After the 69th A.G.M. of CHAPS (Churt Horticultural & Produce Society) in November, some 40 members listened to an interesting talk about the Devil’s Punch Bowl from National Trust lead ranger Matthew Cusack.
Supported by an array of slides Matt walked us through the past, present and future.
Looking back, Matt explained that Hindhead Common and the Devils’ Punch Bowl were one of the first countryside acquisitions purchased by the National Trust in 1906, funded by public subscription, eleven years after the National Trust was founded by Octavia Hill, local man Sir Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley in 1895. It was a hedge against development in the light of property growth such as Undershaw’s, where Sherlock Holmes lived, and Saint Edmunds, then Blen Cathra, home of George Bernard Shaw.
Matt told us about the brutal murder in 1786 on the common of a sailor. He had befriended three men in a local pub in Thursley whilst walking from London to the docks in Portsmouth. Soon after the murder, a stone was erected along the old Portsmouth Road to mark the spot where the poor sailor met his death. The three villains were tried and then hung on Gibbett Hill, near the site of the murder, as a warning to other criminals. After the hanging many fears and superstitions arose around Gibbet Hill and in 1851 Sir William Erle, an English lawyer, judge and Whig politician, paid for a Celtic cross to be erected to banish these fears and raise the local spirits.
In mediaeval times, the Punch Bowl was fields with banks. One hundred years or so ago, local people used to graze their cattle on the commons and broomsquires made besom brooms from the heather and birch. The broomsquires lived in cottages (such as Keeper’s Cottage) on the heath and sold their brooms to grand establishments like Windsor Castle and Hampton Court. George Mayes, was the last broomsquire to live at the Devil’s Punch Bowl and lived at the original Highcombe Farm situated on Sailors Lane. It was blown up with hand grenades by locally based Canadian soldiers who were having ‘a bit of fun’!
Fast forward to the twenty first century and Matt said the commons and the Devil’s Punch Bowl are grazed by Exmoor ponies and Highland cattle. The docile cows are grazers, keeping on top of the scrub, rather than a beef production herd.
A once notorious traffic blackspot has been converted into a top wildlife haven after habitat restoration by the National Trust with Natural England. The Devil’s Punch Bowl, which was separated from Hindhead Common by the A3, has undergone huge improvements after the creation of the Hindhead Tunnel by Highways England. The tunnel is the longest of its type in the UK. The old A3 around the Devil’s Punch Bowl was filled in using sandstone excavated from the tunnel and a mix of seeds to match the surrounding environment.
Six years on from the opening of the tunnel, which saw the restoration of this Surrey Hills nationally protected landscape, management techniques set out under Higher Level Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship have also seen the restoration of fragile and endangered historic heathland habitat, and the return of rare and diverse breeding birds such as woodlark and nightjar. The nationally scarce heath tiger beetle has been sighted, and conditions are now auspicious for the return of the silver studded blue butterfly.
Matt proudly advised that The Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) has now been assessed by Natural England as meeting its nature conservation targets, and is considered to be in favourable condition. It’s not only the removal of the A3 which has made Hindhead and the Devil’s Punch Bowl so special. The SSSI is one of the highest points in Southern England. Just under 1,000 feet above sea level, the relatively cool, humid climate of this “lowland” heathland contains species normally associated with more upland sites such as bilberry, and trees festooned with lichens and mosses. The mosaic of habitats found on site include upland and lowland heath, bog, streams, ancient woodland, and free draining sandy soil, making the site challenging to manage. Matt said he has a dedicated band of local volunteers who support him in this endeavor together with two other paid staff.
Transformation of the SSSI and the restoration of the landscape within the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty have also boosted visitor numbers, up 20% from 2011 to approximately 700,000 per year, with visitors now choosing to spend longer exploring the stunning heathland and views. New paths created by Matt and his team offer walks for differing abilities around the Devil’s Punch Bowl, enabling visitors to enjoy the tranquility of the site while avoiding wildlife disturbance on sensitive heathland areas. It is a real example of balancing the needs of people and wildlife.
Looking to the future, Matt updated us on the plans to cope with the increasing number of visitors i.e. new loos and grab ‘n go services coming on stream in Spring 2018 and enhanced car parking providing an additional 40 spaces so 220 up from 180 in 2019/2020.
We all agreed it was a fascinating talk and learnt a lot about a much-loved local beauty spot.
21 November 2017