[singlepic id=468 w=320 h=240 float=center] I am collecting images of the North Downs and doing research for a book to be entitled ‘North Downs Landscapes’ that will, hopefully, be published next year. So far I have walked from Farnham in Surrey to Rochester in Kent (in instalments) and visited a number of settlements. I still have the southern bit of the Surrey Downs, around Leith Hill, and the big section running through Kent to Folkestone and Dover to visit.

The concept is to structure the book around the seasons, as I have done in Chitern Landscapes, and I want to achieve this in a single year. This is quite a photographic challenge, as those magical shots that everyone loves don’t happen every time, and you have to visit and re-visit places to get the right combination of light, colour and content as well as composing the picture well to achieve a great shot.

So far, I have a number of competent images and a few really nice ones, but nothing that is really gorgeous. When I look at other books of North Downs photographs, the same applies generally, but I need this book to be better than ‘nice’, so there is a lot of work to do. Putting a photo book together is also not just about the images, but also about the entire structure and composition of the book: the flow of subject, variation in the strength of images, and finding strong points for beginning, middle and end of the book.
[singlepic id=469 w=180 h=240 float=left] This week, I have explored the area in Surrey between Guildford and Dorking, from Cobham to Leith Hill in the south. On Sunday, I was at a my friend Paul’s birthday barbeque in Cobham, so went from there through Stoke d’Abernon, Leatherhead, Mickleham, Box Hill and Abinger. Villages like Cobham and Stoke have been completely enveloped by suburbia and roads, along which people hurtle in their Audis and Range Rovers. It has been known, since the 60s as the ‘stock-broker belt’, and now it isn’t very easy find unaffected countryside, or settlements that aren’t drowning in cars. The churches remain picturesque and discrete in their church yards, but in Stoke d’Abernon, the old church is now within a private school car park, and that in West Clandon is isolated on a busy road.

There is real countryside between the settlements and roads, but this is constantly under threat from developers because property prices are so high: a piece of land with planning permission is worth a great deal. In addition, government support for Green Belt land that cannot be developed is weakening, creating the awful prospect of the Surrey hills being carpeted with suburbia and traffic jams.

Once you cross the A25 the villages are recognisable as such, and places like Shere and Abinger are delightful, so are very popular places to visit. Leith Hill is the highest hill in Surrey, surmounted by a famous tower, and remains much as it was when I used explore it as a boy scout.

I have memories of scrambling up it in the 50s and getting sand in my bag and on my sandwiches (sic), then discovering that on that hot day, my mother had packed a bottle of milk for me to drink. Yuk. On the northern flank of Leith Hill is the hamlet of Friday Street with its pond and the Stephen Langton Inn.
[singlepic id=454 w=320 h=240 float=right] I first visited this in deep snow in 1963 (the year of the Big Freeze!) whilst doing my boy scout 14 mile hike. It was a cold and sunny morning and it was exciting trudging through the snow-clad hills through deep powdery snow, and we did our Good Turn in Friday Street, clearing snow off a man’s front path. It got colder as the sun set, and that evening, we camped in a field where the temperature fell to -10 degrees centigrade and our food was cold before it reached our mouths. For years afterwards I recalled Friday Street as a rather mysterious, hidden place, and really, it hasn’t changed.

Shere is a pretty village just off the main Guildford-Dorking road, where I stopped for lunch outside the pub. It has been known as one of the loveliest villages in Surrey for a long time, so can be very busy, but with a brook running through the middle where ducks dabble, it has its peaceful corners. According to the village publicity, it used to be a den of theives and smugglers as it was so remote!
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I finished the day by revisiting Denbie’s vineyard at Box Hill, where the grapes are still small and leaf-green, but growing in the warm summer sun. Once at home, I compared images taken today and those taken in April when the late spring meant that the vines and trees were completely bare and the contrast is dramatic.
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My next foray into these hills will be in the autumn, seeking out some spectacular autumn colour and moody misty mornings.