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The Commons


The commons are dear to the residents of Fox Corner.  Sometimes cursed in the winter when they are wet, but beloved in the summer when they are glorious, this section will look at each of the commons, pointing out a few features of interest.  From Fox Corner, we are lucky to be able to explore commons in Woking, Worplesdon and Pirbright.

The Woking commons:  We are referring here to the rectangular-shaped Brookwood Heath, which lies between the 12th fairway of Worplesdon Golf Club and Brookwood Cemetery.  This is covered in the Malthouse Lane section.

The Worplesdon commons:  Rickford Common is within easy reach of Fox Corner, although probably less frequented by Fox Corner locals.  It does have the advantage of being connected to Whitmoor Common, and thus allows long uninterrupted walks over commonland.  It is probably damper underfoot than the other commons near to Fox Corner.  It is covered on our sister site, the Rickford website.

The Pirbright commons.  There are 4 distinct, but connected, commons in Pirbright near Fox Corner.  They go by the collective name of Bullswater Common, and it is these 4 areas on which we will now focus in this section.


Bullswater Common

We have shown below the current OS map (with thanks), showing the 4 areas of Bullswater Common edged in (from south to north) purple, turquoise, yellow and orange.  We will refer to these 4 areas as A, B, C and D respectively.  Note:  the boundaries shown on the map are approximate only.  Please do not treat them as definitive.  Please don’t climb over fences, gates, etc into any private land adjoining the commons. 

We have shown next to it the 1875 OS map (with thanks) of the same area, with today’s 4 areas marked in the same colours.  Unsurprisingly the commons in 1875 were commonland in more or less the same positions then as they are today.  Area A has had some land grabbed by the Pirbright Institute, and a small sliver of Area D (on the western side at the northern end) has been built on.  Other than that, they are pretty much identical.

Comm - WD land on 2023 map.jpg

The commons are of course frequented by local walkers every day of the year.  At certain times they are also home to various animals (horses, cows, donkeys and goats, for example) that are required to keep the vegetation in check during the growing season.  The signboards give examples of the natural wildlife which can be found.  Of special note, glow-worms are a late evening treat and the occasional stonechat in the summer is a real delight.

The commons can become pretty wet underfoot in the wintertime.  In the author’s experience, Area B is the worst offender in this regard – especially its eastern section.  Protruding tree roots and rabbit holes are other hazards to the unwary.  And on a warm summer’s day the occasional snake might be spotted.

In the summer the fire risk can be high.  Several fires have been reported in the local newspapers over the years, but the last one we can remember was c2000.  Since then Guildford Borough Council, supported by local volunteers have done excellent work in keeping the vegetation under control.  Birches, pine and gorse, in particular, have felt the chainsaw’s blade.  As a result, the commons today feel more open than before, and the fire risk has been reduced – great work.

We have noted in the sections below some particular curiosities.  But the commons also have the distinction of hosting Pirbright’s oldest evidence of human habitation.  It is not well-known that two “disc barrows” exist on Bullswater Common.  They are thought to date from 2000-1100 BC (ie the Bronze Age), and to have been used for burial or cremation purposes.

An internet search will reveal the barrows’ supposed location in 2 different places, but beware – both of these are incorrect!   Because of the barrows’ historical value, we have been advised not to reveal their exact location.  Should the walker stumble on one, we would ask them to treat the barrow with the utmost respect.


The early history of Bullswater Common

The barrows referred to above show that the commons were known to our ancestors some 3,000-4,000 years ago.  I’m afraid we can shed no light on these people whatsoever. 

Our knowledge of Pirbright from 1300 onwards suggests that the commons at that time were regarded as infertile land, unfit for building, and treated simply as waste land for the next several hundred years.  The 1605 Morden map shows the Pirbright area as being part of Windsor Forest.  He noted that red deer could be hunted in the Pirbright area.

They were owned by the Lord of the Manor of Pirbright, but were not settled by anyone, and therefore no copyholds were ever issued over the land.  Instead the inhabitants of Pirbright had “commoners’ rights” over the land.  This meant that they could graze animals, catch fish, and collect wood, heather, turf, stones, gravel, etc.

That situation lasted unchanged until the late 1800’s.  But how did it manage to escape any attempts to develop or cultivate it?  In particular why weren’t any houses built on the land during the housebuilding frenzies of the 1930’s, 1950’s and 1960’s?  Who should we thank for the fact that all this wonderful walking land still exists untouched on our doorstep?   


The 1870’s:  The Arrival of The Military

You might be surprised that the answer is:  The Army.  More precisely, we should thank the War Department in the 1870’s, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in the 1980’s and Guildford Borough Council ever since.

