Surrey archaeological sites – 10 of the best
PUBLISHED: 12:13 15 August 2012 | UPDATED: 21:28 07 October 2014
Surrey Archaeological Society picks out ten of our most important sites in Surrey
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2012
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Holmbury Iron Age Hill Fort
The Iron Age, 2,000-3,000 years ago, was marked by settlements of large roundhouses and hilltop earthworks often known as ‘hill forts’. Evidence of roundhouse settlements has been found at Brooklands, Leatherhead and Tongham, though there is nothing left to see today. Much more visible, however, are the hill forts. Exactly why these massive earthworks were built is not known but Surrey has some good examples: ‘Caesar’s Camps’ near Farnham and Wimbledon; St Ann’s Hill in Chertsey; St George’s Hill in Weybridge; Hascombe; Anstiebury; and, the most dramatic of all, at Holmbury. There, you can explore the site, look out at the magnificent views and imagine how and why it was built.
Mesolithic Museum at Abinger
Going back even further, traces of human settlements dating back 30,000 years have been found across the county: a hunting camp at Church Lammas, Staines; a possible Neolithic settlement at Egham; flint knapping sites at Guildford and Bletchingley; a Neolithic henge at Shepperton. The only very early site you can visit today though is at the Mesolithic Museum at Abinger and then only by prior arrangement.
At one stage, Surrey had five royal palaces that are now long gone: Richmond; Nonsuch in Ewell; Oatlands in Weybridge; Guildford; and Woking. Each was eventually abandoned and largely destroyed but special open days are held at the excavations at Woking Palace on occasion and for this reason this is a top archaeological site.
There are few traces of Roman Surrey visible today (with a noticeable exception, see No.8). However, the lines of some Roman roads can still be seen of which the best known is Stane Street. Once linking London with Chichester, the road is easily traceable on modern maps, and Mickleham Down, near Leatherhead, is one of the best preserved sections.
By the Bronze Age, from 4,000 years ago, people had built more permanent field systems, defensible sites and burial mounds that can still be seen today. There were, for example, large circular enclosures at Carshalton and Nore Hill near Chelsham, and burial mounds on Horsell and Crooksbury Commons and Reigate Heath. The best site to visit though is Frensham Common.
As for Saxon remains, not a great deal is left today, but there was once an important monastery at Chertsey, a settlement at Hurst Park, Molesey, and many cemeteries. The best archaeological remains, however, are in local museums. Two churches thought to be truly Saxon in origin are St Mary’s in Guildford and St Peter’s in Godalming.
The Normans left behind some important remains in the shape of defended mounds at Bletchingley, Reigate, Guildford and Farnham. The last three were later extended to form major castles and these provide three more of the top archaeological sites to visit in Surrey. Guildford Castle is particularly interesting because it also became the site for one of Surrey’s royal palaces.
Roman Villa and Tile Works in Ashtead
The biggest Roman settlement was at Southwark, with smaller examples at Croydon, Staines and Ewell, and rural temples at Wanborough, Titsey and Farley Heath – the outline of the latter can still be seen today. The best place to visit, however, is Ashtead’s Roman Villa and Tile Works which holds occasional open days.
Chilworth Gunpowder Mills
Archaeology is not just about burial mounds and castles, of course. Surrey has also been involved with the start of many modern industries such as glass, canal transport, gunpowder, steel, electricity and engineering. The towpath of the Wey Navigation provides a level walk from Godalming to Weybridge passing beautiful Surrey countryside and one of the earliest stretches of canal in Britain; dating back to at least 1653. The Tillingbourne stream was also important for industry and at Chilworth you can find the remains of an old gunpowder works. Established by the East India Company in 1626, it was the largest supplier of gunpowder in the country in the 17th and 18th centuries. The site operated right up to 1920 and the remains are now a scheduled ancient monument that can be visited.
Religious buildings have played an important part in shaping the county of Surrey. The Archbishop of Canterbury had a palace at Croydon; the Bishops of Winchester had palaces at Farnham and Esher; Chertsey Abbey controlled large areas of land; and the monks of Waverley Abbey, the first Cistercian house in the country, had great influence. In a modern twist, Waverley was used as a setting for Danny Boyle’s horror film 28 Days Later as well as the comedy Hot Fuzz starring Simon Pegg. Waverley Abbey, the abbey’s bridges at Tilford, Elstead and Eashing, and the Great Barn at Wanborough are some of the best surviving medieval structures in Surrey.
- Surrey Archaeological Society is the largest archaeological society in the county and offers members the chance to take part in a wide range of local history and archaeological activity. There are also local societies through-out the county that provide many opportunities to get involved. For more information, visit their website at www.surreyarchaeology.org.uk.
Surrey history trail