Priest HILL NATURE RESERVE

Top of the hill
Top of the Hill
Photo by Nick Winfield

Priest Hill Nature Reserve has recently been created and occupies 75 acres of the Priest Hill area in Ewell. This is south of the village and covers approximately 245 acres in total. It is bounded by the current Reigate Road in the west, Ewell Bypass to the north, Cheam/Banstead Roads to the east, and North Looe Reservoir at the high point to the south. The original Reigate Road, now a bridleway, runs through the middle. Until the 1950s, the area was a mix of grass and arable land, with a pair of semi-detached cottages known as Priest Hill Farm.

Aerial View of the entire Priest Hill area from the south in 1962
Aerial View of the entire Priest Hill area from the south in 1962.
On the left is Reigate Road, with NESCOT visible top left.
The Nature Reserve roughly covers the middle third.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Much of the area is now occupied by North East Surrey College of Technology (NESCOT), playing fields for Glyn School, and Rugby/Soccer pitches for multiple users. The rest, to the south of the Reigate Road/Banstead Road bridleway, is an open, uninterrupted space which is being transformed from an abandoned and vandalised space to our latest Nature Reserve by the Surrey Wildlife Trust under the 2014 - 2023 Management Plan.

It is currently primarily made up of pasture, termed by ecologists as 'semi-improved rough grassland', but with management it is intended that it will develop into a 'species-rich chalk influenced sward'. Designated a Site of Nature Conservation Importance, the official opening took place on June 8 2014.

In this article we look at the history of the area and the background to the formation of the Nature Reserve.

The original Reigate Road, now a bridleway, looking south, date unknown
The original Reigate Road, now a bridleway, looking south. Date unknown.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

History of The Area

Prehistoric worked flints have been found throughout the area, indicating seasonal occupation, hunting or farming in the Mesolithic and Neolithic period. A large Neolithic leaf arrowhead was found by L.W. Carpenter (Surrey Archaeological Collections 58 (1961) p109) and several tools of Mesolithic or Neolithic date were collected by Tom Walls (in Bourne Hall Museum).

With the spread of agriculture in the Bronze Age, the area was used for cultivation and funeral monuments were built on the high ground. A seventeenth-century map shows two in the area of North Looe, and some more existed near the parish boundary, on Drift Bridge Farm. One was dug open in 1802, and found to contain 'human bones and weapons' (Manning & Bray 2 p581).

Late Iron Age pottery was found at several sites in the area during the construction of reservoirs and other works in the 1930s and 1940s (Tom Walls and Anthony Lowther in Bourne Hall Museum). The pottery was fresh and not weathered; it would have been deposited in pits and other features around a homestead. Pits like this were excavated at The Looe in 1946 (Surrey Archaeological Collections 88 (2001) pp1-42). The presence of loomweights and spindlewhorls suggests that an area of the farm was set aside to pasture sheep. The farmsteads continued in use throughout the Roman occupation. A coin of Constans (337-340 AD) was collected in the 1940s on the playing fields (Surrey Archaeological Collections 49 (1946) p111).

As the Roman village of Ewell grew in size, the high chalk downland came into use as an area for hunting as well as grazing. Excavations along Hatch Furlong by the Ewell Bypass found the remains of ritual meals from the late Roman period. The menu had included not just partridges and pigeons but finches, buntings, lapwings, wagtails and swallows. Along with hares and woodcock, these were likely to have been hunted in the Priest Hill area. A building at Hatch Furlong was oriented along the present Cheam Road, suggesting that this perpetuates an early Roman trackway.

Until it was diverted in 1780, the road from Ewell to Reigate did not leave the High Street at its present junction. Instead, the line of Cheam Road continued straight up the hill towards Fir Tree Road. This route can still be followed as a footpath for the lower half of its course. Other ancient routes across Priest Hill include the Bridle Path, which survives from Howell Hill to Alexandra Recreation Ground. This was the old road from Cuddington to Walton-on-the-Hill.

