When I was compiling my list, I was a little surprised to find that Leith Hill qualified for a ‘Buildings & Gardens’ triangle in the National Trust Handbook as it is mainly an area of beautiful countryside for walkers. In fact, it probably only got its triangle by virtue of Leith Hill Tower, a tall gothic folly built at the very top of the hill as a place from which to take in the spectacular views. As I had been up to the tower only last year, I would probably have delayed my requisite visit for the challenge for some time, but Leith Hill now has something new to offer and something that would give it a much stronger right to that triangle in the Handbook.
As well as the tower and surrounding countryside, the National Trust has also owned Leith Hill Place at the foot of the hill since 1945. However, despite some interesting ties to the worlds of pottery, science and music, it has never been open to the public before, having been tenanted for many years and later occupied by a school. This summer, though, the house has been opened up for the first time as part of a plan to turn the building into a visitor attraction in its own right. It appears that the Trust is looking for visitor feedback as it tries to decide the best way to use and present the house in the future. As a result, I thought I had better get my visit in now before the Place closes for the winter as there are no guarantees as to when it may be open again.
Before I could get to all of that, though, there was the little matter of the Tower to deal with. Despite a slight lack of enthusiasm for the task, I hauled myself up the steep quarter-mile of steps from the Windy Gap car park. My dad – a still sprightly 70-something – came with me (leaving a very sensible mum in the car with a book) and when we reached our two ‘gasping places’ (i.e. rests) on the way up, dad’s gasping didn’t seem quite as bad as mine, which was slightly embarrassing! The views started to open up at the second ‘gasping place’, though, which made the climb worthwhile.
The Tower is a fine sight at the top, looming over a grassy area that was busy with walkers, dogs and even the odd bike or two (not as many as you’d find at Box Hill, which has become the two-wheeler’s Mecca, but still a clear sign of Surrey’s newfound role as the cycling capital of the UK). Having just negotiated a very long flight of rough steps up the hillside, we then had to tackle the spiral stairs that wind their way up to the top of the tower. Halfway up there is a display room with some wildlife information for children, an interactive 3D map with lights to show the key spots and paths at Leith Hill, plus a few display boards about the geology of Leith Hill and the history of the Tower. This was built by Richard Hull, then resident at Leith Hill Place, in 1765 and he asked that he should be buried beneath it when he died. During a restoration in 1984, some remains were found under the Tower so it seems that Hull’s wishes were carried out.
The views from the top are well worth all the climbing (and gasping), although the far distance was a little hazy on our visit and we couldn’t see the arch over Wembley Stadium, which is one of the attractions that you are encouraged to look for. We couldn’t see the North Pole either, which is supposedly 2,684 miles away according to the plaques that are positioned on each of the four turret walls in order to direct your attention to certain locations. Gatwick Airport was a lot easier to spot, not just because it is a) a lot nearer than the North Pole(!) and b) a large area of tarmac and buildings within all the greenery, but also because of the incoming planes.
We didn’t stop to buy a cup of tea and cake from the little kiosk in the base of the Tower, although many others were taking advantage of the surprisingly varied menu of treats on offer. Instead, I went to take my required photo of the Tower, only to find that my camera batteries were also gasping for breath. I had three pairs of batteries in the camera case but couldn’t raise much juice out of any of them. Eventually, after trying to warm them up a bit, I managed to get my shot without the camera shutting itself down. Unfortunately, the picture is slightly ruined by the man on the battlements but I didn’t dare wait for him to go so I could take another one; after all, I needed what little battery life was left in order to get a picture of Leith Hill Place.
Reversing our route back down the steps, we retrieved the car and its contents, including Mum. Then, we headed off to the Rhododendron Car Park a little further on and made our way through part of the Rhododendron Wood (a beautiful spot at the right time of year) and across a field of cows to reach Leith Hill Place.
