The Weald: misty views from Leith Hill

Leith Hill, Surrey, January 2022

When you talk about the highest point in south-east England, I wonder what people living far away must think. We’re not talking great peaks here, but instead a stone tower on a modest 313m-high hill. And this tower of course sells tea.

I’m referring here to Leith Hill, a hilltop managed by the National Trust. Leith Hill has stood out to me over the past two years, most tantalisingly during lockdowns when I could see it from the furthest I could legally walk from my house in the most extreme lockdown times.

The tower is built from sandstone that was probably quarried nearby. This stone, if it is said material, is often a sign locally of wealth and status, when local materials indicated as much. This part of the world is geologically rich, with the landscape having so many stories to tell about the Earth and deep time.

“This tower together with 5 acres of land was presented to The National Trust for places of historic interest or natural beauty by W.T(?) MacAndrew Esq. of Reigate on 5th October 1923 to be held for the public”

Leith Hill sits on the Greensand, distinct from the Weald Clay to the south and the chalk of the North Downs seen here in the distance looking north towards London.

Leith Hill seen from the Sussex Weald (looking north) in May 2020 when England was under strict lockdown

Throughout the lockdowns I would see this distant hill from where I lived in Sussex. Though I hadn’t seen them for several months, I knew that my family were locked down on the other side in London. It was a strange comfort. My dad would sometimes send a photo of the North Downs that he could see far in the distance on clear days. Even when kept apart the landscape seemed to connect us.

When visiting Leith Hill and looking to the south, there were misty views of the Surrey and Sussex Weald. Millions of years ago this would not have been visible, with everything instead being covered by a dome of chalk that connected as far as NW France. This is the land bridge that megafauna like wolves, bears and mammoths would have used to enter what we now call Britain. Don’t tell the Priti Patel.

The chalk was eroded over millions of years and exposed the Weald Clay, which soon was covered by wildwood. That woodland lingers today in more formal oak, hornbeam and hazel woods that are now managed as coppices or nature reserves. Beyond the picnicking couple (above) you can see Leith Hill Place, originally built in 1600.

There is a unique pine tree up on the hill, a survivor from some of the first trees to arrive in this landscape after the last glacial period some 14,000 years ago. Though there was probably a more Anglicised pine species, the Scots pine is the only UK variety remaining. It thrives in this heathy landscape of the Greensand Hills.

Thanks for reading.

The Weald

It’s the eagle

Glen Einach

Glen Einach, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, October 2013

Lying on the grass where the road forks up and into the wind I watch the redwing and fieldfare slip across the grey sky. Down below us the River Am Beanaidh flows with great force. My friend has finished in his attempts to separate map from wind and joins me on the gravelly soil, rolling himself a cigarette. A few minutes ago we watched redwing appearing from the heather like particles drawn, magnetised to the scots pine. Some remained in the heather for a time, before using the air and their wings to join with the trees. My smug little siesta is embellished further by a reward received a few minutes earlier: the sight of a crested tit mixing with its coal tit cousins and picking at the sticks and lichens. I have felt the tiredness and tenseness that comes from a lack of proper rest since summer’s end but this landscape reinvigorates me like no other that I have set foot upon. Listening to the quickening wind dashing through the medium of pine needles, my friend calls an end to our pause.

We head up over the top path, the wind bursting through. It’s much cooler, a hint of ice. I automatically reach into my coat pockets seeking woollen gloves. It’s reported to feel like -11 on the peaks today and here blows the clue as we climb to 450m. Trudging along, a shape appears in the distance, passing over the pinewoods, across the river and the slopes of Cairn Eilrig:

‘Big, big bird,’ I shout, into the strength of the wind. My friend stops.

It passes across our view, a cloak caught by a gale. The thought process begins: buzzard… raven… its dark, primary wing feathers like digits. Its wings catch a slither of sun, a golden sheen. It’s the eagle. It disappears behind the trees, appearing again, coasting and now lost to the pines. My friend and I have both leapt up onto a lichen and heather-covered bank of soil. We jump back down, carried back by the wind by an inch or two. We hit a gloved high five, hard and true.