Location: Surrey Hills
Nearest town: Beare Green, Surrey
Peak: 295 metres above sea level
Date climbed: 1 January 2022
By the end of 2021, our county high point tally stood at 20. We had added nine new counties during a very busy year and felt quite pleased with our progress, but we had fallen just one shy of our annual record of 10 from 2020 when, based in the very heart of England and with the great outdoors as the only Covid-secure place to be, we ticked off county tops with ease.
Our challenge for 2022? Beat that annual tally of 10. With the majority of central England now ticked off, we know that to do so will take wise planning and a good number of trips made by both car and train.
But we do have two things on our side: we have moved south, and we're itching to continue exploring this beautiful country as much as possible (as we approach the two-year mark since our last trip abroad).
1st January 2022 was unseasonably mild for New Year's Day, and so proved the perfect weather to kick-start this busy year of county topping with our home county of Surrey.
Leith Hill lies deep in the Surrey Hills and is the second highest point in south-east England.* To reach it, we drove across the county and seemingly away from civilisation (incredible really considering we were still in Surrey). Once nearby we had to navigate tree-lined lanes that were at best one-and-a-half cars wide and often cut straight through jagged outcrops of rock. We parked in a wooded car park near Mill Pond and its adjacent houses, collectively making up the tiny hamlet of Friday Street, which lay a few kilometres south of the summit of Leith Hill. We started our ascent from there, our route passing along long-forgotten woodland tracks and trails that cut through dense patches of bracken, springy underfoot. That bracken would be shoulder high and impenetrable in August, but in early January it lay at ankle height and was crisp, brown and easy to overpower.
And, as it turned out, it was prime for spotting animals in. Suddenly, two roe deer, alert but otherwise unfazed, stood in the bracken barely five metres away. We stood like statues, and eventually they relaxed and continued nibbling away at some branches before slowly wander off down a slope and out of sight.
Recent reports suggest the UK wild deer population is two million-strong. Even with such large numbers, it remains a very special thing to see them so up-close, especially when they are so calm and at ease.
Soon afterwards, we reached the summit, which is unmissable with the gothic Leith Hill Tower standing tall in the summit's clearing. Although after an hour tramping through peaceful woodland, the site proved unmissable for another reason: the hoards of people who flock to the tower's National Trust cafe from the enormous car park just down the hill.
The tower has a long and storied history. It fell derelict on multiple occasions between its construction in 1765 and when the National Trust undertook a full restoration project in 1984. Its original architect is buried underneath it. It's claimed you can see 16 counties from the viewing gallery on a clear day (we struggle to believe that, and sadly couldn't test the theory as it was closed for the winter season). And it was originally constructed to raise the 'summit' of Leith Hill (294m / 965ft) above 1,000 feet above sea level. However, having already summited the City of London's high point, we consider the debate between natural and man-made high points to be closed, and as such, consider the tower to be nothing but a folly!
We swerved past the masses and made a beeline for an empty picnic table. Well prepared with sandwiches, Pringles and a thermoflask of tea, we ate lunch looking out on the view to the south. With overcast skies and midwinter light, the flat wooded landscape of the Low Weald blurred into a muted sea of greys, greens and browns. Gatwick Airport, seven miles to the east, was the only distinctive landmark in sight.
After our picnic, we packed up and picked up the main trail, following families down towards the main car park before veering off to the north to take a more direct route back to our car. It was here that we learned of the happy conclusion to a Leith Hill summit saga: the grandparents who were frantically searching for their two lost grandchildren, last seen playing off in the bracken, were reunited and traipsing along the same muddy path as us. They were all holding hands tight and one expects that the adults were regularly reiterating the message: "now remember, don't mention this to your parents!"
After a while the temperatures cooled and as we made it back to the car we felt the first few drops of rain on a otherwise balmy January day. It was time to head home and rescue the washing we had left outside to dry on New Year's Day 2022.
*The highest hill in south east England, Walbury Hill in Berkshire (297m), shall likely be climbed very soon as it marks another, and as yet unconquered, county high point.