I live in Surrey, a county famed for being bland and suburban, but in fact a landscape constantly at odds with itself: the suburban, yes, but also the industrial, the agricultural, the urban, and – situated as it is in the fast depleting greenbelt – tracts of ancient woodland, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and deep countryside. From the window of the flat I share with my partner, we are afforded a quite spectacular view of the town we live in and various middle class gardens, but more prominently the Reigate section of the North Downs. Indeed, though miles off, the headlights of doggers in Reigate Hill viewpoint car park shine through our window at night. Lucky us.
One of my favourite places to walk is an odd strip of woodland nestled between the sewage works, the golf course cum common, and Woodhatch, which is sort of like the seventh circle of hell and was built mainly because people stayed after all the raves that happened there in the nineties. It is the working class shame of the very self-important Reigate, and equally working class but more insular Redhill. Everyone knows everyone in Woodhatch, my partner grew up there and if I mention his name to anyone, they know exactly who he is. Woodhatch is weird.
Hatchford – or to use its proper name, Fellands Copse – is weirder. Usually blessed with a more than sensible sense of direction, it is the only place I ever get lost.
I was first introduced to it in May 2016 by my partner (though we were still dancing around that issue then). I had taken him camping in some woods local to the village I grew up in, and he had felt the need to show me some of the natural world of his adolescence.
We dragged his new tent (purchased especially for Download Festival which was fast approaching) and various camping accoutrements through the common, across the golf course, and through labyrinthine suburbs. But in one step we had gone from red brick council houses to undulating green fields, and the glint of sluggish river mole.
I recognised the place, a field off Lonesome Lane (what a street name!) where I had disgraced myself in front of him and his friends when I was seventeen and stupidly in love, and had afterwards sworn to never speak to him again (which clearly worked brilliantly, as here we are a decade later, sharing a flat) as he had – in my eyes – spurned me in favour of another. I later found out he had been injured quite severely that evening and had better things to think about than people mooning after him. I was a little nonplussed at first, though I knew he’d forgotten the incident. (I have since gone back and purged the place of the shame of being a teenager; there is a lovely willow you can sit in, dangling your feet over the river).
Thankfully we walked on, into tall fields of wheat (ugh, another thing Teresa May ruined for us) and meadows full of frenetic rabbits, and past allotments peopled by threadbare scarecrows until we got to a small footbridge, and the wood loomed over us like a promise.
I was shown around with strange enthusiasm, ‘Here’s where we used to smoke and watch Reno 911… Here’s where I used to leave clues for another tracker – we circled around each other for months, it was cool… Here’s where we’d see the orbs…’
‘Orbs?’ Now my partner is nothing if not brutally realistic (almost too realistic for his own good) and though a little pickled from all the substances, if he saw orbs, he probably did.
‘Yeah, lights used to float down and sort of… stare at us for a while, and then float away.’
Huh, I thought, but continued on through the woods. We set up camp in a field on the edge of the wood, and were disturbed by neither man nor beast nor spirit. I only got a little lost, when I went on walking on my own.
A little of the ecology of Fellands Copse: a coppiced ancient, semi-natural oak wood sloping up from the river, its soil is rich and dark. Bluebells proliferate in spring. There are a few wide, delicious clearings crowded with nettles. I have seen deer, and rabbits, the usual squirrels, and vast clouds of cabbages whites. There are stately rowan trees with their bloody berries, and one small, dirty pond full of rotting wood. Towards the south there is a sudden wall of birches, tight and slender, divided by a thin path. There are a few of these plantations, probably grown for timber. Pylons wander through the trees, their tethering cables gouging lines through the tree cover. Further south the wood abruptly stops for twenty or thirty feet, pylon cable overhead, and then begins again. It is an odd, measly strip of land. In the south-eastern corner there is a tight network of hawthorns. Paths go into these that can only be followed at certain times of year, on certain days, when the moon and the hour are correct. Dogs will stop short of taking these paths; will look at you warily if you wander towards them.
I went back about a year later, we had just moved in together, and all the pressure of being a Proper Grown Up was beginning to weigh on me. I walked south, along the river, making my way past the stinking pool, I found a felled tree across the river, and rather than cross it, began to navigate the brambled way ahead of me. I stopped halfway down the path, now surrounded by thorns.
‘Something dead is down there,’ I thought, and wisely turned back.
I walked towards the birch plantation, to see if I could make anymore sense of it: none, but I discovered a small shed in the field where we camped. The grasses had grown so high you could not see across the field, and I wondered what might be lurking in them. There was a gate – old and rusted – in the south west that had not been there before. Brutal signs declaring PRIVATE PROPERTY: NO TRESPASSING were hung along the track there. I turned back. Two crows bickered in the trees above. In the next field I came to sudden stop, a roe deer had come to a halt not ten feet from me. We eyed each other cautiously, and it sniffed the air between us before bounding off again, into the woods. I walked north, but came out again at the south-eastern corner. i felt oddly harried. Time to go home; I stopped only to eat my apple by the river.
