Priest Hill - an overview

There are places that I regularly post about which, to the casual reader, will not illicit any response - there will be no idea of what it looks like, its understanding of its history, and no recognition of its place in human history. This is the first of a series of posts that hope to fill a few gaps. First up is Priest Hill.

Priest Hill. I've no idea as to the derivation of its name, but I can tell you that it isn't a hill. It may be on high ground in as much as you get an elevated view across west Surrey and out towards the Buckinghamshire Chiltern Hills (via the Wembley Stadium arch and Windsor Castle), but the land all around is relatively flat. Until the Second World War it was farmland, a mix of arable (wheat, barley, oats and potatoes) with a small herd of Jersey cows that were used for milking. A demand for the payment of death duties meant that the owners were forced to sell, which in 1942 brought in the tidy sum of £100,000 from Surrey and London County Councils. The farm was demolished in 1956 which then lead to the building of Ewell Technical College and the creation of playing fields for the use of Tulse Hill School, used to service its 2,000+ pupils, who were bussed in from South London. I love to think of the old farm playing host to ex-Tulse Hill alumni Ken Livingstone and Linton Kwesi Johnson, kicking a ball across the potato fields, or of the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and David Bowie performing amongst the barley (who all performed at Ewell Tech, which was on the gig circuit during the 60s and 70s.)

When Tulse Hill closed in 1990 the playing fields, changing rooms, tennis courts and cricket nets were abandoned to vandals, graffiti artists, fly tippers, travellers, glue sniffers, motor bike off-roaders... and me. I used to wander across the fast vegetating land, a vast open wasteland, to see what alien plants were springing up and what (few) birds I could find. A bit of the land was saved (Glyn School maintaining a sporting presence) but the rest of it was allowed to set seed. 

By the turn of the millennium there were plans as to saving this area from just becoming an out-of-bounds wasteland. Finally it was decided that a small private development of residential houses could be built in the south-east corner to fund the creation of a nature reserve, to be managed by the Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT). This really kicked off into being in 2013. Structures were demolished, hard standing ripped up, fences erected and small ponds created. Quite a bit of the underlying chalk was exposed and green hay brought in from neighbouring Howell Hill to help the calcareous flora to establish.

The SWT employed a ranger to manage the site, and I was able to obtain a key to access the largely private areas to help with wildlife monitoring and data collection. There are many footpaths for the public to enjoy the 75 acres of reserve (out of the 245 acres of open ground, which includes playing fields and a small farm attached to the college.) SWT cuts has seen the withdrawal of a full time ranger, although a band of volunteers tries to maintain some form of management on site.

What about the birds? I've been a fairly regular visitor now for 10 years and have recorded Cattle Egret, Little Egret, Goshawk, Jack Snipe, Woodcock, Yellow Wagtail, Tree Pipit, Black Redstart, Ring Ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler and Dartford Warbler among others. It is good for the spring and autumn passage of chats, with Stonechats, Whinchats and Wheatears approaching day totals in double figures, plus Common Redstarts are frequent. Visible migration is a feature, the elevation and big skies allowing the observation of notable movements of hirundines, swifts, thrushes and finches. Skylarks and Whitethroats breed in notable numbers. As it is just a 15-minute stroll from my front door it is a convenient place to visit if I have limited time to bird. It most probably deserves more. Here are a few pictures from today to get a feel for the place.

I have enabled the comment facility once more for the blog. If you want to, please drop a line. It was a most enjoyable feature of blogging that I had to put a stop to owing to spam. Hopefully that will not rear its ugly head again.

The site of old tennis courts, stripped back to expose the underlying chalk. Kidney Vetch has colonised along with Small Blue butterflies.

Large grassy meadows are allowed to do their thing behind fencing, keeping the many dogs (and their walkers) out. Grazed each year by Belted Galloway cattle.

A public walkway. I look for Wryneck here every year. I fail every year.


Stewart said…
Thank goodness the comments are back up, I might scroll back and catch up! :) Good to see you back Steve...
Stephen Root said…
Welcome back (I hope!). Good to learn the history of Priesthill, somewhere I visit whenever I am down south. Not been as lucky as you yet but I have always thought it would be good for vis migging in the right conditions. Looking forward to more bllogs!
Shimmers said…
I too have trolled around for Wryneck Steve, without luck, Also had Barn owl, though strictly it was in the trees near the main road and flew over to the church. Always hoped for a winter SEO but no luck.

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