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Artists and musicians give a voice to Leith Hill in oil exploration battles

PUBLISHED: 17:42 18 August 2016 | UPDATED: 17:42 18 August 2016

Surrey Hills blue by Kiri Jones

Surrey Hills blue by Kiri Jones

Archant

The narrow, twisting lanes around Coldharbour have generally been the preserve of pub-hunters, outdoor adventurers and artists in search of inspiration, but recent years have seen oil prospectors focus on what may lie beneath the trees. Local residents and artists continue to battle to preserve the much-loved beauty spot – and you can join them this summer...

The picnic at Leith Hill's Bury Hill Woods - where oil exploration is proposedThe picnic at Leith Hill's Bury Hill Woods - where oil exploration is proposed

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2016

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It all began with a picnic on Leith Hill. No, not the inspiration for a long-lost Jane Austen novel but the formation of A Voice for Leith Hill, a community group of artists. Their mission since October 2015: to raise awareness of, and campaign against, the planned oil exploration at Leith Hill.

“The idea has been to take peaceful action through a series of events, such as art exhibitions, since the oil company Europa received the green light to go ahead, despite a six-and-a-half-year legal battle by local residents,” says co-organiser and artist, Sarajane Ferris. “So far, we’ve held an art exhibition at The Star in Dorking, painted in Dorking High Street and held a wonderful evening of live music, art, talks and poetry at The Plough Inn in Coldharbour. It’s still surprising how many local people are unaware of the oil prospecting on Leith Hill. The events have surpassed our expectations and there’s more to come this summer.”

Before that though: a brief history. While fracking is a hot topic these days, Europa Gas and Oil’s first application to drill for oil at Leith Hill was placed in October 2008. Almost immediately, the Leith Hill Action Group (LHAG) was created by local residents. Many years of legal wrangling ensued...

“There’s a tremendous amount of public feeling about this and Nimbyism has nothing to do with it,” the internationally-renowned wildlife activist, Virginia McKenna, a local resident and member of LHAG, told Surrey Life last year. “Thousands of people visit the area to walk, cycle and get out into the countryside. The more urbanised we become, the more people will need that refreshment.”

However, by August of last year, permission had been granted for drilling after a government inspector overturned Surrey County Council’s original refusal.

“This is not shale gas – it’s a conventional oil well and was first mapped by BP in 1988 and has been waiting to be drilled since,” the chief executive of Europa Oil and Gas, Hugh Mackay, told the BBC at the time. “The conventional oil industry has operated very discretely and a lot of people don’t realise there is an oil industry in the south-east.”

With the legal process having now ended, locals remain unsatisfied with the decision to bring drilling to their doorstep and have highlighted further concerns about proposed HGV movements up and down the narrowly-banked Coldharbour Lane, as well as the potential impact on the area’s water table (East Surrey Water has highlighted that drilling through water-bearing greensand rocks could adversely affect their sources in the area) and also on local wildlife.

“Although Europa has now been granted planning permission, they must still obtain the necessary permits to be allowed to go ahead with the drilling,” says Sarajane. “The A Voice for Leith Hill campaign was formed to give everyone a voice, including those that cannot speak for themselves: the environment, the wildlife and future generations to come.”

Next up, the group is hosting the A Voice for Leith Hill art exhibition at the National Trust’s Leith Hill Place, the former home of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams who was himself inspired by the lovely views. Featuring work by local artists including Sarajane, Kiri Jones, Nick Webber, Eric Barfield, James Oliver and Sheilagh Noble, it runs from Saturday August 6 to Sunday October 30 (admission to the house is £5 for adults and £2.50 for children).

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