The Road to Nowhere
I don’t know when I first heard the term ‘industrial archaeology’, but like cults, pyramid schemes and the history of California, it has since become an obsession of mine. Loosely speaking, it’s the study of material evidence associated with the industrial past, from old bridges and towpaths to decommissioned mines and power stations. But what I really love are the relics - the individual artefacts that have been left behind and abandoned to nature. Rusting machinery, segments of wall, follies, signposts, pillboxes, railway sleepers; the Crystal Palace sphinxes, the Lego lost at sea, and this old wagon from the Buriton Chalk Pits. Even in fiction I love finding them. The green porcelain palace in H G Wells’ The Time Machine, and the post-apocalyptic Ritz in J G Ballard’s The Drowned World. Memories of the human world that have been lost, forgotten or simply overlooked.
For my new book The Bridleway, I visited lots of these kinds of places in my quest to discover what marks have been left on the landscape by horses, humans and the equine industry. I found an abandoned horse-powered quarry, drove through the site of a Roman coaching station, and discovered how London’s Horseferry Road got its name. Today, I thought I’d share another one with you. It’s one of my favourite local places to walk, so last week I took the kids and dogs there for a morning in the spring sunshine.
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This is the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a 700-acre horseshoe-shaped valley crowned with woodland on the edge of Surrey. Today it is a SSSI and AONB, a mosaic of trees, flowers and scrubland home to an abundance of wildlife, including nightjars, redstarts and lesser spotted woodpeckers. But within my own lifetime, the path pictured above was once the A3 trunk road where three lanes of traffic ran from London to Portsmouth for two centuries.
When Richard I commissioned the first dock to be built in Portsmouth in 1194, a decent road was also vital to carry goods and soldiers back and forth from London. But the sandstone hills at Hindhead, halfway between the two cities, meant the road initially had to pass over the top, which meant all travellers had to climb, either on foot or horseback, up a notoriously long and steep hill which was said to be bleak, lonely and exposed to all weathers. It soon became the favourite haunt of the highwayman, the name given to a thief mounted on horseback who held travellers at gunpoint on the darkest, most isolated stretches of road. There were so many brutal murders along this route it became known as the Road of Assassination.
It wasn’t until 1822 that the route was moved further down into the Punchbowl, where it is still found today. The road was eventually reconstructed to cope with the increase in wheeled transport, and then in 2011, it was closed forever. The new Hindhead Tunnel syphoned the cars underground and the Punchbowl became a sanctuary for nature once more. Where there was once tarmac, a thin layer of earth now covers the ground. The contractors buried the old road using sandstone dug out from the tunnel, but there are still relics hiding in plain sight, if you know where to look. Yellow plastic cats eyes, fragments of brick wall, and even a lost turnpike milestone that was found again by the building contractors.
I can’t get enough of these nuggets of history. Tangible threads that connect our own lives to those of the past, to people we will never know but who walked the same paths, over and over again. And if you’re interested in this kind of thing, too, you’ll probably enjoy my new book, which is out in just two weeks! You can order it anywhere you like, including:
If you’re local to West Sussex, you’re very welcome to join me for my book launch in the Walled Garden at Cowdray Park on 28 June. An evening of wine and good conversation in a beautiful setting - what more could you want?