WANDLE WANDERER: For this August bank holiday weekend, our non-resident rambler KEN TOWL, pictured left, suffered a hair-raising experience in his quest to scale the highest point in south-east England
A handful of us at work have been challenged by a colleague to “get high”, in a Taskmaster-style challenge. The small print explains that we have to get to the highest point we can during the summer holidays, unaided by anything mechanical, thus excluding anything as simple as flying to Malaga or taking a lift to the top of The Shard.
At first, I toyed with the idea of finding the highest point in the borough of Croydon.
This turns out to be a treehouse in Sanderstead Plantation on the Addington Road between Sanderstead and Selsdon. While it is the second-highest of all Greater London boroughs, at only 574 feet above sea level, it will be unlikely to impress Tom the Taskmaster. He has “Kili 5895” tattooed on the back of his right calf to commemorate his ascent of the highest mountain in Africa (5,895 metres). So the Sanderstead Plantation just wouldn’t do. I will have to do better than this.
After rejecting Westerham Heights over in Bromley, the highest point in Greater London and a mere two bus rides away – on the grounds that it is only 803 feet high and it is in someone’s back garden – I decide to get ambitious. “I will ascend to the highest point in the south-east of England,” I heard my inner voice declaring.
That turns out to be the top of Leith Hill Tower, near Dorking.
You can get to Holmwood Station, the nearest railway station to Leith Hill, travelling from East Croydon and changing at Horsham, or from West Croydon changing at Sutton. Either way it’s ten quid for a day return and the journey takes around 50 minutes, depending on the connections. Oh, and you can’t go on Sundays.
You can get instructions for a variety of routes from the station to the tower by clicking on this useful link here.
Or you can follow the simpler instructions below for the best route, the one that takes you past The Plough in the village of Coldharbour.
It’s about three miles there, mostly uphill, and the same back, mostly, not surprisingly, down.
Leaving Holmwood Station, turn left and walk past the handful of houses to a kissing gate and a narrow path off to the left. Where this joins a narrow country road, follow on bearing left and at the fork take the right and ascend gently until this becomes a mere track and enters a wood.
When this reaches a road, turn right and after about a quarter of a mile look out for a stile on the left in a gap between the trees. Cross the stile and continue along the side of the field. Where the path descends into another little wood and forks, take the path to the right. This turns into a road with a brick wall on the left.
Along here, opposite the wall, you will find a finger post indicating a path off up to the right through the trees. Take this path and follow it through the wood. As you emerge from the wood over a stile, you will enter a sloping field which you have to cross to get to another stile. Do not worry too much about the sheep (or are they goats). Although equipped with quite lethal-looking horns, they appear loathe to engage.
A narrow path takes you along the side of a building. Turn right at the road. You are next door to the Plough Inn. But we will save that for later.
Time to work up a thirst by completing the last, steep mile or so up the road opposite the pub.
A little way up you get to Coldharbour Cricket Club, which has claims to be the highest cricket pitch in Surrey.
Turn to your left for a panoramic view across to Gatwick Airport. Continue, taking either the right or left fork – both will take you more or less directly to the tower through a mixture of National Trust heathland and woods. You will start to encounter groups of people walking near to the tower.
I paid my £2 for the right to ascend the tower – all 74 steps, no lift – and took a selfie at the top to send to Tom the Taskmaster.
There are a couple of telescopes up there, too, and I was able to get a good view looking at The Shard and other London landmarks. The National Trust reckons that on the clearest of days, Wembley Stadium’s arch is visible.
On the other side of the tower I could see across to the South Downs. I was 1,029 feet above sea level, or 313 metres for those so-minded.
The tower had been built precisely in order to surpass the 1,000 feet mark. Leith Hill itself, the highest point on the Greensand Ridge, is 965 feet above sea level, or 35 feet short of what the Ordnance Survey used to define as tall enough to be regarded as a mountain. The tower makes all the difference.
It is the very epitome of a 18th century folly, built in 1765 by Richard Hull of Leith Hill Place as “a place for people to enjoy the glory of the English countryside”, according to the National Trust.
From the top you can see sweeping views and on a clear day you can see the English Channel to the south and the clock face of Big Ben in Westminster to the north.
The high ground of Leith Hill has long been of some strategic importance – a thousand years ago, it was the site of a battle between the Saxons and invading Vikings.
The views are stunning and the there is plenty of space below to take them in, too, and a serving hatch at the side of the tower offers drinks and snacks. I recommend the home baked pasties. They had run out of steak and ale but the vegetarian one was so good I didn’t mind.
I retraced my steps down the hill into Coldharbour, once, apparently, a refuge for smugglers where “lowlanders” were not welcome. It now appears to be populated by friendly people who don’t seem to mind the walkers and cyclists who drop by.
The Plough Inn brews its own beer (as well as specialising in beers from other local breweries). I tried a lovely pint of the American-style Smiler’s Happiness, a lovely refreshing summery ale. They also appear to have an extensive gin selection, as is the fashion these days.
I got the train home and posted my selfie to Tom the Taskmaster. I briefly considered getting “LeTo 1000” tattooed on my right shin. Then rejected the idea.
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