“A fine town, generally ranked as one of the best Georgian towns in England” Nikolaus Pevsner, Surrey
A Country Market Town
Once famous for its hop and grain market, Farnham has retained the character of a country market town. Its main feature is its outstanding heritage of historic domestic buildings, especially its fine Georgian houses built in rich red brick. Both its Georgian and Victorian buildings have been preserved well, and many old buildings have been adapted to new uses. Most new developments have managed to blend in well with the historic surroundings
Mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as Fearnhamme - the place of ferns and water meadows, it lies on the route of a prehistoric trackway along the North Downs. King Caedwalla of Wessex granted the manor to the Bishops of Winchester in 688. The earliest known inhabitants were Mesolithic pit dwellers c.6000 BC; a Roman villa and bath were built close to the site of the pits. Close to the Surrey/Hampshire border, Farnham owes its importance as a mid point between London and Winchester. Farnham Castle and theBishops’ Palace dominate the northern entry to the town and the Bishops of Winchester lived there until the 1920s. The castle was built by Henry de Blois (grandson of William I, brother of King Stephen) in 1138. The steps leading down from the castle, the Blind Bishop’s Steps, were constructed for Bishop Fox.
Elizabeth l and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots
Whilst staying as a guest at Farnham Castle in1569, Elizabeth I warned the Duke of Norfolk ‘to be careful on what pillow he laid his head’. She was giving him dark hints as to his relationship with Mary Queen of Scots. He chose to ignore the warning and paid the price when he lost his head. Adjacent to the Bishops’ Palace is a large area of ancient parkland, Farnham Park. A little alley-way leads up to the park from Bear Lane, off Castle Street. From the park there are fine views across the town and to the surrounding countryside. It is possible to walk through the park to nearby Upper Hale. A pleasant little stream cuts through the park. Castle Street, leading down from the castle, is thought to be one of the finest Georgian streets in England. Its width denotes Medieval planning, allowing markets to take place. Markets had two advantages – they brought trade into the town, thus increasing its importance, and the Bishops could levy tolls on the stall-holders.
The town’s prosperity grew first with wheat, then wool and cloth and finally hops. Hops were introduced in 1597 and those grown around Farnham were regarded as the best in the country and thus could command a high price. Daniel Defoe recounts in A tour through the whole island of Great Britain that Farnham had the greatest corn-market after London, and describes 1,100 fully laden wagons delivering wheat to the town on market day.
The Centre of Farnham
Half way up Castle Street a row of old almshouses was established in 1619 by Andrew Windsor for ‘eight poor, honest, old, impotent persons’. The almshouses are still in use today, though now the residents have to pay rent. At the bottom of the street there was formerly a building known as Old Market House. Built in 1568, it was demolished in1863. Photographs taken in the mid-1800s show it still in existence. The railway came to Farnham in 1849 but not to the army town of Aldershot until 1870, so the troops marched from Farnham to their camps three miles away. The centre of Farnham, and many of the side roads, are lined with a variety of 18th and 19th century buildings, many of which are listed. There are also many interesting yards and passages, the most well-used being the Lion and Lamb Yard, which was the 1980s development of a disused builder’s yard. This is a pleasant cobbled courtyard and pedestrian shopping centre with cafés and bistros, which serves as a main entry to the town centre from the Hart car park. The courtyard formerly housed the brewers Thomas Mathews and Co, who won two medals at the 1890 Brewer’s Exhibition in London. Also on this site was one of Farnham’s many coaching inns. Many inns were built to serve the coach traffic that passed through Farnham and several still survive, the oldest being the Bush Hotel, mentioned in novels by both W M Thackeray and I J Hussey. Away to the western end of the town and to the north side of the main thoroughfare are modern office developments, which at first glance look like houses clustered around courtyards. Another interesting modern development is the building used jointly by Waverley and the Town Council, just before the river, on the road leading to the station. In all these developments a reproduction of the supposed 18th century style has been adopted in the belief that it echoes the character of the town, a large part of which is in a great variety of 19th and 20th century styles. A favourite street is the cobbled Lower Church Lane that leads from Downing Street to St Andrew’s parish church, and affords one of the best views of it. Through the Wagon Yard car park, a modern wooden bridge crosses the River Wey to the Farnham Maltings. Once a large brewery and now rescued from destruction the Maltings is a thriving cultural and arts centre. Nearby is The William Cobbett pub, formerly The Jolly Farmer, renamed in the 1970s in honour of William Cobbett, who was born there in 1762, when it was a farmhouse.