The original Priest Hill was at Ordnance Survey Grid Reference TQ 232.6156. A block of 20 acres here belonged to the Rector of St. Mary's, and may represent a mid-Saxon endowment of the church. From the tenth century onwards, the rising land between Ewell and the Downs was farmed on the openfield system. The whole area was known as the Southfield. It was broken up in blocks of land, known as furlongs, and these were worked in acre-strips, most of them running east and west to prevent rain from running off downhill. A typical furlong contained twenty or thirty of these strips.

The names of the furlongs are recorded from the thirteenth century onwards, and seem to have been given when the open field was created. The Nature Reserve covers eight of them. Above Presteshull is obvious. Estmark lay along the eastern boundary of the manor. Westlond lay to the west of the old road to Burgh Heath and Reigate. Oversouthlong was the further of two divisions, which lay along the southern edge of Long. Northmeseden was one of two furlongs by the meos denu, the wet valley, at a dip in the Banstead Road. Chille was in another hollow, a ceole or 'throat', by North Looe Farm. Upperdon was the southern of two furlongs, which had been well dunged. Goldehord sounds exciting, but is a local example of a very common name - too common to have anything to do with real hoards of gold. It could be a way of praising exceptionally fertile land.

Following the loss of population in the Black Death, many of the strips in the open field were used for growing wood rather than corn. In the original allocation of acre-strips, every villager seems to have had a roughly equal share, but over time some became wealthier and others lost out. The area of the Nature Reserve, divided into about 150 acre-strips, belonged to 34 different people in 1408 but only 24 in 1577. The lands of the Rector were acquired by Chertsey Abbey, who also had the right to claim a tenth of the harvest of all fields as tithe. After the Reformation, these rights passed to local landowners.

Rocque's map of 1744 shows the old road to Reigate, with Cheam Road following its present course in a curve round the original boundary of Nonsuch Park, and Banstead Road turning off it. A footpath, still existing, crosses the fields to link Banstead Road with the old Reigate route. The Priest Hill area is shown as unfenced openfield, except for enclosed fields surrounding North Looe Farm. This was built in the early eighteenth century on the old furlongs of Stakeheld and Brockle, 'the slope marked by a stake' and 'the badgers' clearing', after the land had been brought into the single ownership of the Fitznells estate.

The fields of Ewell had come into the hands of a small number of landowners, and in 1803 they decided that cultivating land in compact enclosed farms would be more economical than the strip system. The largest of the landowners, by acre, was Thomas Calverley of Fitznells, but the principal beneficiary of the Enclosure Act was Sir George Glyn, since he had acquired the old rectorial rights. Collecting a tenth of agricultural produce had always been difficult, so the Act commuted this right in return for an extensive endowment of land. For more on tithes, see here. In the division of the old furlongs of Priest hill, Calverley kept his farm at North Looe and acquired the downland to the south, while Glyn became owner of the fields between Ewell village and the Bridle Way.

Sir George also owned Rectory Farm, opposite St Mary's church in the village, of which the barn still exists. At first the lands on Priest Hill were cultivated from there, but later Priesthill Farm was built on the old trackway, which had now been superseded by Reigate Road further west; the site is just east of NESCOT. The farm first appears in the 1881 Census.

A Post Card view of Priest Hill Farm
A Post Card view of Priest Hill Farm
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Two further cottages, known as 'Priest Hill Cottages', were built nearer Ewell beside the railway line, and these still exist.

Priest Hill Cottages around 1965
Priest Hill Cottages around 1965
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

In 1847 the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway built their line across the land just south of the cottages. Manure for the farm was one of the goods delivered from stables in London to the former goods yard at Ewell East station.

Although the Glyns (and their descendants) owned the land, by 1899 Priest Hill Farm was owned by Edward Martin, based at Nonsuch Court Farm, and occupied by Martin's baliff. Rectory Farm had meanwhile become a private residence.

From 1929 to at least 1945 the farmer was John Wallace, formerly of Longdown Farm, Epsom. The crop rotation at this time was wheat, oats, barley and especially potatoes. Once a year, gypsies would arrive to help pick them. Local resident David Body's memories of the area in the 1940s specify Jersey cows being milked by hand; his story can be found here. By now, the land had passed to Arthur and Margaret Glyn and was the last farm to use a steam cable plough.

