all this must have cost. It's said that Wright spent around £1.5m on Witley Park in the 1890's; perhaps as much as £200m by today's standards. But that was the least of it.

By the turn of the century, Wright's business enterprises were collapsing like a set of dominoes; he was arrested on charges of fraud, tried at the Old Bailey, and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. Waiting in an anteroom to the court, Whitaker Wright had other ideas. He asked for a cigar, and a glass of whiskey - then swallowed a cyanide capsule, and died where he fell.

Sadly, you cannot see any of Wright's follies. The entire Witley Park estate is private property, and not open to the public at any time. Please keep to the rights of way described. You can find a good description of what lies beyond the estate boundaries in Follies, Grottoes and Garden Buildings by Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp (Aurum Press, 1999).

What to look for

In a field near Heath Hall Farm, you'll pass a typical old shepherd's hut made from corrugated iron with glass windows and small iron wheels. Huts like these were towed onto the Downs during the lambing season, so that the shepherd could keep a watch over his flock. A good shepherd was a valued asset, earning around 35/- (£1.75) a week in the late 19th century. Besides his wages, the shepherd would have a free cottage and garden, together with free coal and firewood and an allowance for his dog.

While you're there

The Grayshott Pottery, near Hindhead, was founded in 1956, but traces its roots from Mary Watts' pottery at the Watts Gallery in Compton. You can watch the potters making a range of stoneware and porcelain, browse in the shop and have a cup of coffee.

Where to eat and drink

A 5 minute diversion at Brook brings you to the tile-hung Dog and Pheasant, swathed under a mass of colourful Virginia creeper. You can get morning coffee here as well as a range of meals.

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