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The History of Hindhead Commons and the Devil’s Punch Bowl

View from Gibbet Cross at Hindhead Commons and the Devil's Punch Bowl, Surrey in autumn
View from Gibbet Cross at Hindhead Commons and the Devil's Punch Bowl in autumn | © National Trust Images/John Miller

One of the National Trust’s earliest acquisitions, Hindhead Commons and the Devil’s Punch Bowl has a fascinating history. Learn about the lives of broomsquires who lived near the Commons, the legend of the Devil’s Punch Bowl and how Hindhead inspired one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous books.

The Legend of the Devil’s Punch Bowl

Ever wondered how the Devil’s Punch Bowl got its name? According to legend, the Devil would jump from hill to hill at the three ‘Devil’s Jumps’ near the village of Churt. This tormented Thor, God of Thunder, who lived at nearby Thor’s Lie (Thursley). When Thor tried to strike the Devil with thunder and lightning, the Devil retaliated by scooping up a handful of earth and hurling it at Thor. The depression that remained is the Devil's Punch Bowl.

The Portsmouth to London Road

The byway which leads from the main car park around the Devil’s Punch Bowl follows the route of the original London to Portsmouth road.

The road was re-routed to that of the old A3 in the 1830s when it became feasible to make a cutting through the hillside. The re-route meant horses pulling ever larger and heavier carriages avoided the exhausting climb to the highest parts of Hindhead.

Milestones were a common feature along these turnpike roads. From 1767, they were compulsory to help coaches keep to schedule.

In 2010, while working on the new A3 Hindhead tunnel, an old milestone was discovered down a bank of the Punch Bowl. The stone, clearly inscribed ‘Hyde Park Corner 39, Portsmouth 30', was confirmed as milestone No.41 from the old Portsmouth road. We've now reinstated the milestone in what is believed to be its original position, according to an Ordnance map from 1811. You can find it north of the Sailor’s Stone on the byway.

Gibbet Cross at Hindhead Commons and the Devil's Punch Bowl, Surrey in autumn
Gibbet Cross at Hindhead Commons and the Devil's Punch Bowl | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Murder on the highway

In 1786, a sailor on his way from London to Portsmouth docks was brutally murdered by three men he’d befriended in a local Thursley pub. Soon after, the Sailor’s Stone was erected to mark the spot where the poor sailor met his death.

The three villainous highwaymen were tried and then hung on Gibbet Hill, near the site of the murder, as a warning to other criminals. After the hanging, many fears and superstitions arose around Gibbet Hill. In 1851 Sir William Erle, an English lawyer, judge and Whig politician, paid for a Celtic cross to be put up on Gibbet Hill banish these fears and raise the local spirits.

The Celtic cross is now a Grade II listed monument by English Heritage. To relive the area’s gruesome history, walk the Old Portsmouth Road around the Devil’s Punch Bowl to find both the Celtic cross and the inscribed Sailor’s Stone.

Temple of the Four Winds at Hindhead Commons

The lodge known as the Temple of the Four Winds was built around 1910 by Viscount Pirrie, a leading Irish shipbuilder and businessman.

The Viscount’s Witley Park estate included a deer park over this area and many elaborate picnic lunches were held at the lodge for his hunting friends. Viscount Pirrie used to enjoy looking out over his estate from here and admiring the extensive views. 

Sadly, the lodge gradually fell into disrepair and was vandalised in 1959. By 1966 it had become a hazard and had to be dismantled. Now, only the stone base remains.

However, with help from the Black Down & Hindhead Supporters, the scrub and undergrowth around the old lodge has been removed, once again opening up wonderful views. Venture up to Hurt Hill to see the ongoing work, which is set to eventually restore the stone plinth to its former glory.

The Broomsquires of Hindhead Commons

Broomsquires once lived in cottages on the heath and made besom brooms from heather and birch found in the heathland. They sold their brooms to grand establishments like Windsor Castle and Hampton Court. The last remaining broomsquire living and working at the Devil’s Punch Bowl was George Mayes, who lived at the original Highcombe Farm on Sailors Lane in the early 20th century.

The Devil's Punch Bowl, Hindhead Common, Surrey
The Devil's Punch Bowl, Hindhead Common, Surrey | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Famous connections

Sir Robert Hunter (1844 - 1913)

Co-founder of the National Trust Sir Robert Hunter lived in Haslemere, near Hindhead. He loved the commons and hills of Surrey and shortly after forming the Trust in 1895, he organised a public subscription to purchase much of Hindhead Commons, one of the Trust's earliest acquisitions. Sir Robert's far-sightedness has meant that over a century later we can all enjoy Hindhead Commons today.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930)

Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived at Undershaw in Hindhead from 1897 to 1907. Sir Arthur frequently walked on the Commons and he, together with Sir Robert Hunter and others, was on the first Hindhead Commons committee. It’s said that Conan Doyle used Hindhead as the inspiration for the book ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw also lived in Hindhead at Blen Cathra, now the site of St Edmund's School, at the end of the 19th century.

John Tyndall (1820-1893)

Scientist John Tyndall lived and died in Hindhead village at a house now known as Tyndalls, named after him. He's most famous for his work on the discovery of the greenhouse effect.

Children running just below the viewpoint, Devil's Punch Bowl, Hindhead Common, Surrey

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