A month or so later I visited with my partner, though nothing of note happened. Largely, we walked north.
It was April last that I went back, the cold still clawing out with cruel fingers. I wanted to see if I could get past the brambles. I did not care about the dead thing: whatever it was would be rotted away by now. I hoped. I knew in winter it might be a little more accessible, and now was my last chance.
I almost didn’t go. I was restless, and very sad. I’d walked out to the common in the way of Yeats’ wandering Aengus, ‘because a fire was in my head.’ But I’d come to the edge of Earlswood Common where I’d seen more than usual level of shelters built from stray wood, and the eerie was in my blood. I wanted to get lost.
Crossing the road and making my way through the allotments and football fields, I wended my way back, excitement bubbling in my throat.
The pond was a little clearer, but still murky and evil looking; the tree across the river had become a little less picturesque. The path ahead lay open as a door. Gone were the brambles and nettles, the great, crushing green of the summer: but it was not as if it had been cut back, or died away, but crawled back, drawn aside like the curtains of a stage.
I walked on, finding the paths to the hawthorns, robed as they were in white flowers, and following until they sank down, only accessible if you crawled. I was not prepared to crawl through thorns that day. Perhaps one day I will be.
At the junction of two paths, and the wires of two different pylons, there was a sunken, mossy dip, about the height of a man, and I wondered if I had found my dead thing. Above this was a perfect blue egg with a hole clean though it, like a hag stone. I carried it a little way, and then gave it back to the land. I could never take anything from this landscape, I am afraid of what I might bring back with me.
Just south of the hawthorns, I found myself in oak wood again, exactly the same wood as one came through from the birch wall; no birches were there, but large metal signs PRIVATE PROPERTY
T RES PA S
I turned back, again, though I am no stranger to trespassing. Indeed, I consider it a hobby. Growing up in ‘the sticks’ before the internet really caught on left what I call Common People Things (you dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do) and trespassing. We did both, (what can I say, we were the last generation of teenage delinquents, it was practically a requirement.) I have spent a large amount of my social life breaking into old industrial buildings and asylums, climbing up on church roofs, trying to get into rich people’s swimming pools, roving across farmland, and getting into every wood that I could. There’s always a frisson of nerves with these things, but the desire to see something beautiful, delight in something forbidden, has always won out.
But those signs, just out of reach, almost out of sight, with a well trodden path beyond them made the hair on the back of my neck bristle.
Further investigation that day turned up a piece of fox pelvis, multiple NO
signs, the inexplicable break in the woods, and a path. I’d passed through the birch wall, crossed the empty meadow, into another wood. I knew I was closing in on the territory of the ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY’ again, and was about to turn back at the sight of another metal sign nailed into a tree, when I saw it had been blacked out. All of them had. Painted over. There was a small bridge across a stream. The right path. The path they wanted you to take.
I followed it gingerly for a little way, looking around constantly, worried someone with a gun might appear: it happens more than you’d think in shooting country. My nerves jangled especially at the sight of a house in the distance. I was unsure of whether or not to continue. I had no idea this part of the woods was even here, indeed, on previous visits, I hadn’t even seen it on google maps. Ahead of me, in pure Lewisian weirdness, was a lamppost, unlit, and beneath that, a manhole cover.
I left the path and bolted, catching myself on the reaching hands of hawthorn, and leaping over the stream – which felt to me like a boundary – back towards woods I knew better. When I crossed back through the birch wall, back into dog-walker territory, I felt a little easier.
On my walk home I saw twenty swans congregated by the lake.
What I know of the place: it’s been around for a long time, and the wood managed there is used across Surrey, especially in fencing. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was isolation hospital there, probably for military use. There’s very little written about it, and the local guide gives the wrong postcode to get there. I can’t imagine being isolated in such a strange place did the patients any good: whatever is in those woods is far from benevolent, though I would not say it was entirely made of malice either.
People go missing there, my partner once said, or if people go missing, it’s where they’re probably buried. And you shouldn’t trust dogs off the lead, he says, some locals out towards Leigh have trained them to take down deer, to be vicious things made of teeth.
I don’t know if that’s true, or just something used to frighten me: there is something worrying, I know, in my pathological need to go off walking on my own. A lot of people tell me I am brave, which I have always thought ridiculous (anything can be an adventure if you want it to be). There’s a quote from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline which states, “when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.” Which is right, but the same sort of thing could easily be described as bloody stupid. I should know: whatever is in that wood scares the shit out of me, but it calls out to me, and one day I won’t be able resist.