An autumn walk with a ranger at Leith Hill
Leith Hill is set within the Surrey Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Area Ranger Sophie Parker takes us on an autumn wander along the Leith Hill Woodland Walk.
Leith Hill feels like a secret, so much beauty close to urban Surrey. Your drive to Windy Gap car park, the walk starting point, winds beneath a fiery autumnal tree canopy.
Each day my drive here provides an ‘ahhhh’ moment, where I relax and feel at home.
The walk starts down a wide stone track. With lovely views towards the South Downs, you get a sense of how high up we are. Look back to see the top of Leith Hill Tower above rust coloured tree tops.
Soon you’ll notice some beautiful old beech trees. The gnarly bark looks like giant elephant legs in the woods. In autumn, leaves hang like golden baubles from the branches.
These trees are unusual in that they survived the Great Storm in 1987. We lost so many others in the woodland here.
Thirty years on, I’ve been asking locals for their accounts of that night. Electricity and water were cut off for days and remote homes were impossible to reach by road.
A grand estate
The next section of woodland is part of the old Leith Hill Place estate. It’s linked to the house, which has historic connections to Vaughan Williams, the Wedgwoods and Darwin.
Here you’ll see evidence of the historic pleasure grounds; grand avenues of lime trees, firs and pines. The limes turn vibrant yellow before covering the path in a crunchy carpet.
The hazel coppice beyond the pond is where our hurdle maker continues the tradition of weaving hazel poles into beautiful fences.
This work supports our dormice, who spend the majority of their lives up in the hazel tree canopy. In autumn, they prepare for winter by piling on the pounds and creating hibernation nests on the ground, where temperatures fluctuate less.
Past the house and across the road, your eyes adjust to the open field - my favourite spot on the whole estate. You can see the fine detail of hills in the distance and mist layers hovering. The wooded view appears in high definition, each tree colouring at its own pace.
Birds of prey exploited the more open woodland after the Great Storm. This is a perfect spot to look for red kites and buzzards; you’re so high that they fly at eye level.
Buzzards nest in the farmland below and kingfishers whizz past in a flash of blue.
Further into the field you’ll find Darwin’s worm stone. He conducted experiments here, which for natural history enthusiasts like me is a really exciting link to the past.
Echoes of the Storm
As you head towards point five on the trail map there’s another fabulous view that only exists in autumn and winter. Bare branches reveal a huge cedar of Lebanon in the distance. It’s a stark reminder of the size that many more of our trees would be now, if they hadn’t been felled by the 1987 hurricane.
Our route climbs uphill into the rhododendron wood. Dark tunnels of glossy green leaves contrast native woodland species, and a couple of giant redwoods rise above the canopy.
The home stretch
Back across the Abinger Road we gently climb through bright autumn colour mixed with evergreen Scots pines towards famous Leith Hill Tower. The views here are truly spectacular, a 360° panorama including a bird’s-eye-view of the route you’ve walked. On a bright day, through our telescopes, see the sun glinting off a sparkling sea through the Shoreham Gap. In the opposite direction you’ll see the City of London skyline.
North east of the tower an area of heathland hosts rare ground nesting birds including nightjars and woodlarks – also winners in the post-Storm era. In late summer and early autumn pink and purple heather stretches into the distance.
Linger by the tower picnic area and the jagged monkey puzzle trees. Then take a last glance at the view before descending the Windy Gap steps to complete the circle.