Originally built for the Bryant family, of the matchmaking firm Bryant & May, this lovely…
In recent years, mobile phone masts have been sprinkled so liberally over the English landscape that we hardly notice them. But hidden in the trees, just yards from the growling M25, stands a communications tower quite unlike anything else you’ll see. Built in 1821, Chatley Heath semaphore tower formed part of a line of hilltop stations used by the Royal Navy to signal messages between London and Portsmouth. The 13 stations were built at about 5-mile (8km) intervals, and because each one needed to be visible from its neighbours up and down the line, towers were constructed on the lower hills.
All the stations had one essential feature in common – a slotted mast with two hand-cranked semaphore arms, spelling out up to 48 different characters. On Chatley’s low hill, 88 steps lead up to the roof of the five-storey tower, and the top of the mast is some 90ft (27m) from the ground. Almost two centuries ago, this was state-of-the-art technology. Skilled operators could send up to six words a minute, and a complete message could be sent from the Admiralty to Portsmouth dockyard in around a quarter of an hour. Once a day, the system was cleared for the Royal Navy’s single most important piece of information – the one o’clock time signal. Before modern satellite positioning, navigators depended on an accurate chronometer to calculate their ship’s position.
In 1833, a time ball was erected on the roof of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. The ball was dropped at precisely 1pm each day and it took 23 seconds to relay the signal, by semaphore, to Portsmouth, and 22 seconds for the acknowledgement to return. The system lasted until 1847, when the Admiralty began sending signals over the London and Southampton Railway’s electric telegraph. The Chatley Heath tower was used as a house until 1963, and then fell derelict. In 1989, Surrey County Council restored the shell and erected displays on the history of semaphore, together with working models showing how the system was operated. The tower is only opened to the public a few days a year.
From the car park, cross the road and take the footpath over a stile 30yds (27m) to the left, signposted as a public footpath, then diagonally cross two fields to a small footbridge and stile. Nip over and continue, to meet a metal gate on the far side of the next field. Follow the right-hand field edge, with the river just over the hedge to your right, to a footbridge close to some electricity lines. Beyond the bridge, take the path across the fields, signed ‘Downside Walk’. Go over a stile and ahead to the gate and stile leading to Pointers Road.
Turn right into Pointers Road, and continue beyond the impressive wrought iron gates of The Lodge. Now turn left on a signed bridleway, passing a notice board ‘Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower’, cross the M25 and follow the tarmac lane as it winds up the hill to the semaphore tower.
Pass the tower and follow the waymarked route towards the ‘blue car park’, pass two bench seats, and, on reaching a crossroads with two bench seats in front of you, pass between them. At the next crossroads with a single bench, turn left onto the broad sandy track. Follow the track as it crosses the route to the ‘red car park’, climbs to the top of a gentle hill, and veers around to the left. Continue for a further 350yds (320m), as far as the three-way wooden signpost.
Turn right and follow the bridleway to Ockham Lane. Just before reaching the lane, at a waymarker pointing you ahead, turn left to visit the mausoleum hidden in the trees. Retrace your steps to the track and turn left, emerging onto a tarmac driveway by two large houses. Walk ahead down the driveway and turn left onto Ockham Lane. Continue along the lane until the road crosses the M25 and then, 93yds (85m) after the bridge, fork hard right on a bridleway opposite Poynter’s Farm. Follow this track beside the motorway and through a wooden gate to Pondtail Farm. Bear right through a gate, following the field edge, then turn right through another gate and down the field towards the farm buildings. Turn left on meeting another path and out onto a hard-surfaced driveway to meet Chilbrook Farm Road.
Turn left into Chilbrook Farm Road, then turn right at the entrance to pretty Chilbrook Farm. Go through the kissing gate and take the signposted path towards Downside Road, following the field edge. At the far side of the field, pop over the stile, cross Downside Road, turn left and follow the pavement back to the car park.
Field-edge paths, heathland tracks and some roads; 5 stiles
Arable farmland and wooded heath
Livestock in some fields, also sections of minor road and must be on leads on the heath during ground bird nesting season
OS Explorer OL34 Crawley & Horsham
Downside Bridge, south of Cobham
None on route
WALKING IN SAFETY
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
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About the area
Surrey may be better known for its suburbia than its scenery, but the image is unjust. Over a quarter of the county’s landscapes are official Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and along the downs and the greensand ridge you can gaze to distant horizons with hardly a building in sight. This is one of England’s most wooded counties, and has more village greens than any other shire. You’ll find sandy tracks and cottage gardens, folded hillsides and welcoming village inns. There’s variety, too, as the fields and meadows of the east give way to the wooded downs and valleys west of the River Mole.
Of course there are also large built-up areas, mainly within and around the M25; but even here you can still find appealing visits and days out. On the fringe of Greater London you can picnic in Chaldon’s hay meadows, explore the wide open downs at Epsom, or drift idly beside the broad reaches of the stately River Thames. Deep in the Surrey countryside you’ll discover the Romans at Farley Heath, and mingle with the monks at England’s first Cistercian monastery. You’ll see buildings by great architects like Edwin Lutyens and Sir George Gilbert Scott, and meet authors too, from John Donne to Agatha Christie.
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