63: Surrey Hill, Bracknell Forest

Bagshot Heath
On Bagshot Heath.

Date: 13th February 2023. A year to the day since I completed walk 45/46 and bagged the Tops of Greater London and Kent. Including today that means I’ve done 17 Tops in the subsequent year, or 18 if you count Diana’s Peak two weeks ago.

Weather conditions: Glorious. Utterly cloudless all day, and mild enough to dispense with a jacket.

County Top bagged: Surrey Hill, which is the Top of the modern local authority of Bracknell Forest. It lies on a remarkably flat, somewhat elevated plateau, containing various spot heights and trig points that are candidates for the summit. Looking only at the 1:25,000 OS map does not particularly help resolve the issue. But on the 1:50,000, a spot height at 426 feet/130m is shown at grid reference SU888640, whereas on the plateau to the west of this nothing is marked above 129m at most.

Woods and sun
Woodland — expect a lot of this kind of view troday (with sunshine a pleasing bonus).

Even this may not mark the highest point in the immediate vicinity, as the banks of the covered reservoir that occupies the summit are clearly a few meters higher than the walker is allowed to reach — and Strava informed me that at one point today I had reached 432 feet without even having to surmount these banks.

Historically this point lies in Berkshire, albeit right on the border with Surrey. It became a CT when this historic county was completely dismembered in administrative terms in 1998, and split into six separate local authorities: this is the first one of the six whose Top I’ve bagged. (The others are Slough; Windsor & Maidenhead; Wokingham; Reading; and West Berkshire, in which lies the historic Top of the county.)

Bracknell robin
Inhabitatnt of the woods near Bracknell.

Measuring it as the surveyed 130m puts Surrey Hill as 142nd by altitude on the list of modern Tops, and 166th on the full list. One could make a case that this is the only CT to be named after a county different to that in which the Top lies, though it is right on the Surrey border, and I suppose that London Road, top of Southend-on-Sea, might also deserve official consideration.

[ << Diana’s Peak, St Helena (62½) | (64) Telegraph, Isles of Scilly >> ]

Start and end point of walk: Started at Martins Heron railway station. This is on the eastern edge of Bracknell and served by trains between London Waterloo, Bracknell and Reading.

Bagshot station
Bagshot station, and the 14:23 to Ascot.

Finished at Bagshot station. It is easy enough to get trains back to London from here but you do need to change at Ascot, back onto the line you used in the morning.

The walk took me about 2½ hours. Potentially you could do the trip the other way round, but I wouldn’t bother, because of the lack of refreshment options at Martins Heron.

Pub at end: The King’s Arms in Bagshot. It’s a Greene King pubco, so not riddled with individuality or charm, but it kept its beer well and lunch was OK. It’s a few minutes’ walk from here to the station.

Near the start of the walk, at Martins Heron.

Distance walked: 7.75 miles/12.5km approximately.

Total ascent: 500 feet/150m approximately.

Difficulty: ★. Although this is a walk of moderate length, it’s very easy. The only hazard to be faced is the risk of being run over by a mountain bike. Except for one very short section, all gradients are gentle and quite a bit of it is dead flat. I’m sure it could be done in training shoes, so one star is fitting.

Ease of access: ★★★★. A bit of hopping between trains is needed but the services are frequent and this will be no problem for anyone travelling out from London, making it an easy enough day trip from most of the south of England.

Mountain bikers
The day’s main hazard.

Scenic qualities: ★★. There was a point at which I was grumpily thinking about awarding one star — some sections, particularly the ‘Ladies Mile’, are positively monotonous. Bracknell Forest is well-named — there are trees everywhere, which obscure all the potential views. (Officially though this woodland is known as Swinley Forest.) But on a nice sunny day I guess there was just about enough to look at to justify the second star.

The area: In its listing of ‘Notable People’ from the town, Bracknell’s Wikipedia page can suggest only some actress who once starred in Tracy Beaker — which really isn’t much of a roll call. In fact, probably the most famous person from here is fictional — Lady Bracknell, from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. This may be because until it was designated a New Town in 1949 there wasn’t much here, although the name was first recorded in the 10th century.

Ladies' Mile
The ‘Ladies’ Mile’ (and a representative of the day’s other main natural hazard).

Since the 1950s the town has grown substantially. I only skirted its edge today but that suggested it was not so much different from fellow New Town, Milton Keynes: lots of little housing estates hidden away from each other and from the main roads. That it’s already had its original concrete town centre thoroughly redeveloped since it was built suggests it’s still a work-in-progress.

Map: OS Explorer 160: Windsor, Weybridge and Bracknell covers the route, and I found myself having to consult it on the day, so it’s worth bringing a copy along. GPS (i.e. Strava) was sometimes useful for route selection but was not all that helpful when it came to finding the actual summit, and the routes it depicts are often obscured by dense squiggles logged by mountain bikers.

Map of walk 63

On this summary map, the route runs from north to south.

Route: This was reasonable exercise for a day with weather far too good to spend it sat in an office, but no one is ever going to claim this walk has drama. There are no views to speak of and very little feeling that you are up in the air. If you like looking at trees, though, you’ll be in clover (metaphorically). It was, at least, dry underfoot and not as subject to massed ranks of mountain bikes as I expected — though keep your ears open, particularly around the summit. Probably on a weekend there will be many more of them.

