I was in Conan Doyle country today: the gorgeous Surrey heathland of Hindhead Commons and the intriguingly-monickered Devil’s Punchbowl. I arrived mid-morning and it was already busy with the lockdown-induced stir-crazy picnic crowd – indeed, they were already sprawled out on the grass scoffing pork pies (not that there’s anything wrong with pork pies!). I parked in the NT car park (you can pay by phone, which is always handy!) and made for the route that the old Portsmouth to London road took before it migrated to the route of the original A3 in the 1830s.
The A3 now runs underground via the Hindhead tunnel, during construction of which, one of the original milestones was discovered. Milestone no. 41 stands at 39 miles from Hyde Park Corner and 30 miles from Portsmouth, and was the first point of interest on my little hike.
Due to it’s isolated location, difficult terrain and, at times inhospitable weather, the London-Portsmouth turnpike was a favourite haunt of highwaymen, preying upon unsuspecting travellers. Indeed, this particular part of the Old Portsmouth Road was the scene of a grisly crime. In 1786, a sailor was murdered by three men he had met whilst carousing in a pub in Thursley. The murderers were named Edward Lonegon, Michael Casey and James Marshall – and were hanged on the nearby Gibbet Hill. A stone marks the spot of the murder, bearing an inscription that tells the tale.
At 272m, Gibbet Hill is the second highest point in Surrey (after Leith Hill), and despite having been the location of various hangings, affords super views across Surrey and Sussex. A ‘noose with a view,’ you might say… ho ho! Although I think death by gibbet was a more ghastly process. I’ll have to research this in more detail. The 9m high Celtic cross that stands on the site today was erected in 1851 to ward off evil spirits – the locals were all convinced the area was haunted by the hanged villains.
There are loads of routes that have been devised to guide visitors around the area. Which one chooses depends entirely on how far one wants to walk and difficulty of the hike. True to form, though, I ignored them all and covered about 10km to take in the high points for the views, all of the points of interest, and to go down into the depths of the punchbowl!
One such point of interest, the ‘Temple of the Four Winds’, left me somewhat disappointed. I was expecting this former hunting lodge, built in 1910, to be an exotic construction of domes and pillars, however, all that remains is the base. It seems that by 1955 it had become dilapidated, and in 1959 someone nicked the lead from the roof! Its end was nigh, and in 1966 it was demolished.
So, why is this area called the ‘Devil’s Punchbowl’, you may ask?
Well, legend has it that it is so named because the Devil – residing in Churt at the time (!) at the three hills called ‘the Devil’s Jumps’ – used to derive his entertainment from aggravating Thor. Thor was living in Thor’s Lie (now Thursley… I’m not making this up, I promise). The Devil’s method of torment was to jump from hill to hill, and Thor would bitch back by trying to strike him with a thunderbolt. One day, Thor got so pissed off that he scooped up a huge mound of earth to hurl at the Devil – his excavation being the depression that is the Punchbowl.
With legends and murders aplenty, I can certainly see how Conan Doyle became so inspired to write such brilliant stories. He lived in a house, just down the hill from the car park, called ‘Undershaw’ and used to go walking on the heath. It’s said he conceived the idea for the Hound of the Baskervilles on one such walk.
I didn’t see any bloodthirsty canines on my perambulation… I met plenty of doggies though, so I felt quite safe. Probability of peril was in being licked to death rather than savaged by a ferocious hound!