Chatley Heath & Wisley Airfield

I’d been meaning to visit the old Admiralty semaphore tower at Chatley Heath for ages, but, little did I realise when I set off this morning, I’d be walking the length of a 1900m disused airstrip and lunching by a beautiful lake.

Chatley Heath, near the village of Ockham in Surrey (birthplace of William of Ockham of Occam’s razor fame), is an area of sandy, dry heath, covered in purple heather and bordered by forests of birch and scots pine. It’s managed by Surrey Wildlife Trust, and is accessible directly off the A3 (first turning from the M25) – although I came from the opposite direction – a very pleasant drive through the Surrey Hills.

I set off from the car park off Old Lane and headed through the bracken-carpeted forest and across the heath towards the semaphore tower. The route is signposted so I didn’t have to do any map-reading and was able to just enjoy the walk, my head full of the smell of pine.

The semaphore tower was built in 1822, and, although it is the only restored tower remaining in the Royal Navy Semaphore Line that stretched from London to Portsmouth, it’s in the process of being turned into a ‘self-catering holiday rental’ (ahem!) and was, sadly, shrouded in scaffolding and tarpaulins. I have to say I was rather disappointed to find the tower in such a state. However, I was buoyed to learn that, once the conversion works are complete, it will apparently be open to the public on a few days during the year – I do hope it will be, as I will be back!

Retracing my steps, I arrived back at the car park and crossed Old Lane. From here, I followed the public footpath through the forest and happened upon a sizeable fishing lake called Bolder Mere. Despite being bordered on one side by the A3, it’s surprisingly tranquil – surrounded by conifers, it made the perfect place to stop for lunch …with a few Canada geese for company.

Fed and watered, I continued on the footpath until I reached a small road that took me past a few houses, ending up at the perimeter fence of what was Wisley Airfield. The airfield was built in 1944 (acquired by the government during WW2) and was used as a testing landing strip by Vickers – their factory was at nearby Brooklands. Flying operations ceased in 1973 as the runway was deemed too short for commercial aircraft – although, having walked the entire length of it, 1900m – short is not a word I’d use!

The site has been subject of great debate since its closure. The PSA were involved in the late ’70s as it was still technically MOD land, and the view was to reinstate it to its original owners. However, the paper trail (or lack of) recording the original requisition made this almost impossible. Taylor Wimpey acquired the land in March 2020 – hence the ‘Do Not Enter’ signage that I roundly ignored when I climbed over the fence. I wasn’t the only one, though – there were a couple of chaps flying model planes and a nice bloke with whom I had a chat about the fate of the airfield who was there with his young son, riding around on a mini moto. In my, and my fellow trespassers defence, there is still a public right of way across the runway – just not along it! But, I was glad I ran the gauntlet and walked it, as, if Taylor Wimpey get their way, there’ll be 2,500 houses built before you can blink.

It was a brilliant and interesting walk. I’ve since discovered that the beacon at the easterly end of the runway is a RNAV waypoint designated as ‘OCK’ – the Ockham Stack – a navigational radio beacon used by aircraft arriving into Heathrow from the south west.

Once I was back at the car, I had a little drive around Ockham and came upon this wonderful, gothic-looking building. This is the old Hautboy Inn – it’s a Grade II listed building, built in 1864 by William, the 1st Earl of Lovelace, Lord Lieutenant of Surrey, owner of Ockham Park. I think it looks wonderfully characterful. And, even better… it’s haunted!!

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