On 8 May 1958 the Surrey Hills was officially designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). 60 years on from this designation the Surrey Hills occupies a unique place in Britain’s portfolios of protected landscapes. What singles it from its peers is that it lies just 35 minutes by train from the centre of London.
By the lake in Friday Street you feel a million miles from anything urban, yet climb from there up to Leith Hill Tower and you can see Canary Wharf. The contrast is breath-taking. But the capital, with all its development pressures, has pushed down to the very boundary of the AONB, and those pressures are on the increase.
Estate agents’ windows shout out that houses for sale are ‘in the Surrey Hills’ and the name is used by businesses right across the county. It crops up on cycling and tourism websites and on village signboards. The Surrey Hills Google profile now has more hits than any other AONB and most National Parks.
But this identity with landscape is actually quite new. When the Surrey Hills was designated an AONB in 1958, that status overlaying and reinforcing existing Metropolitan Green Belt protection was used primarily as a planning tool to curb urban sprawl. It was very successful. But for the first 35 years very few people recognised the Surrey Hills as an entity at all. Such a funny shape for a start. Throughout the 20th century no Surrey residents would ever have described themselves as living ‘in the Surrey Hills’.
The first hint of change came when the need to manage the countryside crept up the national agenda in the late 1980s, generating specific projects such as the regeneration and conservation of the Downland and Heathland. But it wasn’t until the focus shifted to leisure, tourism and public access that its value as a cohesive landscape with a distinct identity was recognised. People needed to know about it.
In the 1990s, the Countryside Commission decided to push ahead with more proactive management of AONBs which inspired the Surrey Hills Visitor Project. The Surrey Hills AONB Board was set up and Rob Fairbanks was appointed in 1999 to oversee projects, based on the AONB Board’s objectives:
‘To protect and enhance natural beauty
‘To promote public understanding and enjoyment;
‘To promote social and economic well being’.
His first initiative was to try and raise the profile of the AONB among the communities living within it, beginning with the Jigsaw Project empowering villages to identify the significant features in their areas and creating a visual record of parish pages. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) 2000 raised the profile of AONBs and created a duty for each one to have a management plan. It also gave impetus to this move to connect people with the countryside and the Rail to Ramble project was launched to bring people into the AONB by train.
Surrey then embarked on an extraordinary project to give the AONB a brand identity. The swirling seed pod emblem carved in oak by chainsaw artist Walter Bailey led to a series of iconic oak sculptures created with a combination of artistic vision and lumberjack confidence. The emblem design was then seared into oak boundary markers and village signs and a logo was established.
“I was commissioned to come up with a symbol and I carved a design based on a seed pod as a symbol of new beginnings,” he said. “There is an infinity symbol there too in the figure of eight design. It is a positive image about moving forward and seeing things afresh from a new perspective.
“People drive through the Surrey Hills very quickly and do not realise what an asset they have in the landscape. I want people to feel curiosity and surprise when they see the boundary markers.”
Being a landscape of hilltops, the AONB has fabulous views: Jane Austen set the famous picnic in Emma on Box Hill and George Harrison composed Here Comes the Sun on Pitch Hill, so the Inspiring Views Project in 2006 was a natural progression. It linked Gatton Park and Reigate Fort with art workshops, restored Limpsfield Air Raid Shelters and cleared scrub and trees from major viewpoints across the AONB. The second phase of this project, sponsored by the Mittal Foundation in 2016, saw five artists create sculptures for people to sit on or in, at Hascombe, Holmbury, Winterfold, and Hindhead.
Part of the concept of the AONB as a special landscape was the need to quieten it down, reducing the clutter of urban road signs, slowing traffic and telling motorists they were entering a beautiful rural shared space. The Quiet Lanes project included wooden finger posts and removal of excess signage.
Assessing the landscape, it was obvious that Surrey’s huge acreage of woodland was sorely neglected so a Wood Fair and Wood Fuel Conference was established in Bramley in 2010 to stimulate the restoration of neglected coppice and woodland.
And with visitor numbers now rising fast, in particular on bicycles, working groups were set up to manage the sharing of public paths between the different user groups on foot, bike, horseback and 4×4.
Public access and engagement with the AONB went beyond just paths, however, and to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2008 the Surrey Hill Society was launched. This has proved a great success, acting as the public face of the Surrey Hills, with 1,000 members and a full programme of events, walks, talks and visits.
Surrey Hill Enterprises was established as a Community Interest Company in 2013 to help businesses use the Surrey Hills brand to promote the local economy and the Surrey Hills Trust Fund was set up the following year to create a financial base to safeguard the future of the AONB and deliver projects enhancing landscapes and people’s lives.
And that future is under greater threat now than at any time since the AONB was designated. Local Councils are under pressure to build new homes within the AONB, and the threat of fracking and drilling is ongoing. The Surrey Hills family and the public all have an on-going role in safeguarding this precious piece of countryside on the doorstep of London.