Weird and Wonderful Surrey

Steeped in history and heritage, Surrey is no stranger to ancient folklore and fiction. From dragons slayed at West Clandon by a soldier and his dog, to dreams of a magic pike predicting greatness for a mother's son, the Surrey cloth maker's boy who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot. Floating nuns and other ghostly sightings around the historic market town of Guildford, legendary highway men and women, such as the infamous 'Roaring Girl' known to prowl the heath lands of North Surrey and a flying pig at Whitmoor House!

Discover England's oldest recorded village, with dwellings dating back more than 7,000 years at Abinger Common or the Martian's landing ground at Horsell Common, courtesy of HG Wells 'War of the Worlds'. Plus unearth the mysterious legend of the 'Treacle Mines' at Chobham Common, believed to be buried molasses, abandoned by troops heading off to fight in the Crimean War.

The Dragon at West Clandon
West Clandon is a village near Guildford, that is first mentioned in the Domesday Book  of 1086.  The legend of the dragon of West Clandon is said to have once blocked the road there.  A soldier, condemed for deserting the army, agreed to fight the dragon for clemency. Apparently after a fierce battle, he duly did rid the village of the dragon and then supposedly settled in the area.  First written evidence of the story appeared in 1776. 

However, West Clandon does a real dragon to this day.  It is a chalk dragon, on a hillside near the village.  It is made of compacted chalk and is 19m x 8m.  It was created in 1977 to commemorate Elizabeth II ‘s Silver Jubilee. It was cut by Francis Robinson and Donald Papworth, from a design by Donald’s brother, David.

The dragon disappeared under the under growth but is periodically kept exposed by village volunteers.  It can only be seen on an embankment on the A426 at West Clandon (westbound towards Guildford).

Highwaymen of Hindhead
The area around the Devil’s Punchbowl, in south west Surrey, in the 1800s had a terrible reputation due to the activities of local highwaymen and robbers. They regularly robbed the stage coach as it travelled slowly up the hill on its way to Portsmouth on the main road, now known as the A3.

The most famous  story from this time is the story of a murdered sailor. He met three men in the Red Lion pub in Thursley.  After buying them a drink they are reported to have followed him and murdered him in the Devil’s Punchbowl.( The area is now owned by the National Trust and is fully accessible to the general public.) The gang was quickly arrested, tried and executed and their bodies hung at Gibberts Hill, next to the Devil’s Punchbowl, for over three years.  This practice was suppose to discourage other rogues from taking up the profession of Highwayman.

The poor murdered sailor was buried at Thursley churchyard and a memorial stone was erected near the scene of the crime. The murder was mentioned by Victorian novelist, Charles Dickens in “Nicholas Nickleby” . It is also the theme behind another famous Victorian book, “The Broomsquire” (1896), by Sabine Baring –Gould.   (A Broomsquire is someone who makes their living out of making besom brooms – a trade unique to the heathland areas of England. The bushy plant, called “heather” is collected and fashioned into broom brushes).

Martians landing in Surrey
Author, H G Wells (21 Sept 1866 – 13 Aug 1946) was a prolific English writer in many genres, but is probably best remembered for his science fiction novels- particularly “War of the Worlds” ( 1898).  The book was first made into a radio play, then into two movies. 

It is the earliest story to depict a conflict between earth and extra-terrestrial beings.   The site of the first landing of the Martins was on heathland near Horsell, in sandpits.   The common is now owned by Woking Borough Council and is accessible to the public.

Roaring girl of north Surrey
Another famous highwayman, or in this case, highwaywoman, lived in the north of the county and was active in the early 1600s. Her name was Mary Frith, known as Moll Cutpurse.  In 1651 she rather boldly stopped the coach of Sir Thomas Fairfax, Commander – in –Chief of the Parliamentarian armed forces.  She stole £250 from him.  In retaliation he pursued her until she was captured and tried.  She bought her freedom by paying a fine of £2000 and then, it appears, kept a low profile.

The Treacle mines of Surrey
Treacle mining is a fictitious tale of treacle (similar to molasses) being dug out of the ground.  The topic has been a joke in British humour since Victorian times.  It is reported to relate to an incident on Chobham Common in 1853 when 8000 British Army soldiers were camped there.  It is said that when they left they buried the treacle for their return.  However, Chobham villagers discovered them and became known as the “treacle miners”.

Weird  duck, raft and pram charity races in Surrey
Surrey plays home to some rather strange British pastimes, including a number of plastic duck races, a plastic swan race, a variety of fancy dress pram races and at least one charity raft race a year.

These races appeal to the quirky British sense of humour and are a good way to muck about on the river banks while raising money for good causes. 

Windlesham  pram race happens annually each Boxing Day (26th December) while Oxted has its annual race in July. Sadly the annual Shere Pram Race was stopped many years ago.  Pram races are now becoming rare due to increasing health and safety concerns and rising insurance costs for putting on the events.

Much safer, but just as daft, is the growing popularity of plastic duck races on Surrey’s various rivers and streams.  The Surrey Care Trust runs the “BIG Yellow Duck Race” on the River Wey, in Guildford, every summer.  Leatherhead Duck Race, held in June on the River Mole also includes a plastic swan race. The event raises funds for Leatherhead based charity, The Rainbow Trust.

Another popular duck race happens at Chilworth every Easter Monday, on the Tillingbourne River, based at the ruins of the old Gunpowder Mills.   A similar event is held at Gostrey Meadow  in Farnham each summer.  Other duck races are currently run at Staines-upon-Thames, Cobham, Ewell and Haslemere.

Just as weird and wonderful to watch is the annual charity raft race, based in Guildford on the River Wey.  Businesses from the town enter teams who then build crazy rafts, some of which float and some which do not!  A great spectator sport for the summer, held each July. 

Discover some more surprising facts about Surrey.

Why not visit some of Surrey's lesser know attractions?