Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Devil's Punchbowl

Punchbowl Viewpoint
My birthday walk this year took place a day after the actual day due to other commitments.  Actually it was no bad thing as the weather wasn't all that special.  The day I chose was supposed to be extra special because of the best solar eclipse to be seen in the British Isles since 1997.  I had thought that it might be a unique addition to the walk but in the event the weather was stubbornly overcast and my chances of seeing anything were slimmer up country than they were down here on the coast.  Sadly I ended up seeing nothing more than a brief darkening of the sky at the appointed hour.

Looking Out at The Murk
The forecast did promise rather better though especially in Surrey and so it was there that I headed once again.  Time was rather limited though so I satisfied myself with a trip to the Devil's Punchbowl.  I had been meaning to go here for some time and my memory was probably activated by passing by on the way to Frensham Pond a few weeks earlier.  What I was particularly interested in seeing was how the landscape had changed since the re-routing of the A3 a few years ago.  The old turnpike road used to follow the contours of the Punchbowl and was one of the worst bottlenecks on any road in the south east of England.  It was so bad that I would not have dreamed of coming to walk up here a few years ago such was the traffic noise.  My only experience of it was walking the Greensand Way first leg 11 years ago (one of the first entries of this blog) and then I only flirted with it thankfully.

Muddy Gully
When I arrived at the Devil's Punchbowl the changes to the road network were immediately apparent.  What was once the A3 is now a cul-de-sac road that is traffic calmed and leads only to the car park of the National Trust visitor centre and cafe.  The remaining part of the road has been expunged and returned to nature - more about that later.

Ridgeway Farm
I lingered for a little while hoping that the resolutely grey skies would clear as promised.  When that didn't seem to be happening any time soon I thought I ought to get on my way.  This was to be a loop of approximately five miles as detailed as walk 12 in volume 65 of the Pathfinder Guides Surrey Walks.  I headed off in a clockwise direction around the loop, not bothering to hang around at the viewpoint for very long on account of the murky conditions.  On a good day the mist can hang around in the hollow of the Devil's Punchbowl and even spill over into the surrounding countryside while all around is sunny, hence its name.  No such luck as I headed out but I was keeping the faith.

Punchbowl Stream
As I headed down the western side of the Punchbowl the crowds soon melted away and apart from one or two more intrepid strollers I largely had the countryside to myself.  I came upon a plaque that described the giving of the area to the National Truct and it was rather a poignant story.  A barrister by the name of William Alexander Robertson left a bequest to the Trust to purchase a piece of land as a memorial to two of his younger brothers who were killed in the First World War.  The purchase of this piece of land was made possible by the bequest.

As I headed downhill the monotonous colour of the day was broken up by the cheerful yellows of clumps of daffodils and gorse now coming into full flush of flowers.  The slope got steadily steeper until I reached what can only be described as a steep sided gully that proved to be quite tough going for a short distance courtesy of the mud that had developed at the bottom from the remnants of rainwater flowing this way and helped by horses.  Luckily this section was short lived and opened out into a lane that soon turned into a tarmac road.  I didn't continue along this though, taking a sharp right turn and heading along another old lane that I imagine would once have been part of the local road network.

Waiting for the cloud to shift
I passed by a beautiful old farmhouse before descending into a wooded valley with a stream at the bottom that presumably was the product of whatever spring exists further up into the Devil's Punchbowl.  The woods were definitely still dressed for winter with little sign of spring here.  I crossed the stream and headed up the steep slope the other side.  The sharp turns and steep slope probably put paid to any notion that this could be have been turned from a lane into a proper road but there were signs further along that made me laugh for there was a suggestion that motorised traffic could travel at national speed limits!

Old A3 Crossing
I was soon turning right again to head back up the eastern side of the Punchbowl and use the Greensand Way route that I had walked all those years ago.  I soon realised how little I remembered the route, possibly because in those younger days I focused more on mileage than my surroundings and walked these sections far quicker.  I walked fairly slowly up the slop as I had a notion that the stubborn clouds were showing signs of parting enough to let the sun through.  I even sat on a handy bench and watched the wind do its best to blow them away once and for all.  It made for an interesting sight, with billowing movements passing up through the hollow of the Punchbowl.  Still though I never got what I wanted and felt compelled to move on to allow enough time for a cup of tea at the end of my walk.

Hindhead Tunnel Overlook
My prayers were answered finally as I reached the top of the hill close to the memorial to an unknown sailor who was murdered here back in 1786.  The clouds cleared very quickly once they started and within minutes the day transformed from overcast to brilliant blue and clear skies.  I had crossed the old A3; a crossing that had been quite tough back in 2004 but was now anything but now that there are no cars.  Indeed it was a bit eerie seeing an abandoned road - this is a rare sight compared to the number of abandoned railways that we see up and down the country.  I was curious to see what had replaced it and took the opportunity to head down to the observation area above the tunnel that now takes the A3 underneath the hill safely out of earshot.  The improvement to the area is immeasurable.

Gibbet Hill Memorial
I wandered up to Gibbet Hill to pass the memorial.  The story of the sailor murdered by a couple of locals keen to steal his money seemed like a different world, as did the brutal punishment for they were soon caught and hanged here.  Now that the sun was shining the crowds were out and I was thankful that it was just a short walk along to the cafe.  I walked along the side of the old road, now grassed over and landscaped back into the countryside like it was never here.  I guess eventually when the trees start colonising the transformation will be complete.  As I stood looking at this changed world I got talking to an elderly gentleman who told me a few stories about the old road and then his time during the war when he worked in the Royal Signals.  It was a very pleasant way to end my walk and I thought about his stories as I supped my tea at the cafe in the warm sun.

Devil's Punchbowl
It was a shame that the weather couldn't have played ball for the whole walk but when the sun did come it made such a difference to the landscape.  I think this is a walk that my children would enjoy and feel certain that it won't be the last time we come this way.


  1. I used to spend many an hour travelling up and down the old A£ route around the Devils Punchbowl when I used to commute between Horndean and Guildford..... Funnily enough
    I have never been through the new tunnel....
    Also years ago as a lad I stayed at the Hindhead Youth Hostel which if my memory serves me right was on the side of the Punchbowl....
    An interesting walk report Paul....

  2. Hello Trevor - many thanks for your kind comment. You are right about the Youth Hostel - it's down in the hollow. I thoroughly recommend a trip - you'd hardly recognise the route of the old A3!