Let’s go back to the 1870’s.  Actually we need to start 20 years before that. 

The British army had used a camp at Chobham in the 1850’s to train its troops, and a stone cross just north of the M3 marks the occasion when Queen Victoria reviewed her troops in 1853, just before the Crimean War.  The camp was considered to be very successful in providing a good training ground for the soldiers.  Further explorations of the area revealed that the bedrock of virtually all of West Surrey and NE Hampshire comprised the sand and gravels that they’d found at Chobham.  Accordingly the War Department purchased land in Aldershot in 1854 and established a camp there. The next year they purchased land at Ash for firing ranges.  Over the following 30 years the department purchased other pieces of vacant land in the area.  Camps at Bagshot and North Camp were built.  Later, Deepcut, Mytchett, and other bases followed.

And in 1875, the War Department (WD) bought 3,000 acres of Pirbright heathland.  Of the 3,000 acres, Bullswater Common comprised about 55 acres (ie c2%).  Shortly afterwards they started work on building the Pirbright Barracks, but that’s another story. 

In 1877 a meeting of Pirbright inhabitants was held in The White Hart to form a committee of 5 people to agree the level of compensation to be paid to those Pirbright people who would lose their rights over the commonland.  The 5 people selected included 3 whose names are familiar to us:  Charles Peyto Shrubb of Merrist Wood, Henry Greenfield of Bakersgate, and John Cherryman of Causeway Farm, whose son would purchase Whites Farm 40 years later.  Given that real money was at stake, these gentlemen were presumably well-regarded locally, and thought to be good negotiators.  Edward Joseph Halsey (representing the Halsey family, who owned the land) was also appointed. 

The amount finally agreed was £14,000 (worth today £1.3 million – a very tidy sum for “all persons entitled to commonable or other rights”).  Unfortunately we do not know who these persons were, nor how the amount was divvied up between them.  Nor do we know how and when they were paid, or how much of it they spent in the ale-houses of Pirbright that first evening.

In 1881 Parliament ruled that all tracks within the WD land were out of bounds to non-army personnel, except for the main Guildford-Pirbright Road, the Ash Road, and Heath Mill Lane (from Fox Corner to Heath Mill.  So all of what we now call Bullswater Common became inaccessible to the general public.  The commons areas were presumably fenced off, and, like other military ground, were marked at frequent intervals by small (but sturdy) granite blocks inscribed with WD and a number.  A fair number of these blocks can be seen today, but some seem to have been removed.

The question might be asked:  “What did the army use the commons for?”  Unlike the Pirbright Barracks and the Ash Ranges, no permanent structures were built on our commons.  They were used however for the annual summer training exercises in the 1880’s and 1890’s, whereby troops marched from Aldershot to Pirbright and set up camp on Area B. 

After a number of deaths from heatstroke (some buried in Pirbright churchyard), Queen Victoria was so concerned that her troops might suffer from too much sun on the open heathland during these exercises that she instigated the planting of trees (Scots Pines) to provide shade.  It was as a direct result of this that the ubiquitous Scots Pine grows all over the region (it not being indigenous to the area).  They have now threatened the rare heathland, with areas having to be regularly cleared while still young.

And in the early days of WW1, a training camp was established on Area B for troops prior to their departure to Northern France.  We discuss all this more fully under Area B below.

Since WW1 we don’t really know what use the army made of the commons prior to their sale in 1983.  In 1920, the War Dept offered grazing rights over 24 different lots of their land (totalling 1,880 acres) around Aldershot.  This included a fair amount of the Pirbright land.  One of the lots was described as “437 acres at Burner’s Heath, Stanford, Bullswater and Newbridge Commons”.  This suggests to us that they were not planning to use these commons for much (if any) military use, but we don’t know for sure.

Near the path between Malthouse Lane and Chapel Lane the traces of (what appear to be) some mini-trenches can still be seen, aligned in parallel with each other.  Nearby the remains of a 1950’s-style army motorcycle and some 303 cartridge cases were found a few years ago.


The 1980’s:  The Departure of The Military

In 1983 the Secretary of State for Defence sold Bullswater Common back to the Borough of Guildford for about £66,000 (we think), worth around £215,000 today.  Since then there has been very little, if any, building activity, and the commons have become the areas which we now treasure.

Let’s now take a brief look at each of the 4 areas in turn, pointing out items of interest.

Area A

Bounded by Hockford to the south and east, the Pirbright Institute to the west, and the Ash Road to the north, this is the smallest of the 4 areas of commonland.  Part of the reason for this is that the Pirbright Institute has acquired chunks of the commonland to build additional research facilities at various times since its inception in 1913.

Nothing more to say here, except that it is usually deserted, so an ideal place for a stroll.


