Reigate, a Surrey town of 20,000 inhabitants is stuffed full of history. Local legend has it that Magna Carta was planned here by the rebellious barons, who plotted beneath the town’s long-lost castle. Historians have dismissed the story as fake news but one thing’s true, archaeology proves this place has been a centre of activity since Neolithic times. Bronze age and Roman artefacts have also been found in the area.
Reigate: the town that built London
The local Reigate Stone has been in use since Saxon times for building and was extensively deployed in London during the medieval period. The quarries, which were part of the Crown estate, provided much of the building material for Royal projects, including Westminster Abbey. It was also used for the old London Bridge, built in 1176. Sir Christopher Wren was not a fan – he considered the sandstone to be too soft.
Reigate sand was also extensively mined. The Romans started it, quarrying down with small tunnels that still stretch beneath the town in all directions. By the time the Victorians got involved the tunnels were getting much bigger – large enough to be used as an air raid shelter during the last war. The caves are open to the public five weekends a year and are well worth a visit.
Blotting the copy book
During the 19th century hard up locals would dig down in the cellar and fill up a bag with sand, for which the local sand merchants would pay six pence. They’d double that to a shilling when it was sold up in London; the finer grades were used as blotter on handwritten letters. All that tunnelling wasn’t without its problems, though…
“On the morning of Wednesday week the inhabitants of Reigate were alarmed by a loud report, which at first was believed to be the shock of an earthquake, but it was soon ascertained that it arose from a large sand cave belonging to the premises of the Red Cross Inn having fallen in. Over this cave there were erected several cottages, and five of these, or at least portions of them, fell in with the cave, and ten others appeared to be hanging as it were by a mere thread.
“The escape of persons (twenty-three in number) who resided in the cottages was marvellous. The bedsteads in four of the cottages were partly hanging over the chasm, and in one of them a poor woman was lying very ill, her medical attendment having just left her. She was taken out of the front window. The inhabitants of Reigate have kindly got up a subscription in aid of the poor people who have had their furniture destroyed by this singular accident.”
Fall of cottages into a sand cave at Reigate. Illustrated London News, 19 May 1860
Things to do and see in Reigate, Surrey
The castle mound
Reigate town centres around the old castle mound – the castle itself was demolished at the end of the 17th century but the grounds remain as do some of the earthworks, moat and tunnels. There’s also an 18th century folly on the mound, which gets mistaken for part of the original castle. It’s an ideal spot for a picnic on a sunny day; you can drink your prosecco looking over into Priory Park and the tree-lined hills behind it.
The castle mound sits beside Tunnel Road, Europe’s earliest road tunnel, built in 1823. It was used by traffic as recently as the 1970s as part of the A217, the main London to Brighton route. It was single file with traffic lights controlling the flow – an unimaginable bottleneck on such a busy route.
Priory Park, Reigate
To the south of Reigate there’s Priory Park, which hosts fairs and an ice rink at Christmas. The park contains lakes, tennis courts, football pitches, a skatepark, playground, a picnic area, toilets and parking. To the north, up Reigate Hill, there’s Reigate Fort, which was built in 1898; one of 13 forts that ran along the North Downs to Essex, built to protect London from an attack by the French. Further along the downs there’s the site where an American plane crashed in thick fog on it’s way back from a mission over Nazi-occupied France. Two wooden wingtips mark the spot.
Knights from the Holy Land
Back in town there’s the Red Cross Inn, which was originally a hospital for knights returning from the Holy Land. It features two massive open fireplaces, which are very welcoming in the winter, and its cellars still open into the sand caves, which have all been securely shored up. Across the road is the local Pilgrims Brewery, which has a perfectly serviceable tap room and a fine view over the local cricket pitch. The beer’s excellent and well worth a taste.
There’s more… much more. Reigate boasts some great pubs, including The Roe Deer, a recording studio, Panther Studios, and a host of listed buildings including a Grade II* timber-frame dentists’ practice and Crown Cottage, which is build over one of the public paths up to the castle mound.
For a small town there’s lots to see and do, so the next time you’re driving round the M25 make a detour; take the southbound exit on junction 8 and head down the A127. Go visit Reigate…
Historical Reigate – pin for later!
This is a guest post by Anthony Clark, journalist, copywriter and longtime friend of the Ladies What Travel team. He loves beer, cheese and travel and is a genius when it comes to making the most of his annual leave.