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One-and-a-half thousand acres of stunning heathland will be reunited, thanks to the country's longest 'under-land' road tunnel. Here, the National Trust's Emma Brien reveals how the Hindhead Tunnel will change more than just the view

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Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2011


One-and-a-half thousand acres of stunning heathland will be reunited, thanks to the countrys longest under-land road tunnel. Here, the National Trusts Emma Brien reveals how the Hindhead Tunnel will change more than just the view


NICHOLAS OWEN VISITS THE HINDHEAD TUNNEL FOR SL


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Marking an historic moment for Hindhead Commons and for the National Trust, this month will see the A3, which has dissected this remarkable landscape, disrupted views and created noise, pollution and traffic for over a hundred years, reopen beneath nearly three quarters of a million cubic metres of earth. The opening of the Hindhead Tunnel, as it will be known, means that the two halves of the commons will be reunited, bringing enormous benefits all round.


A significant past
The Hindhead Commons site is particularly significant for the National Trust as it was one of the charitys first major acquisitions. Local people, including Sir Robert Hunter, founder member of the Trust, raised money to purchase the land, protecting a way of life and guaranteeing access for everyone. Today, these principles are still at the heart of what the Trust does, but Hindhead has not been an easy area to manage.


One of the largest wildernesses in south east England, the commons also have some of the most magnificent views and support an array of rare and threatened species, but things were not always like this.


The thousand year-old tradition of grazing livestock died out in the mid 20th century, and, like many lowland heaths, it became over-run by invasive scrub, mostly pine and birch. As the heathlands vanished, it left many species dependent on this habitat struggling to survive.


However, in more recent years, the Trust has carried out successful heathland restoration in both the Devils Punch Bowl and on Hindhead Commons, which has resulted in parts of these areas being awarded the highest levels of environmental recognition: SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and SPA (Special Protection Area).


Now, a new chapter in the Hindhead story, with the opening of the tunnel, or rather the burying of the old A3, will see further benefits to the landscape and its wildlife.


We are determined to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, says head ranger, Matt Cusack. We will be improving the area even further for wildlife, restoring more of the native heathland landscape and creating new walks, footpaths and cycle routes.
Balancing the needs and expectations of the public with that of wildlife is a tricky one to get right, but one the National Trust faces every day.


For example, while the A3 ran around the edge of the Punch Bowl, a scrub cover was allowed to grow to help obscure the road and reduce the impact of the noise and fumes. Matt and his team can now thin this to create heathland corridors for wildlife from Highcombe Edge, through the Devils Punch Bowl, all the way across to Hindhead Commons.


Without open corridors to link significant areas of heath, many of the vulnerable species will not migrate and breed, he says. This may seem odd, but if you or I went to the coast we would probably stay on the beach rather than venture into the sea across to the mainland its a similar situation for our heathland wildlife.


A heathland corridor has recently been created at Highcombe, which currently looks very bare, but as Matt explains: In five to ten years time, this area will be covered in heathland vegetation, including heather, and will be rich with wildlife.


Other species to benefit significantly from a reunited common will be ground-nesting birds, such as woodlarks and nightjars. These, and other birds, have never nested within about 200 yards of the road, so potentially their habitat will increase dramatically.


A bright future
The tunnel scheme will also bring major benefits for visitors too. With the tunnel open, the first change people will notice is of course the tranquillity, especially as the main car park will become the end of the road through Hindhead village.


The thinning of the trees along the byway (just above the old A3) will also open up amazing views all around the Punch Bowl, so that you can walk or cycle along a hard surface and for the first time in decades really feel like you are in a wilderness. The trees around the top of Gibbet Hill will also be thinned to create 360 degree views. And by next spring there will be three way-marked walks to choose from.


Another big change, later this summer, will be the removal of the rangers portacabin and yard, as they move to the Witley Centre.


This will allow us to properly link Hindhead Commons to the main arrival point, says Matt. Scrub thinning around the car park has already created a much more open feel with wonderful views over the Punch Bowl, but this change allows us to open up views south towards Haslemere and restore the land back to its native heath.


There are also major plans to replace the caf with a new visitor centre that will include upgraded restaurant services and a small shop. It is hoped this will provide a lovely, peaceful spot to enjoy afternoon tea and the glorious, uninterrupted views. It will also, no doubt, be a great place for families with young children to let off some steam together outdoors.
Meanwhile, for those who want to explore further afield, two brand-new circular walks are being created, with explanatory panels at significant points along the route, and guides available from noticeboard leaflet dispensers.


The first route along Highcombe Edges open heath is already laid out and passes the Robertson Memorial before descending into the Punch Bowl and back along Sailors Lane, while the second, slightly longer route, will explore Hidden Hindhead passing historic landmarks, such as the Gibbet, the Sailors Stone and the Temple of the Four Winds.
So, from this summer, Hindhead will not only be free from major tailbacks and traffic congestion, it will also be a place that people will come to from far and wide to discover nature, enjoy the outdoors and relax.


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