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The Villages of Surrey

by Jean E. Bellamy

Situated in the Tillingbourne Valley between Dorking and Guildford lie the Saxon villages of Shere ("Essira" in the Domesday Book of 1086) and nearby Gomshall (Gomesele), on the A25. Today Shere, known as the "Home of Art," is a venue for painters and possesses a number of fascinating old house and inns. Its ancient and picturesque parish church dedicated to St. James was built in 1190 in the Early English style and has a fine brooch spire and varied stonework. Said to be one of the most beautiful and historic village churches in Surrey, it is of much interest architecturally and has been a place of pilgrimage for 1000 years.

Shere

Worth looking out for in the church is quatrefoil and squint window in the north wall of the chancel, which has an unusual story connected with it. Onto this was built in 1329 the Anchoress's Cell, where a girl named Christine, daughter of William the Carpenter, was enclosed for three years. The Bishop of Worcester gave permission for her to be thus incarcerated though the space was barely large enough to accommodate her, small though she was. During the whole of this time her only contact with the outside world was the squint, through which she was able to view the proceedings at Holy Communion and receive the bread and wine. Food and drink were supplied in the same manner, and thus she remained until eventually deciding she needed a break! She later returned to the cell and is believed to have died there.

ShereAnother feature of interest in this church is a brass of date 1491 to Lord Audley, a knight, whose son James, a leader of the Cornish Rebellion of 1497, rode his mount through Shere on his way to Blackheath and was later beheaded at Tower Hill. Also worth noting are the bricks in the churchyard wall, which bear the initials of villagers responsible for the upkeep of those parts. The lychgate was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1902.

Building and rebuilding occurred extensively from 1580 to 1640 and many timber-framed edifices may be seen in Shere today. The Old Forge, once owned by Oliver Sands, remained in the possession of the Bonds, a notable Surrey family having graves in the church, for well over 100 years. In 1771 it passed to William Bray, a member of a family prominent locally in the 16th and 17th centuries, while in the early 1800s it appears to have been occupied by Bristowe's Butcher shop, and later Puttock the Blacksmith.

Worth looking out for, too, is the old wall and well, the former running from Elm Cottage in Upper Street to Manor Cottage, and from thence round to Middle street to Forge Cottage, built by William Bray in 1772. The well, 286 feet in depth, was dug in 1886 and presented to the village by the Misses Spottiswoode of Drydown. A plaque states that water flowed here until the 1970s, when Thames Water sunk fresh bore holes in the area, thus lowering the water table 18 inches. and stopping the spring. In 1984 many local people subscribed to the refurbishment of the well as an ornamental asset to the village and its many visitors. Another unusual feature is a gargoyle on the downpipe of a building dating from 1620.

Once noted for smuggling and sheep-stealing, Shere became famous for its cotton industry, which involved the weaving of fustian -- a mixture of cotton, linen and flax. The Spinning Walk and the Rack Close on the southern edge of the village remain as a reminder of these times.

Not to be missed whilst in the vicinity is the mysterious Silent Pool lying just off the Shere bypass, the latter opened in 1960. The pool, reached by way of a wooden gate and along a track, is surrounded with vegetation and overhung by huge silver beeches. Apparently greatly admired by the poet Tennyson, the crystal stretch of water consists of an upper and a lower lake that swarms with tame trout. It is said never to have been frozen over and is of such extreme cleanliness that, according to legend, even a mystic maiden who drowned herself there can be clearly seen at midnight -- still drowning!

Gomshall Mill

Just above Shere, Gomshall in its picturesque setting beside the Tillingbourne stream, draws visitors from all over the world. Behind a 16th century packhorse bridge bearing the sign WEAK BRIDGE stands the village's most noteworthy feature -- a 17th (or possibly 16th) century) timber-framed mill with later extension. Believed to occupy the site of an earlier mill referred to in the Domesday Book as "Gomsele," it ceased its corn-grinding function in the 1950s, when it was converted into a restaurant and shop. Whilst visiting here, a feature to note is the interior 18th century water-wheel.

Abinger Hammer Clock To north and south of the village lie the attractive wooded countryside comprising the North Downs and the Hurtwood, a name derived perhaps from "Hartwood" or deer forest. Here are many paths and bridleways that provide opportunity for leisure enjoyment. To the north, the Hackhurst Downs rise to a height of over 700 feet and a granite boulder marks the spot where Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Winchester and son of William Wilberforce, was fatally injured when thrown from his horse in 1873.

Just southeast of Gomshall and south of Shere is Abinger Hammer, originally known as Shere Hammer. Though not old, this attractive hamlet has connections with the now-vanished iron smelting industrye. Its most outstanding feature is an unusual clock overhanging the village street, bearing the motto, "By me you know how fast to go." Should you chance to pass by at the right time, you will see Jack the Hammer strike out the time on his anvil. Given in memory of the first Lord Farrer of Abinger Hall who died in 1899, this remarkable timepiece, depicting a blacksmith at his trade, is a reminder of the once-important role the village and surrounding area played in the Surrey iron-smelting industry.

Hammer ponds, which were formed by damming the stream at various points along its course, were required by the ironmasters to drive the wheels of the watermills that operated the heavy hammers of the local iron works. At Abinger Hammer today these ponds (still called "hammer ponds") are utilised by the watercress growers, the chalk beds being ideal for the purpose. This is a popular spot in summer, with cricket being played on a pitch beside the road -- though the narrowness of the main road running through the village causes problems, particularly if you should wish to stop and photograph the clock!


Jean Bellamy has been writing since 1970, and is the author of over 300 published articles and short stories. She has written three children's novels (all with a "West Country flavour"). A resident of Dorset, she is the author of several local history books, including Treasures of Dorset, A Dorset Quiz Book, Second Dorset Quiz Book, Dorset Tea Trail, Dorset as she was spoke, Little Book of Dorset, 101 Churchces in Dorset, and Cornwall: A Look Back. Jean loves to explore and write on all things British.
Article and photos © 2006 Jean Bellamy

 

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