The Heath is an area of approximately 200 acres, bounded by the railway line to the south, Browns’ corner to the west and extending just east of Warren Lane and north of Sandy Lane. The Heath’s soil of siliceous sand has never been suitable for crops but coarse grass, heather and pine thrive and together with a wide variety of deciduous trees and undergrowth make for a rich variety of flora, fauna and wildlife. The Heath is now designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
But how did this come about? The land once belonged to the Abbey of Waverley. During Elizabethan times ownership passed to Thomas Lyfield and then, being part of the Claremont Estate, became part of the Manor of Esher and Milbourne. After the death of Leopold of Belgium (who for a time owned Claremont) the land was acquired in 1882 by Queen Victoria who willed it to her youngest son, the Duke of Albany. In 1884 it came into the possession of his son Charles, the Duke of Saxe Coburg Gotha who was of German nationality, and so in 1917 the land was appropriated by the Crown. In 1923, under the Alien Property Act, Esher Urban Council purchased the land for the princely sum of £300, and Elmbridge Council remains the owner to this day. However this misses an important part of the Heath’s history.
During the latter part of the 19th century the Heath was frequented by a range of people that the locals regarded as undesirable and the arrival of the railway in 1885 accentuated the difficulties. Heather and young trees were uprooted, there were frequent fires and the woods were rapidly becoming spoilt. Vandalism was rife and “old folk and children were fearful of going there”. The locals decided they had to do something and so forced a public enquiry. It says something for the political influence of the residents of the day that this resulted in an Act of Parliament of 1904, which vested responsibility for management of the Heath in nine honorary Conservators, an arrangement that persists to this day. Three of the Conservators are appointed by Elmbridge Council, one by the Crown Estate and five are elected by those local residents who live within one and a half miles of Oxshott railway bridge, pay not less than ten shillings (50p!) for the privilege and who wish to vote. There are also three appointed officers who assist the Chairman in the day to day running of the Heath, all on a purely voluntary basis. The Conservators do however employ a warden (many of you will have seen Greg) who carries out routine clearance and maintenance. So even though Elmbridge Council owns the land, its management is uniquely in local hands!
The early Conservators had quite a job on their hands, cleaning up what they inherited in 1904 was not an easy task and there have been many challenges since. In 1939, after a long campaign, the Conservators successfully opposed the plans of Esher Council to build a new trunk road through the Heath parallel to the railway, a development that would have destroyed the Oxshott we know today. More recently the storms of 1987 and 1990 wreaked havoc in the woods, as many local residents will remember. The challenges may not be as great today but the last two years have seen an alarming increase in the dumping of building and household waste and old vehicles in the woods. This is not only unsightly and potentially dangerous but also costly to deal with.
The Heath has many well-known landmarks. The sandpit was originally formed by the commercial demand for building sand in the latter part of the 19th century, but was used again in WWII as a source of sand for sandbags. It is now beloved by dogs and cyclists alike.
The war memorial was, after some controversy, erected at the top of the south slope by Sir Robert McAlpine, then a resident of Fairmile Court. It affords one of the best views in Surrey on a clear day.
One feature that is no longer with us is the refreshment hut opposite the station. In its heyday between the wars this was a popular venue for day trippers and locals alike-legend has it that more than one local romance started at the end of the Station car park (and perhaps still does?). Sadly this was destroyed by fire in the mid-80’s. And it is not just locals who remember the woods with fondness. During both world wars Canadian soldiers were billeted near Oxshott and used the woods for training and recreation. It is said many kept up their lumberjack skills helping with the woodland management, in return for which the area below the south slope proved a natural baseball ground complete with grandstand slope.