Past Reports

July 2013: A Fresh Look At John Evelyn – Peter Bennett

Much more has become known about John Evelyn in recent years. Famed for his diary, his real contribution to history lies in the fields of landscape design, gardening, architecture and town planning. His views were formed while travelling in Europe as a young man. While abroad he met Charles II who was in exile.

Back in England John met Christopher Wren; the two later were founder-members of the Royal Society. John was asked to looked the problems of pollution and he proposed a clean air zone and green belt round London – 300 years ahead of its time! He wrote his famous book Sylva on trees, designed the first landscaped garden in England at Albury, drew up plans for rebuilding the city after the Great Fire and talent-spotted Grinling Gibbons, the great wood-carver who worked on St Paul’s and other city churches.

John later oversaw the building of the naval hospital at Greenwich. He suggested putting an inscription round coins to prevent forgery; the words appear on our pound coin today. Near the end of his long life he returned to Wotton and it was largely his influence that left us with the beautiful woodland landscapes we enjoy today. He was a man of vision and ideas and we have much to thank him for.

May 2013: The Pilgrims’ Way; Medieval Holiday Route or Victorian Myth? – Elyot Turner

Elyot Turner took us on a fascinating tour through his research into the origins of this historic route, now the North Downs Way. Was it used by medieval pilgrims on their way from Winchester to Canterbury, or does it have less romantic origins?
Chaucer’s tales were based on the route from London to Canterbury. Much has been written about our route, but only since the 1800s. Hilaire Belloc and others promoted it as a pilgrims’ route, and Diana Webb identified hundreds of shrines between Winchester and Rochester, but there is no evidence of groups of people setting out in a consistent way on pilgrimages. Early maps make no mention of the “Pilgrims’ Way”. The term seems first to have appeared on a 1769 map for a short section near Otford. The Ordnance Survey used the term from 1854, but only in Surrey. Later OS maps showed the route as Pilgrims’ Way (course of) – perhaps it was this that fired the public’s imagination.
There is plenty of evidence of a trading route along the Downs and there is no doubt that it was used for this purpose for thousands of years, but its fame as a pilgrims’ route seems to be founded in a clever marketing ploy by the Ordnance Survey. It certainly helped to sell their maps!

March 2013: Surrey Roads – From Turnpike to Motorway – Gordon Knowles

Gordon gave us a good survey of how the county’s roads have developed over the last 300 years. We learned that the term ‘turnpike’ originated from the tollgates which often had pikes mounted on them. Until the 17th century most roads were only wide enough for packhorses. Then the Turnpike Acts obliged parishes to maintain roads to a width of 8 feet with powers to charge tolls to meet the costs. Despite this roads remained in poor condition; dust in summer, mud in winter. The first Turnpike was from London to Portsmouth and was completed in 1663, but it still took up to two years to move timber from Farnham to Deptford Dockyard.
Despite construction improvements, roads were second to railways until the motor age took hold. Being close to London, Surrey led the way in highways development and the number of Surrey ‘firsts’ was surprising; Dorking was the first council to have its own road-laying plant; the RAC and AA both began in the county and pioneered road signs and traffic controls. As traffic levels increased, the county had to respond – the Kingston by-pass, the Purley Way and the Dorking and Leatherhead by-passes were all built in the 1930s. Mickleham, Shere and others were to follow. Later came the M25 and M23. Surrey has coped with the motor age remarkably well over the years and will have to continue to do so.

January 2013: Magicians & The Music Hall – Robin Maddy

Robin, who is a member of the Magic Circle, took us back to the 1900s to show us the amazing world of magic which so enthralled our grand-parents and great grand-parents when they went to the music hall. The cinema was in its infancy; variety theatre was the most popular form of public entertainment and great magicians were big celebrities of the day.

Magic became popular when John Maskelyne started his performances in 1873 at the Egypt Hall in London. He was joined by David Devant who continued through to the 1920s. The tricks they performed were astonishing – from the ‘Levitation of the Lady’ through to ‘Sawing the Lady in Half’ – all performed with great aplomb and immaculate precision. Others included Chung Ling Soo – highly successful until his bullet catching trick went wrong – and the escapologist Harry Houdini, who also died in tragic circumstances.

These were the greats. Many others sought to emulate them and the popularity of magic spread across the western world. It remains so today in venues ranging from theatres to cruise liners. This was a highly entertaining talk, well-illustrated by slides and tricks performed at intervals along the way.