Following Arthur's death in 1942, Margaret was forced to sell the land to pay death duties. The area was bought by Surrey County Council for 100,000 in conjunction with the London County Council and Epsom & Ewell Council. The LCC would use the site for pupils attending the new Tulse Hill Comprehensive School, which opened in 1956 and had a total pupil population of 2000. Former pupils include Ken Livingstone and Linton Kwesi Johnson. It didn't have space for playing fields of its own, so pupils were ferried to Priest Hill by coach where they used the field now occupied by the Nature Reserve.

Surrey County Council wanted part of the site as they were obliged to provide a college of Further Education under the Education Act of 1944. So a further 80 acres of the land were used to enable the construction of what was originally known as Ewell County Technical College. It was located 150m to the west of the farm buildings. This formally opened in March 1954, although the first students started in the previous September. Since 1975, the college has been known as North East Surrey College of Education (NESCOT).

Priest Hill Farm buildings were demolished in 1956 and the playing fields, changing rooms and access roads were laid out. The pitches north of the Reigate Road/Banstead Road bridleway are still there, used by the London Fire Brigade (whose colours are described as 'Flame, Ember and Charcoal') and many others, including AFC Ewell Soccer Club, Sutton & Epsom Rugby Football Club, Epsom United Football Club, Whyglaze Wanderers, Ponies FC, AFC Ashtead Reserves, Lind Athletic, Cheam Village United and The Ressies.

Playing Fields for Glyn School were laid out to the west.

Tulse Hill School shut in 1990 and their former playing fields became redundant. The changing rooms were vandalised, motorbike scrambling took place and the area used for flytipping. Car boot sales became a regular feature.

Priest Hill during the 'wilderness' years
Priest Hill during the 'wilderness' years
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The land itself became a large area of rough grassland and scrub. Although this supports many species, the lack of land management compromises diversity. Developers were prohibited from building as it was Green Belt Land. Various proposals were made, but all failed to gain Planning Permission.

A summary of Applications is as follows:

  • 1991: Use of land for Sunday Car Boot Sales for 3 years

  • 1992: Construction of a 9 Hole golf-course with car parking

  • 1994: Demolition of existing pavilion and erection of a place of worship

  • 1996: Driving School Circuit
     Residential Development

     Creation of bicycle tracks, running tracks, skateboard areas, children's play area
  • 1997: Creation of a Road Safety and Educational Centre

  • 1998: Creation of an all-weather pitch, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, landscaping
     Refurbishment of buildings to provide a day nursery for 108 children

Setting Up The Nature Reserve

The Reigate Road entrance to the Nature Reserve
The Reigate Road entrance to the Nature Reserve
Photo by Nick Winfield

A solution was needed to put the land back into use. It was proposed, and accepted, that a small residential component of housing blending in with the area would fund the creation and long-term management of a Nature Reserve, with a 24-hour presence to deter future vandalism.

The area was subsequently bought by Esher based Combined Counties Properties Ltd, who funded land reclamation. Landscaping works took place during 2013, which included demolishing the derelict structures as well as breaking up and removing hard standing areas. This revealed a layer of bare chalk, suitable for encouraging species rich wild flower meadows to become established in the long term. Green hay from nearby Howell Hill Reserve was spread with the intention to introduce wild flower seed, including Kidney Vetch, which in turn will hopefully attract the rare small blue butterfly, as well as caterpillars and other invertebrates to the reserve. In total, 1,500 tons of rubble and tarmac was removed. Some of the rubble will be used to create reptile and amphibian hibernation sites.

The chalk area near Reigate Road
The chalk area of former tennis courts near Reigate Road
Photo by Nick Winfield

On the southern boundary, the hedge, consisting mainly of blackthorn, will hopefully also attract other rare butterfly such as the brown hairstreak, and the pale green caterpillar. Five new ponds will be constructed in sheltered areas of scrub nearby, which it is hoped will attract the endangered great-crested newt, along with frogs, dragonflies and other reptiles. The largest pond will be planted with a variety of aquatic plants whilst the others will colonise naturally.

