Viewpoint on the Common

IMG_1175Standing by the Viewpoint erected in 2014 by the Hambledon Heritage Society on the Greensand Way, you are rewarded by a panoramic view across the Weald (Old English for forest) to the South Downs, from Chichester to the west to the Shoreham Gap to the east.  Greensand takes its name from the green coloured mineral glauconite found in the sandstone layers.  Beyond the Lower Greensand lies the Wealden clay, heavily forested even today and, on the horizon, the chalk grassland of the South Downs and just over the horizon the sea.

The Greensand Way is a long distance walk of 108 miles (174 km) running from Haslemere almost to the Kent coast on the edges of Romney Marsh.  It follows the Greensand Ridge as it falls to the Weald and is broadly parallel to the North Downs running east from Guildford.  It is mostly rural and traverses two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Surrey and Kent.

Remnants of an ancient landscape lie before you, dating back to a geological period known as the Cretaceous, from between 145 and 65 million years ago.  It was a time when a relatively warm climate resulted in high sea levels and many shallow inland seas. These oceans and seas were populated with now extinct marine reptiles, bivalves and ammonites, while dinosaurs continued to dominate on land.  At the same time, new groups of mammals and birds, as well as flowering plants, began to appear.  A period of violent geological activity at the end of the Cretaceous heralded the Tertiary era.  These movements caused the ‘Wealden uplift’ and eventually the inland seas over the Weald dried up.   Further south much stronger forces produced mountain ranges from the Alps to the Himalayas.

Today the clays of the Weald are heavily forested and, although scarcely a building can be seen, there are many settlements nestling in the folds of the hills and valleys, some of which are marked on the display in front of you.  Many of the place-names end with  -fold, – ham, –hurst, -worth;  these derive from Saxon words each marking a clearing in the woods, the origin of these settlements.   Some such as Horsham and Petworth developed into market towns; others remained small isolated villages.

As tranquil as the Wealden Forest is to-day, in the past its soils and vegetation provided a valuable industrial resource.  The woodland was alive with the noise and smoke of men working at the many industries it supported – glass making, charcoal burning, iron smelting and brick and tile kilns.  Industry largely deserted the Weald during the 16th and 17th centuries.  What remains are the many ponds, the winding lanes, tracks and footpaths that criss-cross the landscape.

Behind you are the grounds of St. Dominic’s School, dedicated to the teaching of children with special needs.  The original house, known as Mervil Hill, dates from the late 19th century.  In 1904 it was purchased by John Franklin-Adams, an astronomer of considerable repute.     He conceived the idea of making a photographic chart of the heavens over the northern hemisphere.  It was an immense task achieved with some difficulty, a major problem being that after spending the night photographing the starry sky, a mist would rise over the Weald, ruining his plates.

Later the house was acquired by Claude Watney of the brewing family. During the First World War the building became a convalescent home, as the fresh air was considered essential for a speedy return to health.   Claude Watney died in 1919.  Ten years later his widow, now Mrs Weguelin, passed her country residence to the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who established a residential school for delicate boys.  So, in 1929, St. Dominic’s School was founded.

In the last 20 years Hambledon Common, which had become overgrown with scrub and bracken, has been restored to heathland.  Trees that obscured much of the view were felled.  Until a hundred years ago this was an open landscape of heather and gorse grazed by cattle, which roamed freely.  In earlier centuries the topography was transformed by the extraction of sand for building and glass-making.  Flint tools have been discovered on the Common dating from the Neolithic and Mesolithic eras up to 10,000 years ago.

Between July and September three species of heather flower on the Common, ling, bell heather and cross-leaved heath, which favours damper spots.  Both common and dwarf gorse (flowering only in the summer) are found.  Woodlark have nested here.  The site is important for reptiles.  The rare sand lizard was re-introduced in 2012.  A wide variety of fungi and toadstools can be found in the autumn.

There are no shops on the Greensand Way itself as it passes through Hambledon, but refreshments are available at the Hambledon Village Shop and the Merry Harriers.

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