Leith Hill, the highest point in south-east England, is based on a 70 million-year-old sandstone bedrock, one formed by a cementing amalgam of sand and the silica from seashells. It was on the summit of Leith Hill in 851AD, that Ethelwulf (father of Alfred the Great) defeated the Danes who were heading for Winchester, having sacked Canterbury and London.
Leith Hill Rhododendron Wood was created in the late 1800s by Caroline Wedgwood (of the famous pottery family) and eldest sister of Charles Darwin. She planted two large fields with rhododendrons and azaleas, some from Asia, as a formal park and garden close to the entrance to her property, Leith Hill Place . In 1944 the wood was bequeathed to the National Trust by Ralph Vaughan Williams, composer and grandson of Caroline Wedgwood. The wood suffered in the storm of 1987 when many of the trees in the wood were felled, but in recent years restoration work has brought the wood back to its formal glory. The best time of year to see the wood is in mid-May to June, and separate directions to it are given in these Directions.
In 1765, Richard Hull built Leith Hill Tower with the intention, it is said, of raising the hill above 1,000 feet. He is buried underneath it. The Tower is open for people to climb up its 74 spiral stairs in summer from 09.00 hrs to 17.00 hrs and from 10.00 hrs to 15.00 hrs in winter. Admission (2020) is free to NT members and £3 for non-members. The Tower incorporates a kiosk which serves tea and coffee, soft drinks, cakes and sandwiches for those who like elevenses on their walk. Just down from the Tower is an Information Shelter which has a number of maps and pamphlets on places of interest and walks in the area.
The Stephan Langton Inn in Friday Street takes its name from the Archbishop of Canterbury who was born in 1150 and is said to have spent his childhood in this hamlet. Archbishop Langton was a subscribing witness to the Magna Carta, supporting the barons against King John and refusing to publish their excommunication by the pope.
The Church of St John the Evangelist, near Wotton (open Sunday only) is of Saxon origin. It contains the tomb of John Evelyn, the essayist (author of, among other works, Fumifugium, or the Inconvenience of the Air and Smoke of London Dissipated) who was born at Wotton House in 1620. His diaries were discovered in an old clothes basket there in 1817.
The monument to Samuel Wilberforce in Abinger Roughs marks the spot where this Victorian bishop fell from his horse and died in 1873. Known as ‘Soapy Sam’, he vigorously opposed Darwin’s new theory of evolution, most notably in a famous debate with Thomas Huxley in 1860. Hearing of his death, Huxley is said to have waspishly remarked that ‘Wilberforce’s brains had at last come into contact with reality, and the result had been fatal’.
Abinger Hammer village is named after the Hammer Pond, which enabled the working of the iron industry furnaces here from Tudor times. The commemorative iron master's clock (seen on this walk) has Jack the Smith striking the hours. John Evelyn inveighed against the widespread felling of trees as fuel for iron works. In Sylva, first published in 1664, he suggested exploiting the developing world instead: ' 'Twere better to purchase all our iron out of America, than thus to exhaust our woods at home.'
Gomshall Mill is mentioned in the Domesday Book, but the present mill dates from the seventeenth century. The Tilling Bourne stream (which springs out of the north slope of Leigh Hill) passes directly under the mill.