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The Chantries: 'The Gem of Guildford'

The Chantries would be the ‘gem of Guildford’, said Councillor Wilkinson in November 1936, as Guildford Borough Council concluded its purchase of the land from the Godwin-Austen estate.  Alderman Harold Gammon concurred, describing the Chantries as ‘one of the most beautiful strips of land any borough could boast of having within its borders.’ 

The Council paid £28,000 for 367 acres extending from the junction of Pilgrims Way and Echo Pit Road to Halfpenny Lane, and from the edge of Pewley Down to the southern slopes of the Chantries.  The intention was to preserve the land from development and retain this beautiful scenery on the southern fringes of Guildford.  Already the views from below the Chantries and St Martha’s had been impaired by house-building along Longdown Road and White Lane.  The purchase of the Chantries did not form part of any Green Belt scheme initially: it was to be kept as a ‘private open space’ and the farmland of South Warren Farm cultivated as before.  The area had only formed part of Guildford Borough since the boundary changes of 1933: without this the Council would have had no power to purchase the land.

There had never been a public right of way over the Chantries.  But Surrey County Council insisted that Guildford change its policy and maintain the Chantries as a public open space.  Surrey feared that a private open space could be sold or converted to another use, undoing the efforts of Surrey and London County Councils in acquiring nearby Tyting for the Green Belt.  Ironically it is now Tyting under threat of sale.

Chantries 1

The tree cover and open glades of the Chantries reflected generations of planting by the Godwin-Austen estate, a mixture of timber - pine, scots fir, larch, holly, yew, oak, birch, beech, ash and elm – with coppices of chestnut and hazel, and ash and oak hardwood poles.  An area of mature conifers was felled for government use during World War II.  In 1957 a replanting programme started that was to take 10 years, replacing dead areas with a wide variety of trees to provide seasonal colour.  However, there were complaints about deciduous woodland being replaced with conifers.  Worse, the reafforestation programme suffered badly from people stealing the trees.

Chantries 2

It is hard to imagine the Chantries without its thick belt of trees.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries landowners started to create timber plantations on poor soil.  Thousands of trees were planted on the Chantries in the 1820s. The original medieval Chantry woodland was mainly in the south-west, near the former gamekeeper’s cottage, which was built in 1812 by Henry Edmund Austen of Shalford House.  Game was an important source of income to the landowner: the interests of the tenant leasing the sporting rights and the bailiff trying to protect the tree plantations sometimes clashed.  Rabbits and hares are very fond of the tender shoots of young trees.  Some of the landscape on the Chantries must derive from the gamekeeping practices of those days.

Henry Edmund Austen’s father, Robert Austen, negotiated the purchase of Tyting, the Chantries and South Warren Farm - 480 acres - in 1797.  Most of the Chantries was then known as Shalford Heath.  Before the timber plantations it was sheep pasture with a large rabbit warren on the northern slopes.  A map of 1770 shows it as ‘Old Warren.’  (Two warreners of Shalford were accused of murder in 1618.)  In the 1660s the warrener, Robert Read, lived in a house close to the present South Warren Farm.  But that house had burned down by 1747.  The name South Warren Farm is twentieth century – during the nineteenth century the house was called Tyting or Chantry Warren, or Warren Barn Cottage and was occupied by farm workers.

Chantries 3

If we can imagine patches of woodland and coppice, sheep pasture and perhaps the rabbit warren we might have a good idea of the Chantries in the Middle Ages. Especially sheep, bearing in mind Guildford’s medieval cloth industry. But thousands of years ago Stone Age people were making use of this land. Dozens of Mesolithic and hundreds of Neolithic flint tools and flakes have turned up in and around the Chantries. The Mesolithic people were hunter-gatherers so may not have had much long-term effect on the landscape. But the Neolithic people were farmers and must have had a settlement nearby. They were probably the first to clear the primeval woodland and establish some sort of agriculture on the light soils of the Chantries and St Martha’s. This would have exhausted the soil, leaving it fit only for sheep and rabbits in later times.

So this has been a managed landscape for thousands of years. Now some people complain that Guildford Borough Council is trying to turn it into a park. But those far-sighted councillors of 70 years ago who were so determined to preserve the Chantries as an open space deserve our gratitude, and no less so Henry Edmund Austen and his successors who created this lovely expanse of woodland.