Railway Developments and Banstead Commons
The many walkers, cyclists and motorists who visit Banstead Commons and Walton Heath are testimony to the importance of our local open spaces. It’s easy to assume that the woods and heathland we enjoy now are much as they always have been. But the landscape is always subject to change, both through natural processes and the way it is managed.
Tadworth, Walton, Banstead and Headley were once part of a chain of hamlets on top of the North Downs. Untouched by the sprawl of London, these tiny, dispersed settlements were focal points in a scatter of enclosed fields within swathes of less fertile heath. As late as 1897, the Ordnance Survey map shows small clusters of buildings set in countryside that was much more open than the woodland we see today. A contemporary painting of Tadworth Green depicts a landscape consisting of tracts of grass, bracken and furze, interspersed with patches of scrub. There were so few trees that one writer described being able to read the clock on Kingswood Church by using a telescope at Mere Pond.
Banstead and Walton Heaths were common land where local people had the right to graze sheep, horses and other animals, and Walton was especially famous for large numbers of sheep. There were several traveller encampments, and horse breeding for transport or the racing industry was an important part of the local economy. Areas of scrub less suitable for grazing provided game such as rabbits, pheasant and partridge. Commoners’ rights extended to cutting furze, turf and bracken, as well as digging for chalk, gravel and loam, as revealed by the pits on the 1897 map.
Clues to a time when the common lands were an important part of the agricultural economy still exist today. Due to absence of surface water on chalk uplands, many dew ponds dug for livestock are marked on the 1897 map. One is still visible beside Chapel Road, Tadworth, while others survive hidden in local woodland. Several local footpaths (such as Sheep’s Walk, running from near Loretta Lodge, Walton Road, to Langley Vale) were once drovers’ roads for taking livestock to market in Epsom. Hollows and pits in the heath reveal where gravel and other materials were extracted, and the remains of two windmills are visible in Tadworth.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, the common lands were subject to intensifying pressures. With a gradual decline in farming, the open heath was threatened by entrepreneurs seeking to develop the land for houses. This was halted in 1893 when a law was passed to protect the common land and establish a Board of Conservators. But changes to the landscape continued as the towns grew and farming diminished. The reduction of sheep and animal grazing meant that nature reasserted itself. Much of the former grassland reverted to scrub, which in turn evolved into the birch woodland we see today.
It is hard to imagine how remote the Surrey Hills were before the 20th century, despite being so close to London. The 1897 map is a reminder of the contrast between the few lanes that connected the villages 120 years ago and the modern busy road network. The key catalyst for change was the arrival of the railway, as transport in the area focused on Tadworth Station and the commuter hub that sprang up around it.
Much of Britain already had an extensive rail system, but it wasn’t until 1900 that a branch line opened from Purley to Tadworth, then on to Tattenham Corner. This transport link was sponsored by local MP and landowner Sir Cosmo Bonsor, who was also chairman of the South Eastern Railway. Bonsor lived at Kingswood Warren, and the magnificent Kingswood station is part of his legacy. With easy access to London via direct trains to London Bridge, Cannon Street and Charing Cross, Bonsor could see how the Surrey Hills would appeal to wealthy people attracted by the combination of spacious houses, beautiful countryside and golf, a sport growing in popularity.
The completion of the railway coincided with Lord Riddell’s involvement in the promotion of the area. Owner and publisher of the News of the World, Riddell used his political and media connections to attract noted Edwardian architects such as Lutyens and Morley Horder, who designed houses for the leading lights of the day. He also bought the recently opened Walton Heath golf club from Bonsor in 1905.
Publications such as Country Life promoted the area as a desirable location for the upper classes and successful business people seeking a country property within easy reach of London. Walton-on-the-Hill would go on to boast 27 titled residents, six of whom were MPs, including Prime Minister Lloyd George at Pinfold Manor and Sir John Simon (Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer) at the site now occupied by Heathwoods on the Dorking Road. The hamlet of Walton-on-the-Hill soon grew to a community of 2,000 people that forms most of the present conservation area. From the early 1900s to the 1930s, large, brick-built Arts and Crafts houses were constructed to cater for the demand for prestigious modern residences. Their owners – and the golf course – all required domestic staff and gardeners, many of whom were local workers housed in smaller terraces and semi-detached houses built nearby.
In the early years, London commuters were conveyed in a limited number of small steam trains that terminated at Tadworth, with a few tourist services to Tattenham Corner in summer and on race-days. As the growing village also needed building materials and coal, a goods yard was constructed on the site of Corner Farm Close. This also served the remaining rural economy with a dock for shipping livestock, and Tadworth rapidly became a transport hub for the wider area.
The needs of local residents led to the construction of shops and other facilities such as a school, a bank and a church. The first of these appear on the 1913 Ordnance Survey map, but building was halted by World War I, and for several years to come, Tadworth Station was still on the edge of open countryside, as the contemporary view shows. Today, this area is surrounded by housing, but the next phase of the development of the rural heathland into a commuter community enjoying large open spaces for recreation would come with the reorganisation of the railways.
In 1923, Britain’s rail network was consolidated into four major companies, and the Tadworth/Tattenham Corner branch was absorbed by the Southern Railway. The larger organisation began introducing faster, more efficient electric trains on suburban lines serving London and electrification soon reached the Surrey Hills. The new speedy service meant that passengers could travel rapidly to the city, Croydon and the rest of suburban south London, from an area that offered the pleasures of living close to the open commons.
The vastly improved rail links soon started to transform the area as new developers built smaller houses that middle-class families could afford and the remaining farms disappeared one by one. Commuters were encouraged by offers of a year’s free rail travel, with premium properties advertised as being ‘within five minutes of the station – enjoying beautiful views of the surrounding countryside’.
When the regular passenger service was extended to Tattenham Corner, it triggered the growth of more housing, shops, public buildings and facilities along the line, with cheaper local housing provided accommodation for railway employees and other service workers. By the end of the 1930s, the area had developed into the pattern we see today. There have been some new developments and some reconstruction, but these are limited by the Green Belt that protects the Commons from substantial development of the urban areas. Instead of commoners using the land for its resources, the land is managed for the benefit of the community, to preserve habitats and to maintain biodiversity.
Written by Richard Harris from Tadworth and Walton Residents Association