Work has started on the first pond
Work has started on the first pond
Photo by Nick Winfield

A dragonfly visits the pond
A dragonfly visits the pond
Photo by Nick Winfield

Rough Grassland areas are managed by cattle grazing, specifically by Surrey Wildlife Trusts' Belted Galloway cattle during August and Winter. The use of cattle also encourages a wider range of flowering plants.

Belted Galloway Cattle at Priest Hill during 2013
Belted Galloway Cattle at Priest Hill during 2013
Photo by Steve Gale

These areas are also a good habitat for small mammals such as the field vole and common shrew, and the once-common skylark breeds here. However, the habitat needs to be protected to ensure that they continue to do so as this year, seven active male skylarks were recorded, a good number for the size of area.

By the Reigate Road entrance, a ranger's house with solar panels, swift boxes and a bat hotel, as well as a maintenance store, has been built and the SWT site manger will live there full-time. Perimeter fencing and kissing gates have been installed, and existing paths maintained to provide all-weather access to include buggies and wheelchairs, but prevent motorbikes from entering. There is a mixture of hard and grass surface paths.

Looking west along the Access Road that was constructed across the top of the hill
Looking west along the Access Road that was constructed across the top of the hill
Photo by Nick Winfield

Near to the ranger's house is 4 acres of land designated for the 15 houses.

Dogs are welcome, but need to be kept under control and cleaned up afterwards. Wheelchair users have the benefit of a hard-surfaced path across the Reserve, connecting with the original Reigate Road.

Access

Below is an Interactive Map, click on the thumbnail image to open. The thick red lines (hard surface), and thin blue lines (grass surface) are routes within the Nature Reserve itself. The rest are hard surface connecting links. Access Points are indicated by the yellow markers.

Click to open the map in a new window

To manoeuvre around the map, hold down the left mouse button, drag the screen into position and let go. To zoom in and out, either use the + and - buttons or click & drag the vertical slide bar top left; better still, if your mouse has a scroll wheel, use that. You can toggle between 'map' and 'satellite' versions by clicking on the appropriate box in the top right corner.

Clicking and dragging the little orange man onto roads (which will subsequently be highlighted in blue where the function is available) will give you the opportunity to use 'Streetview'; you may need to use the rotating navigational ring in the top left corner to point yourself in the right direction. Unfortunately this doesn't cover the fields.

Parking is not available on site. Pedestrian access is from three places; by the ranger's house on Reigate Road, from near Fairview on Banstead Road, or from the old Reigate Road bridleway.

Access from Ewell Village is best made along the old Reigate Road bridleway, which starts near the junction of Cheam Road and Ewell by-pass.

The nearest railway station is Ewell East, from where a footpath alongside the Epsom-bound platform connects with the old Reigate Road. Walk along here between the existing playing fields until you reach the access gate after approximately 600m (just under half a mile).

Train times can be found on National Rail's Journey Planner site.

The nearest bus stop is 'Springfield Road', served by the half-hourly 470 from Epsom/Ewell/Cheam (not Sundays), then a 5 - 10 minute walk to the Banstead Road entrance near Fairview. It may be more pleasant to get off at Ewell East station and access the site as above.

Bus times can be found on Transport for London's Bus Timetable page.

Volunteer

A Voluntary Warden would help the Ranger to look after the site with a group of regular local volunteers; for more information see SWT's Volunteer's Page.

View of Tolworth Tower from the top of Priest Hill
View of Tolworth Tower (centre) from the top of Priest Hill
Photo by Nick Winfield

Thanks To:

Rachael Thornley, Surrey Wildlife Trust
Steve Gale, North Downs and Beyond Blogspot

Nick Winfield and Jeremy Harte
August 2014

Links to other relevant pages on this website

Epsom Common Parts 1 - 4
Nonsuch Park
Horton Country Park
Coal Tax Posts

External Links

Surrey Wildlife Trust
North Downs and Beyond