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The Lovelace Bridges in East Horsley

PUBLISHED: 08:04 25 November 2011 | UPDATED: 12:02 24 August 2015

One of the Lovelace Bridges in East Horsley, 'Stony Dene'

One of the Lovelace Bridges in East Horsley, 'Stony Dene'

If you go down to the woods today, you can be sure of a big surprise - well, you can if you're in East Horsley at any rate. Hidden deep in the forest is a series of strange, tunnel-like structures that have intrigued passers-by for years, and now a huge restoration project is underway to restore them to their former glory

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2007

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If you've ever been out for a walk in the woods around East Horsley, you may well have stumbled across some rather mysterious bridges lurking in the undergrowth and wondered what possible purpose they might have served. Many rumours surround these tunnel-like structures, varying from the practical to the downright strange.

Built in the latter half of the 19th century, they were all individually designed, uniquely decorated, meticulously handcrafted and set deep in the woods - but why?

One of the more outlandish theories is that the English eccentric who created them, the first Lord Lovelace, may have been deformed and wanted to travel to and from Horsley without being seen by villagers on the main road.

But, before you get visions of a Mary Shelley world in the middle of Surrey, perhaps we should look at some of the more realistic possibilities.

After all, Lord Lovelace left his architectural signature stamped all across the surrounding area - from his magnificent, idiosyncratic home, Horsley Towers, to humble estate workers' cottages, all characterised by a decorative harmony of flint and red brick.

"The earl was a keen forester, who ran a commercial timber business, but the bridges were mini architectural gems not simply utilitarian," says Peter Hattersley, who is overseeing a major project to restore the horseshoe-shaped bridges. "So he may have been aiming to impress his society guests with complicated carriage drives, doubling and twisting through his estate, in a display of progressive thinking and wealth."

Coming upon them suddenly in the woods, one gets a wonderfully gothic sense of romantic decay helped by their names: Raven, Troy, Hermitage, East and West Briary, Stoney Dene, Robin Hood and Meadow Platt.

Originally, there were 15 of the structures, but over the years, tree roots have infiltrated them, causing them to sag and break apart. By the time Peter chanced across them, when he began riding his horse regularly along the forest paths, only ten remained - and they were in a sorry state of disrepair.

Peter, who lives on the edge of West Horsley, decided something had to be done before they reached the point of no return. He hoped they would make a good project for the Millennium or the Queen's Golden Jubilee but failed to get a response. Then Mike Dodd, who had a shared interest in the bridges, joined the Horsley Countryside Preservation Society (HCPS) committee, and by happy coincidence the parish council's footpaths and bridleways committee decided to look at bridge repairs. Things started moving.

Prof Alan Crocker of Surrey Archaeological Society was enthusiastic and Peter secured the support of key organisations including Surrey County Council, Guildford Borough Council, the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Horsley Countryside Preservation Society and Forest Enterprise. Better still, he managed to win funding.

"The Lovelace Bridges Project was launched in March 2003 in the grand hall of Horsley Towers," says Peter. "I was able to announce a SITA grant of £13,000 to add to the £2,000 allocated from Surrey's Historic Buildings Fund and £1,000 from the county's local committee budget. The aim is to have dedicated teams of volunteers adopting a bridge and getting on with the work. There is plenty of work for years to come."

Volunteers have already put in well over 100 hours removing encroaching vegetation from the other bridges and each one has had a bronze interpretive plaque erected.
A 'Village Link' route has also been created taking people from St. Martin's Court in East Horsley up to Stoney Dene where they can join the Lovelace Trail.

"Apart from the bridge restoration, we're also going to be creating an easy access route for people with mobility problems," continues Peter. "We're hoping to complete the whole project by 2010, the 150th anniversary of the building of the bridges. Our first target was Stoney Dene, the most vulnerable of the crumbling bridges, and the Lord Lieutenant Sarah Goad started the restoration by doing some ceremonial repointing of the flintwork."

Stoney Dene looks very different now - thanks largely to Des Hollier, chairman of the preservation society and former parish council chairman, who has been in charge of the flintwork. The arch now boasts smart new decorative brick detail and a stabilised structure.

"I first learnt of the existence of the Lovelace Bridges on a cycling trip in the 1960's," says Des. "But it wasn't until I came to live in East Horsley in 1983 and joined the HCPS, that I took a real interest.

"I was involved from the start of the project and realised that much of the work would have to be carried out by volunteers in order to control the costs. I decided to add to my previous do-it-yourself building skills and a life time interest in drystone walling by taking courses at the Weald and Downland Museum in the necessary techniques.

"I am often asked why I do this instead of playing golf, and I am often tempted to reply, 'have you seen my golf?!' The truth is that I prefer to do this - if we don't look after our surroundings then who will?"

If they needed any further encouragement, the team has recently won two big awards for their work; Peter Hattersley received the Mayor of Guildford's Award for Community Service and the HCPS was the recipient of the Surrey Industrial History Group's 2007 Conservation Award. It is hard to think of a more deserving winner.

 

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