The affluent county of Surrey is renowned for its lush, leafy greenery, with much of the county being part of London’s Green Belt. It also is officially England’s most densely-wooded county, with more than one-fifth of the county covered by trees, including much of the Surrey Hills. Yet aside from its beautiful countryside, the county also boasts a wealth of historic sites – including the monument to where the Magna Carta was signed.
From Bronze Age burial mounds and Iron Age forts, the remains of Roman roads, castles to cathedrals, and settlements to stately homes, evidence of Surrey’s rich heritage can be found in abundance.
Here are 10 of some of the best historic sites to see in Surrey.
Hampton Court Palace is a Grade I listed royal palace, built by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1515 as a luxurious private residence. In 1529 the palace was relinquished to King Henry VIII. King George II was the last monarch to reside in the palace, and in 1838, during the reign of Queen Victoria, the palace’s restoration was completed and it was opened to the public.
Hampton Court Palace is still a magnet for visitors from around the world, and its gardens are also as spectacular and varied as the palace itself. Visitors can tour Henry VIII’s Kitchens and the Great Hall where he hosted lavish feasts, view art from the Royal Collection, or visit the palace gardens and explore the world’s oldest puzzle maze. The structure and grounds are cared for by an independent charity, Historic Royal Palaces.
Runnymede is famous as the location for the sealing of the Magna Carta – widely accepted as the first constitutional document that formed the basis of modern democracy. King John met with a group of barons at Runnymede and on 15 June 1215 he sealed the Magna Carta (though the 1225 version would go on to become the definitive version). Not much is known about why Runnymede – a water-meadow and Thames flood plain – was chosen for the sealing of such a significant document, but the location had been used for assemblies since ancient times.
The exact site where the Magna Carta was sealed is still unclear, though either the island, meadow or under the 2,500 year old Ankerwycke Yew are likely contenders. The site was acquired for the nation in 1929 and is owned by the National Trust. The monument to the Magna Carta was designed by Sir Edward Maufe and erected in 1957 by the American Bar Association.
Waverley Abbey is the first monastery founded in the British Isles, dating back to the early 12th century. It is situated around 2 miles southeast of Farnham, on the River Wey. Founded by Bishop William Giffard of Winchester in 1128, the Abbey became home to a select group of Cistercian monks who emigrated from France, and the springboard for the reforming Cistercian religious order in southern England. The monks and lay brothers were active in the Cistercian wool trade and provided shelter for travellers and created an infirmary for the sick.
The abbey suffered a series of floods in 1201, causing it to be substantially rebuilt on higher ground. The famous Annals of Waverley, an important written source for the period, were written here. The impressive ruins remaining today include that of the lay brothers’ quarters, at the far end of the site. The long cellar has graceful columns supporting the vaulting above. Parts of the upper floor and the south wall remain standing and some remains of the chapter house are also still evident.
Polesden Lacey is an Edwardian house and estate, located on the North Downs at Great Bookham, near Dorking. The first house was built on the site in 1336, and the site has seen many new designs since then. The core house as it is today was originally built in 1821-1823 by Thomas Cubitt, and then transformed into an Edwardian dream house in 1906 under the instruction of socialite Dame Margaret Greville and her husband Captain Ronald Greville.
Margaret hosted her first party at Polesden in June 1909, with King Edward VII as the guest of honour. She continued to entertain lavishly at the house over the next 30 years, with guests including Winston Churchill, and the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother to spend the first part of their honeymoon there, cementing her reputation as an Edwardian society hostess. Margaret died in 1942, leaving Polesden Lacey to the National Trust, opening in August 1946.
The Chilworth Gunpowder Mills were first established in 1626 by the East India Company (to supply its forces abroad), and are one of the earliest examples of a gunpowder mill – an industry that dominated the area for almost 300 years. By the start of the 17th century, the gunpowder works were run by other private enterprises.
Although the Chilworth works were taken over by the Admiralty during World War One, most Admiralty structures were demolished at the war’s end, and the mills finally closed in 1920. A large majority of buildings were demolished in the 20th century, yet more than 100 key buildings still remain within this Surrey Hills site. Most visible surviving components date to the 1880s-1890s, including part of an associated water management system, a packhorse bridge and the remains of a tramway.
