Letter from Europe

The Hogsmill Valley (southern England)

Issue no. 2008/23

Summary

The Hogsmill is scarcely one of Europe's great rivers, yet even this diminutive stream that trickles through London's southern suburbs bubbles with history. Cheam and Nonsuch were villages on the road to chic Epsom, famous nowadays for its racecourse on the windy downs above the town. Amid the suburbs that lace the fringes of the capital is watery Ewell.

Dear fellow travellers

A new issue of hidden europe is published next week and copies are already available for purchase in our online shop. hidden europe 22 (September 2008) explores some memorable crossings of the English Channel (from Jean Blanchard's balloon journey in 1785 to a summer morning trip on Eurostar). There are places aplenty in this issue: Transdniestr, Croatia and Germany's Moselle valley to name but three. We ponder whether the north Norwegian town of Tromsø really deserves to be called 'The Paris of the North' and visit the small community in eastern Saxony that exerts a powerful influence on Moravian Brethren across the world. All that plus Greenland's new banknotes, flights to Fair Isle, a few words of praise for Russian birches and some well penned verse on Ireland's Lough Scur in hidden europe 22. A detailed table of contents can be seen online. Just click here.

The Hogsmill valley (southern England)

Every river has a tale to tell. The Hogsmill is scarcely one of Europe's great rivers, yet even this diminutive stream that trickles through London's southern suburbs bubbles with history. Early travellers leaving London for the healthy air of the North Downs made their way up the Hogsmill valley. Cheam and Nonsuch were villages on the road to chic Epsom, famous nowadays for its racecourse on the windy downs above the town. Amid the suburbs that lace the fringes of the capital is watery Ewell. For most travellers today, Ewell is no more than a suburban train station, yet when John Speed compiled his early maps of Surrey, Ewell had the status of a market town - it was the most important community in the upper Hogsmill valley. An 1831 yearbook describes Ewell as "a romantic town with a pretty church".

Ewell was enviably blessed with abundant fresh water; indeed the very name of the place alludes to a well. Local landmarks pick up the fluvial theme: a library and community centre housed in Bourne Hall and a local pub called the Spring Tavern. There was a time when the Spring was a favoured watering-hole for Londoners making their way home to the capital from the horse races at Epsom. And there were once the famous Ewell sheep fairs in late October each year, which attracted breeders not merely from Surrey and Sussex, but from much further afield.

Rivers brought wealth and even the tiny Hogsmill was a source of prosperity for Ewell. Brick, tile and pottery works, two flour mills and gunpowder production offered employment and security. Yes, gunpowder. The Hogsmill valley specialised from early times in the cautious mixing of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal to make the deadly explosive; it was an industry that continued in Ewell until 1875, giving firepower to troops in the American Civil War, and a decade later to French cannons in the Franco-Prussian war.

Nowadays, the electric trains to Epsom pause at Ewell for the hundreds of commuters who work in London and call Ewell home. This is quintessential suburbia and the Hogsmill no longer drives great millstones. Canadian geese, moorhens, tufted ducks and even the occasional grey heron visit the ponds where the Hogsmill bubbles out of the underlying chalk. Much of the Hogsmill is overgrown, and the feeble flow of water is a far cry from the graceful river lined with willows that powered the mills of yesterday. Amid the seeming homogeneity of London's suburbs, there are many delicate little valleys that make no mark on the topography of the modern mind. The Hogsmill is surely one of the most interesting.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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