Assuming you arrive at Martins Heron station on a train from London, come down the exit ramp and then turn left down the path that goes under the bridge. Keep going along here until it reaches the gates of the water works, where bear right.

Dog walker encounter
Dog walkers establish whether their charges are about to fight each other.

For some time, you are following the clearly-defined edge of the town of Bracknell, always there are houses to the right and the trees of Swinley Forest to the left. The route takes you up a broad ride (probably kept that way as a firebreak between the forest and the town), and there will be plenty of people about with dogs, I am sure. (See picture.)

The A322 is the main road out of Bracknell heading south, and it will have to be crossed using the footbridge. After this the route continues past a leisure centre. The map makes clear that there are various points at which one could head south into the forest, along routes which would be shorter than mine, but I had decided in advance to head for ‘Caesar’s Camp’, an Iron Age hill fort marked on the map; this involved heading along the path signposted as a ‘Ramblers’ Route’; it technically keeps you off the road but there’s still quite a bit of traffic coming past not far away. On the right, endless housing estates.

Windmill Drive
Windmill Drive, heading up to Caesar’s Camp.

Eventually it was time to bear left and leave Bracknell behind, heading up ‘Windmill Drive’ (marked as such on Strava, but not the OS map), which heads through a constructed channel (see picture) and up to the flat area of Caesar’s Camp, the first time today that open country has been reached. Not that there’s anything much to see. 3,000 years ago maybe this was quite impressive but these days it’s just scrubland.

At the gate at the end you are faced with the first of a series of complex path junctions, where many routes meet. A signpost directs you to the ‘Star Posts’, down the long and totally straight ‘Ladies’ Mile’, trees on the left, scrub on the right. Despite being about 420 feet in the air, this is the flattest, straightest and (perhaps) most monotonous mile I am sure I have managed on all these 63 walks so far. One also gets the chance to listen to the wannabe army officers, being trained at Sandhurst just over the way, bombing the shit out of something-or-other over on their nearby rifle range.

Upper Star Post
At the Upper Star Post junction.

On it goes, past the ‘Upper Star Post’ with its multi-armed signpost (pictured) then to the ‘Lower Star Post’ where at least seven routes conjoin. Deciding which one of these is the best way of attaining the summit of Surrey Hill was a matter of not just looking at the map but also thinking about which was least likely to see me have to engage with mountain bikers: this was the part of the walk at which they were most numerous. In the end I took the ‘fourth exit’ at this roundabout, heading east-south-east.

Where this track hits woodland again, and a narrower path heads straight on, turn left instead, and head up the only truly steep uphill gradient of the day. Definitely keep your ears open for bikes at this point; I didn’t encounter any but I imagine on some days they will barrel down this slope with little concern for any walkers who might be in the way. The hill climbs, descends, then climbs again, to reach the fence and barbed wire that bars entry to the covered reservoirs that mark the top of Surrey Hill.

Barbed wire and summit reservoir
Barbed wire around the summit compound. They really don’t want you to get in here.

I bore right at this point (again, listen out for bikes), heading round the southern edge of this compound, and then turning right once more through a gate, to cross the border into Surrey, where the remainder of the day will be spent. This path heads onto Bagshot Heath, which offers hints here and there of a decent view but only because it seems to have been deforested at some recent point; certainly there are no extensive panoramas.

As you approach the radio mast, bear left down tracks that eventually lead you back into the trees, then left at a junction, down the first noticeable descent of the day. This track leads past the outbuildings of the huge and doubtless highly expensive Pennyhill Park Hotel (signs making it obvious that they really won’t welcome walkers popping in for a pint), then onto the lane known as ‘College Ride’, which heads into Bagshot town centre. There are plenty of pub and other lunch options here; the railway station is a few hundred yards to the north.

Abandoned helmet
Near the Pennyhill Park hotel: abandoned biking gear.

Commentary: I am definitely not claiming this is an exciting walk, but man oh man, what a glorious day. There’s often a day like this in mid-February and I was lucky enough to catch it. I was pretty much doing this walk today regardless — I’ve come down to west London to spend a couple of days doing research in the National Archives at Kew, but that doesn’t open on Mondays, and in any case I worked on Saturday (well, some of it anyway) and so yesterday and today were my weekend. The weather dice came up double-6 for sure. Magnificent weather for walking.

Like some other counties such as Bedfordshire and Cheshire, Berkshire now has no modern existence outside that of pure ceremony, and its slicing up into six component parts in 1998 has contributed plenty of modern Tops on the list, some of which — particularly Slough’s — look like ‘hikes’ only in the most generous sense. But today’s was at least a walk of a meaningful length and, while never difficult, by the time I got to Bagshot I felt like I’d had some decent exercise. Yes, the trees got a bit monotonous at times but it also didn’t feel like identikit countryside; there was something distinctive about it. Though if this were in Scotland I bet it would be covered in wind turbines.

A pillbox up on the plateau: probably not the most exciting place to be stationed in 1943.

I don’t really have much to add to this today: which some of you might find a relief, of course. That’s three CTs (or two and a half, strictly) done in 2023 thus far, but it’s time I went back to the Lake District, which will hopefully happen before the end of February. Weather permitting, yes — so some more days like today will be just fine, thanks.


3 thoughts on “63: Surrey Hill, Bracknell Forest

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