Built in the reign of Elizabeth I, Loseley Park is a large Tudor manor house that stands in ancient parkland close to the North Downs. The estate was acquired by the direct ancestors of the current owners and residents, the More-Molyneux family, at the beginning of the 16th century. The present house was built between 1562-1568, replacing a smaller one that Elizabeth I had declared was not ‘adequate’ for her to visit. It was later visited several times by her and subsequent monarchs including James I and VI who presented the family with portraits of himself in gratitude for their hospitality.
Loseley Park is open to the public and is a Grade I listed building of exceptional historical importance, containing several historical artefacts including one of the few paintings of Anne Boleyn.
Strawberry Hill House is a beautiful example of Gothic Revival architecture. It was built by Horace Walpole, son of Sir Robert Walpole (Britain’s first Prime Minister) and the author of ‘The Castle of Otranto’, the world’s first gothic novel, in 1747. Walpole and two friends (John Chute and Richard Bentley) transformed the site into his vision of a ‘little Gothic castle’ with turrets, battlements, a round tower and a gleaming white façade. The castle-like house interested local residents, and soon became a tourist attraction – its popularity becoming a key contributing factor in the emergence of Gothic Revival architecture in the 18th and 19th centuries.
After changing ownership, falling into ruin and its collections largely sold, the house was expanded and embellished adhering to Horace’s vision by Lady Waldegrave in 1846. Today visitors enjoy tours of the house as well as of the surrounding gardens, and in winter, a small outdoor ice-rink is set-up for ice-skating.
8. Brookwood Cemetery
This picturesque Grade I listed Historic Park and Garden is the largest cemetery in the UK, covering 220 acres. It was conceived by the London Necropolis Company (LNC) in 1849 – a time when its increasing population meant London found it difficult to accommodate its dead, especially following the 1848-49 cholera epidemic. An Act of Parliament passed in 1852 allowed the purchase of heathland near Woking to provide a cemetery, with grounds allotted to different London parishes, religious denominations, classes and faiths. The southern half of the cemetery was consecrated on 7 November 1854 and opened for burials and to the public soon after.
A railway served the cemetery, accessible from a dedicated station, ‘The London Necropolis Railway Station’ (London’s last ‘corpse railway’), next to Waterloo. There were two stations in the cemetery itself, one serving the non-conformist side (North), one the Anglican side (South). The train service ran an almost daily service from Waterloo for 87 years, carrying up to 2,000 bodies a year, until its closure in 1941 following destruction to the London station during the Blitz. The cemetery’s southern platform still exists, along with a short piece of track and commemorative plaque.
9. Leith Hill Tower
This striking Gothic tower was built on top of Leith Hill in 1765 by Richard Hull, who wanted to increase the height of Leith Hill to over 1,000 feet. He called it Prospect House, intending it as ‘a place for people to enjoy the glory of the English countryside’ and loved his creation so much he was buried beneath the tower. The top of the tower marks the highest point in South East England (313 metres), offering spectacular views over the surrounding countryside, including 14 counties. On a clear day you can see the English Channel to the south and even the clock face of Big Ben in Westminster to the north.
In 1800 the interior was filled with rubble and cemented to form a solid block, and in 1864 neighbouring landowner W J Evelyn added a stairwell to gain access to the tower’s roof. In 1923 the Tower and surrounding grounds were granted to the National Trust, and by 1984 rubble and cement had been dug out to reinstate rooms and create a cafe at the base. Inside there is a small exhibit telling the history of the tower.
Stretching over 2,500 acres, Richmond Park is the largest Royal Park in London and a National Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation. It is also Grade I listed on Historic England’s Register of Historic Parks and Gardens of special historic interest in England.
Charles I used the area as a refuge from a plague outbreak in London in 1625 and subsequently turned the land into a deer park. Retaining a pedestrian right of way, he enclosed the land in 1637. Custodianship of the park passed to the Corporation of the City of London, but was returned to Charles II in 1660. The park was used for cavalry training during World War One and later as a military convalescent depot during World War Two. Richmond Park contains many significant buildings, including White Lodge (now home to the Royal Ballet School) and Pembroke Lodge (home to Prime Minister Lord John Russell in 1847). The park is also famous for its view of St Paul’s Cathedral, 12 miles away.