Area B

Across the Ash Road lies Area B.  It is around 50% larger than Area A, and, like Area A, it is relatively quiet.  It is a lot more open, however, and commands impressive views from one side to the other. 

Quiet it may be today, but it has many tales to tell from the past.  It was used for military training purposes from at least 1887 (and possibly a few years earlier) up to the First World War.

In 1887, the Aldershot manoeuvres (which were an annual training event at the time) involved a march in full kit from Aldershot to Bullswater along the Ash to Pirbright road.  With 2,000 infantry and cavalry marching in a 3-mile line, together with 4 guns, ammunition carts, and a drove of bullocks “for dinner”, this must have been a fine sight on a July day.   In those days infantry in the British Army wore scarlet tunics, not today’s khaki and camouflage gear.  Within an hour of the march finishing “the plain of about 20 acres was studded with tents, while all was bustle and excitement”. 

The 1887 newspaper coverage described how, on the following day, “a fight in the neighbourhood” was planned.  In fact it took the form of a skirmish on the Fox Hills in the Ash Ranges, culminating in the seizure of Crown Prince’s Wood.  The day after, the troops marched to Sandhurst, but had only proceeded a short distance in the direction of Pirbright when they encountered enemy scouts on Longdown Fort on the Ash Ranges, near Crown Prince Hill, about 3 miles from Bullswater Common. Below is a fuller account of one day’s activities that year.

In 1888 the Aldershot manoeuvres commenced with a 12 mile march by the First Field Column from Aldershot to the camp at Bullswater.  The next few days followed along similar lines to the previous year, although mostly in pouring rain. 

Similar exercises to those in 1887 were held on the Ash Ranges (with an overnight stay at Bullswater) in the following years, up to 1905, and possibly later.  These were not considered to be at all secret – details were reported in several newspapers (sometimes even including the London Evening Standard).  For example, in 1897 it was reported that a Brigade of Cavalry (1,200 men and 1,050 horses) had assembled at Bullswater Common.  In some years troops stayed for up to a month at the common.  It is clear that the Fox Hills were considered in these exercises to be of some strategic importance, and there is reference to guns at Bullswater being used to shell the Fox Hills. 

Various training events were also held at Bullswater Camp.  In 1900, 700 men from The Leeds Rifles arrived at the camp and stayed for a fortnight.  The Camp itself seemed not to have been permanent – it was set up under canvas each year.  However, given the number of times it was used (often in wet conditions), any fauna and flora would have taken a heavy battering.

In August 1914, within days of Britain declaring war on Germany, Lord Kitchener, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War, called for volunteers to join a New Army. Across County Durham and the North East men rushed to enlist.  On 16 September 1914, over 4,000 recruits left Newcastle for Bullswater Camp.  There they were divided into the 12th and 13th Battalions Durham Light Infantry and the 10th and 11th Battalions Northumberland Fusiliers. 

This would have required a large number of tents to be set up on Area B as well as sanitary and other facilities.  The recruits began their military training wearing their own civilian clothes but, eventually, blue serge uniforms were issued. Local collections by Pirbright residents of boots, socks, underclothing etc were made and donated to the camp.  And in late October, 100 obsolete Lee Metford rifles arrived. 

We can only guess as to what the conditions were like.  The Army’s PR Dept soon swung into action (see cuttings from 23 September, 3 October below).

2 letters below from recruits to The Chester-le-Street Chronicle, published on October 9 give a good picture of life at Bullswater at that time. [As a reminder, Chester-le-Street is a large town midway between Durham and Newcastle]

A letter in the 9 November edition of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle (see below) adds a bit more colour to the picture, and gives a good mark to the local Pirbright inhabitants for their contributions.

The pictures below purport to be of Bullswater Common, but the ground surface looks remarkably smooth to our eyes.

There wouldn’t have been much permanent infrastructure at the camp, but one thing there would have been was latrines.  These were dug towards the western (higher and therefore drier) side.  We have shown below the Army’s instructions for digging latrines in 1944, and we suspect that they were similar in 1914.

Astonishingly, the traces of some (at least 11) of the “urine pits” can still be seen, over 100 years later.  They are located between the fence and the Ash Road to the east of Bullswater Common Road.  An official dig in one such pit some years ago found the remains of several old bottles and other rubbish.

While the camp was in use during the early stages of WWI, several offences by soldiers at the camp (mostly involving theft or drunkenness, or both) were reported in the Surrey Advertiser.  Items stolen included bicycles, coats and even chickens.

