ABINGER COMMON, WHICH LIES 4 MILES SOUTH WEST OF DORKING near Holmbury St Mary, is part of the glorious Wotton Estate in the Surrey Hills AONB; it’s 87 hectares is made up of a patchwork of woodland and landscaped grounds containing grand houses and former workers cottages, threaded together by the silvery Tillingbourne River.
The site is claimed to be the oldest habitation in England, with remains of a Norman castle and Roman villa, and its name comes from the family ‘Aber’ who later made it their settlement or ‘inger’.
The Common is a SSSI because of the wingless moths and lichens which have evolved to perfectly suit the rare, 500 year old, woodland habitat of oaks and bilberries. The oak trees were planted for their bark, which was stripped and sent to a tannery in Gomshall until the 1940s; since then they have been left to nature, contorting into corkscrew shapes as the growing buds at their branches tips follow the relentless daily path of the sun.
From the Friday Street car park, tunnel-like sunken roads and paths radiate outwards, with hands of exposed roots shoring up their steep moss-covered banks. Hollow Road was once an old iron mine, but now its 30 ft high walls are home to mining bees and wolf spiders, which lurk within mysterious small holes. The surrounding, stable, woodland environment of predominantly beech, Scots pine and larch supports a good community of bats which hunt and feed over Friday Street pond, created to serve a mill in the 1600s.
Across the way a little wooden bridge spans the stream and leads to a track which, in spring, is lined with patches of delicate woodland flowers: an appliquéd bedspread with a centerpiece of bell-shaped wood sorrel flowers whose white petals are marbled with subtle pink veins. To compensate for their fragility, their leaves can fold together in bad weather.
Explore deeper into the estate and discover a landscape designed by John Evelyn; gentle terraces rise up from a string of chain ponds which once yielded fish and ice for Wotton House further downstream. Clacket Bridge, built simply to offer beautiful views, now provides a home for six species of lichen. Blocks of wild cherry, the estate’s ‘signature tree’, birch and beech are often bordered by a windbreak of Western hemlock to aid felling. Tufts of rushes and tangles of brambles grow between the cherries, providing good cover for sand-loving reptiles, and mosses and lichens clinging to the trunks reveal which side is north facing and which south facing (moss preferring the more sheltered and damp northern aspect).
It doesn’t take a moment to realize that, beneath the apparent order of the landscaped grounds and carefully managed timber woods, chaos prevails, in that wonderful adaptive way that nature always does.