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History of Bookham Commons

A wooden bridge with rustic wooden handrail and duck boards running through an area of heathland at Bookham Commons in Surrey
Explore Bookham Commons in Surrey | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

Bookham Commons began life as a prehistoric wildwood, before being shaped by monks and plundered by Henry VIII. The commons were a grand day out for Victorian day trippers, a home for wartime troops and were preserved as a sanctuary for wildlife, and people, with help from dedicated locals.

Prehistoric Bookham

Bookham Commons are a small remnant of a wildwood that once covered most of southern England. Large herds of red deer, wild cattle, boar, bears, lynx and wolves roamed across the area. Beavers made ponds along the valley streams and elk kept the forest glades clear by feeding on the trees.

The commons have also been influenced by man’s activities since the Stone Age. Distant ancestors hunted many of the wild roaming animals to extinction but took over their ecological roles by grazing domestic animals, coppicing and chopping wood for fuel and building.

The monks of Bochham

Five of the 12 ponds on the commons are man-made, created by the Benedictine monks of Chertsey Abbey to store fish for food. From around AD666, the monks owned all the land around the Saxon settlement then known as Bochham – ‘the village by the beeches’. Pannage, their right to graze pigs on acorns there, is in the Domesday Book of 1086.

Trees displaying autumn colour around a pond at Bookham Commons, Surrey
Autumn colour at Bookham Commons, | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Henry VIII plunders Bookham’s timber

It’s believed that the areas around Bookham were among Henry VIII’s favoured hunting grounds – and he was not averse to plundering other local resources either.

The 1538 accounts for the construction of Henry’s grandest residence, Nonsuch Palace, state that the royal carpenter, Stephen Crispian, rode out to various commons including Bowcham (now Bookham), to choose suitable oak for the new palace’s beams.

After Henry dissolved the monasteries in England, he gave the land to the Howard family, the Earls of Effingham. The last owner of Nonsuch Palace was the Countess of Castlemaine.

Victorian day trippers

During the late 19th century, the commons became a popular destination for Victorians with leisure time on their hands, keen to escape the urban bustle and smoke of London for the day.

The nearby railway made the commons easily accessible. And you can still hop on a train to visit the commons today – Bookham station is just five minutes’ walk away.

Locals save Great Bookham Common

In 1923, Eastwick Park in Great Bookham was sold to a property developer, who discovered that it also came with the deeds to Great Bookham Common. Outraged locals banded together and raised enough money to buy back the common and present it to the National Trust to look after for ever.

In those days, the Trust was in its infancy and the local people formed a management committee that cared and funded the common. Little Bookham Common was given to the Trust the following year by Mr H Willock-Pollen, Lord of the Manor of Little Bookham, and in 1925 Banks Common was kindly donated by Mr RR Calburn.

A male Holly Blue butterfly on a leaf at Bookham Commons, Surrey
Bookham Commons has seen many different historical eras but is now home to an abundance of wildlife | © National Trust Images/Matthew Oates

Bookham Commons in wartime

During the Second World War, the commons were occupied by numerous military units, anti-aircraft guns, a search battery, tanks and army vehicles.

They were frequently bombed, and there are still traces of wartime action visible today. The triangular pits on the Eastern Plain once had a concrete base and held an anti-aircraft gun, while the small round ponds, at various locations around the commons, are bomb craters now filled with water.

Wildlife surveys through the decades

The London and Natural History Society has been making detailed surveys of the varied wildlife of Bookham Commons since 1941. The commons are now one of the most thoroughly studied and best recorded areas in England and are designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) by Natural England.

A view into the far distance at Bookham Commons in Surrey with gentle hills covered in heathland and pine forests

Discover more at Bookham Commons

Find out how to get to Bookham Commons, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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A wooden bridge with rustic wooden handrail and duck boards running through an area of heathland at Bookham Commons in Surrey

Things to see and do at Bookham Commons 

Tranquil ponds, woodland glades and open grassland offer places to play, picnic and spot a range of wildlife. And there are dedicated running, cycling and horse riding tracks too.

Purple Emperor butterfly

Butterflies at Bookham Commons 

Bookham Commons is home to some important and rare butterfly species such as the purple emperor, white admiral and silver-washed fritillary.

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