We think that the recruits were moved to winter quarters at Aldershot during the winter of 1914/15.  This will come as no surprise to anyone who has walked over Area B in winter and had first-hand experience of the quagmire it can become, especially at the eastern corner.  The thought of 4,000 men camping on it in such conditions is not a pleasant one.  Following an inspection visit to the Bullswater Camp in May 1915, it was considered “improbable that the camp would be used again after the present troops had gone, unless filtration works were provided for the waste water.”  Judging by the absence of any later newspaper references, the camp seems to have closed later in 1915.

One young man called George Butterworth was one of the men stationed at Bullswater as a 2nd Lieutenant.  He was born in London in 1885 and grew up in York.  He joined the army in 1914, was offered a commission and soon joined the 13th Battalion Durham Light Infantry at Bullswater Camp as a Second Lieutenant.  In a letter home he wrote that 90% of his Platoon were miners from County Durham.  “Our men are wonderfully good, physically strong, mentally alert and tremendously keen”, he added.

At the time he was a budding composer of classical music, with a strong English flavour.  His best known compositions are ‘A Shropshire Lad’, ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ and ‘Bredon Hill’, all of which (in the humble opinion of the authors) are well worth listening to.  One of his songs is particularly poignant.  “The Lads in their Hundreds”, written in 1911, refers to young men arriving at a country fair, prior to their departure for the Second Boer War (1899-1902).  Foreseeing the impending death of some of them, the song refers to “the lads who will never be old”. 

Tragically George himself was killed during the battle of the Somme in August 1916 by a sniper’s bullet, aged just 31, and he himself became one of “the lads who will never be old”.  His musical career was cut short far too early, and his promise remained unfulfilled.  It is humbling to wander over Bullswater Common and think that it was here that George Butterworth spent some of his last months in his beloved England.

George Butterworth’s music has become more popular over the last 10 years, partly because of WW1 centenary activities.  His music is played in public more frequently nowadays (including at the BBC Proms).  A fuller biography of George Butterworth can be found here:

We have shown a photo of George below.

We will finish this section with 2 super photos of groups of men at Bullswater Camp.  Both were obviously taken after the uniforms had arrived!  The second photo shows the men with the outdated Lee-Metford rifles (which had no straps).  We think therefore that it was taken in October 1914.  We are trying to identify the exact location from the buildings in the background.  Any ideas very welcome!

Area C

This is a very quiet piece of land that can be accessed from both Heath Mill and Bullswater.  There is a delightful path between the two that runs between the heath on one side and the Hodge Brook on the other.  Here’s a recent photo of the area in late winter.

At the Bullswater end of this path, there is a bridge across the Hodge Brook (known locally at that point as “Muddy River”).  We think that this bridge was constructed by the military sometime after they purchased the area in 1875 to enable troops to cross it safely.  A close look at the 1875 OS map shows that an earlier bridge existed prior to 1874 a few yards south of the current bridge, at right angles to the present bridge, but we assume that this did not meet War Dept standards.  The stone foundations of this earlier bridge can still easily be seen. 

We have shown an old photo of Bullswater Common below.  We have no way of identifying exactly where the cows were on the common, but Muddy River would certainly be one strong possibility.  We have also shown a recent photo of the Muddy River Bridge below.

In the late 1990’s local walkers in this area may have been surprised to see a young man wandering around who had set up camp on the common, and was living there, seemingly content and minding his own business.  As far as we know he never did anyone any harm, but it could be a little scary for children to run across him unexpectedly (the area was then much more thickly wooded than it is today).  His name was Keith Marchant and he died while still living on the common, in 2001, aged only 29.  A bench with a plaque has been set up in his name in a quiet spot beneath a couple of Scots Pine trees (pictured below, with a close-up of the plaque).  Keith had been born in Bristol in 1972, but other than that, we know nothing about him.

Area D

Area D has the highest footfall of the 4 areas for two reasons:  Firstly it has direct access from 2 directions (ie from Fox Corner via Malthouse Lane and from Chapel Lane) but secondly it enables the walker to access Brookwood Heath and Brookwood Cemetery easily.

We have described Area D (including several photographs) in some detail in the section dealing with Malthouse Lane.  But we will repeat here 3 items of particular interest:

  • The searchlight battery, which operated during WW2.  The battery was managed from nearby Hogley House.  Traces of the infrastructure can be found easily.  After the war, the hut was used by the Scouts for a time.

  • As one walks up the track from Malthouse Lane, there are, on the left, some curious shallow, parallel trenches.  We don’t know for sure, but these could possibly be the remains of a trench system dug as a training device for WW1 trainee soldiers who were stationed in Area B (refer above).

  • Near the same track, the discovery a few years ago of an old 1950’s-era army motorcycle and some spent .303 cartridges suggests that the War Department (later the MoD) put the land to military use at some stage.

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