The facade of the 17th century Georgian house is fairly shabby in places, and after having been a school for 36 years, it is perhaps unsurprising that the inside of the house is no longer in pristine condition either. Having said that, there are several nice fireplaces and other architectural features that give you an idea of what a nice home it would once have been. And I was actually quite impressed with what the Trust has done so far. Although there is very little furniture in the house, I wasn’t expecting quite so much in the way of professional display boards that fill you in on the history of the house and its former occupants, who include Josiah Wedgwood III, the third-generation of Wedgwood potters, and the composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams. It was also visited by Charles Darwin whose sister was married to Josiah Wedgwood just as he was married to Wedgwood’s sister – which all sounds very cosy and even more so when you find out that the two families were also related and that each man married his own cousin. The Wedgwood Room, which has comfy seats and a piano for visitors to use as well as information about this part of Leith Hill’s history, also has a circular family ‘tree’ hung on one wall so you can track the descendants of Josiah Wedgwood I. This may help to clarify how the Wedgwoods and Darwins are related… or it may not, it all looked quite complicated and you’d probably get a crick in your neck trying to read the different parts around the circumference.
Although there is information about the Wedgwoods and the Darwins in the house, it seems that the Trust has taken Ralph Vaughan-Williams (Josiah’s grandson) as the primary focus for its project here. As well as information on the composer, there are ‘Interesting Notes’ dotted around the house, each printed on music paper and with its own quaver in the corner, while some of Vaughan-Williams’ quotes have also been painted on the walls. On the wall of one corridor, there is even a painted image of a young Ralph with a book on his head, as he was made to walk along the corridor balancing a book as a punishment. Guided audio tours are also conducted on the second floor of the house each day to give further information about Vaughan-Williams; in the spirit of doing these things properly, I should really have waited around to take part in one of these tours, but there was the not insignificant matter of an ice hockey match I had to get to in Guildford that evening and I’m afraid that in my world hockey takes precedence over classical music! So the tour went untoured.
Although Vaughan-Williams had spent most of his childhood at Leith Hill Place – being taken to live with the Wedgwood family at the age of three when his father died – he was very quick to hand it over to the Trust when he inherited the property towards the end of the Second World War, which for some reason made me a little angry with him! I don’t know why he didn’t hold on to it, maybe for financial reasons, but in my eyes it makes him a little less deserving of all the attention the Trust has lavished on him in their activities here. However, I’m also aware that my relative lack of interest in music might have something to do with this point of view. Indeed, from the minute I walked in the house I was more drawn to the Wedgwood and Darwin stories than I was to the musical angle. Despite the fact that Darwin never lived here and only ever came as a guest, he is still a bigger draw for me and I loved the story of him recruiting his nieces to conduct earthworm research in the grounds. There is still a stone in a nearby field that was supposedly the rock they would look under for worms and I had seen this on a previous walk at Leith Hill. Interestingly, on that particular walk, I wandered past the house wondering what it was being used for, with no idea that only a year later I would be looking out at the footpath from the inside.
You’ll be delighted to see (well, I would hope you’ll be mildly pleased at the very least) that the camera batteries held out long enough to get a shot of Leith Hill Place and I even had enough juice for a few other photos, including one of a Giant Redwood (Wellingtonia) in the Rhododendron Walk on the way back to the car.
As far as the project to open up the Place is concerned, I’m quite impressed with what the Trust has done so far considering how little it has to work with and I look forward to visiting again in the future as and when further strides have been taken in fashioning a new attraction on this site.
Highlights: Views from the Tower, a new NT project in its infancy
Refreshments: Cream tea on pretty but mismatched china from the hands-on, largely do-it-yourself kitchen
Purchase(s): Guide to Leith Hill (suggested donation £1 but I only had 50p in change to put into the honesty box near the Tower so I apologise for short-changing the Trust on that one!)
Companion(s): The parents
PS: Just a final piece of Challenge housekeeping. I noticed recently that I had put Morden Hall Park in the London listing but it is marked in the Handbook with a square not a triangle so I have now removed it. It was actually quite satisfying to be able to knock one off the count without actually leaving my living room!