William Cobbett (1762-1835), farmer, pamphleteer, radical, social commentator, started out in life as a crow-scarer and ploughboy. As an assiduous student he mastered French, rhetoric, geometry, logic and fortifications. He served six years in America where he was placed in charge of the regimental accounts and registers. On his return to England he married the daughter of a soldier, spent some time in France, then returned to America. After a couple of years the fiery contents of his leaflets forced him to return to England. On his return, Cobbett started his radical career. In 1802 he founded the Political Register, which started life as a Tory weekly but soon turned Radical (there is a framed copy of it in The William Cobbett pub) He also published Parliamentary debates (later taken over by Hansard). In 1810, Cobbett was sentenced to two years in prison for opposing the use of flogging by the army. Whilst in prison he continued to publish the Register. On leaving prison, his political views forced him to escape to America. In total Cobbett spent nearly 20 years in America. He returned to England in 1819, and finally managed to win a seat in Parliament. Cobbett’s Rural Rides, his social observations and commentary, extracted from the Register, are the best insight we have to social conditions during his lifetime. His Cottage Economy, originally published as a series of pamphlets (1821-2), was first published as a book in 1822, followed by a series of revisions and enlargements The 17th edition was published by Cobbett’s wife Anne (1850), to which G K Chesterton added a preface (1916). There is a bronze bust of Cobbett by Willi Soukop in the Museum of Farnham garden and Cobbett’s tomb can be seen in the parish churchyard, immediately outside the church porch.
Farnham Library and Museum of Farnham
Charles I stayed at Vernon House in West Street, now the library, on his way to his execution in London. Nearby is the red brick Willmer House, Grade I listed, built in 1718 for John Thorne, a wealthy hop merchant, described by Ian Nairn as “one of the finest cut brick facades in the Country”. It has housed the Museum of Farnham since 1961.
The Redgrave Theatre
The Redgrave Theatre, named after the famous theatrical family, used to be one of the best theatres in the area. It is an interesting modern building, financed by public subscription in 1970. Unfortunately its ownership was transferred to Waverley Borough Council who closed the theatre in 1998, believing it was a facility the public no longer wanted. Although once a thriving repertory theatre and despite a number of years of well attended performances in marquees and the parish church, by the displaced company of actors, the Council now wishes to see its demolition and sale as a profitable site for re-development.
University College for the Creative Arts
The prestigious University College for the Creative Arts (formerly Surrey Institute of Art and Design, University College) is located in Falkner Road and is one of the few independent colleges that have been granted the power to award its own degrees. It contains some of Farnham’s most exciting and innovative architecture, as well as a new Crafts Centre, and the James Hockey art gallery with its award-winning foyer, which hosts a series of fine exhibitions.
The River Wey, The North Downs Way and Waverley Abbey
The River Wey flows through Farnham, with a pleasant riverside walk and park. Unfortunately the walk does not extend along the river beyond the town centre. Below the railway station, a few hundred yards along the bypass, a wooden finger-post points along Darvills Lane – the beginning of the North Downs Way. The route skirts along the flood plain at the edge of which the land slowly rises. Along the same route runs the Greensand Way. The two part company where the route crosses the Wey at Moor Park. The North Downs Way starts at Farnham, and runs along the North Downs to Dover in Kent, with a loop to Canterbury. It roughly follows the route of the Pilgrim’s Way, often running parallel, but rarely along it. This was once the pilgrimage route to the Shrine of Thomas à Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral. The Greensand Way continues down the Wey towards the ruins of Waverley Abbey – the first Cistercian Abbey to be founded in England (1128). Loseley House, an Elizabethan house south of the North Downs Way near Guildford, was built using stones taken from the ruined abbey. Waverley Abbey was the inspiration for Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels.
Moor Park, Jonathan Swift and Mother Ludlam
It was whilst at Moor Park as secretary to Sir William Temple that Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), satirist, author of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), wrote The Tale of a Tub (1704) and The Battle of the Books (1704). Swift took a fancy to Esther Johnson, whom he taught to write. Swift called her Stella and dedicated his Journal (written 1710-11) to her. She later joined Swift in Ireland as his mistress. The two lie buried side by side in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Near Moor Park and the ruins of Waverly Abbey are two caves, the larger of which is named after Mother Ludlam. Known as a local witch who lived in or near the cave, she was free with her possessions and would lend them out on request. Once, a large cauldron was lent and not returned. The borrower took refuge from her wrath in Frensham Church, where today the large cauldron can still be found.
Crooksbury Common, J M Barrie and Lord Baden-Powell
Nearby Crooksbury Hill, the highest point of Crooksbury Common, a fine sandy heathland, offers excellent walking. It was here, on a solitary road crossing the desolate heath, that Sherlock Holmes was called upon to solve a singularly interesting case involving Miss Violet Smith - The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist (published in the collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes). A little way downstream of Waverley, two Medieval bridges cross the Wey at Tilford. An ancient oak can be found by the village green. William Cobbett pointed out the oak to his son on one of his rides. At nearby Black Lake, J M Barrie wrote Peter Pan in 1904 and Dear Brutus. Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the scout movement, lived at Bentley, a small village south-west of Farnham, set in attractive water-meadows of the River Wey. His house, Pax Hill, once a centre for the Girl Guides is now a home for the elderly. Bentley became famous in the TV series The Village.
Caesar’s Camp, Frensham Common and Farnham Station
North of Farnham is the incorrectly named Caesar’s Camp, an Iron Age Hill Fort that pre-dates Caesar’s arrival on these shores by about 600 years. The fort is best approached from the north by the minor road across Tweseldown which links Aldershot and Fleet. From this direction there is a steep climb, giving the opportunity to appreciate the view as it unfolds beneath one’s feet. South of Farnham lies Frensham Common and the two Frensham Ponds. The three small hillocks, south of Frensham Little Pond towards Churt, are known as The Devil’s Jumps.
Farnham Station has train services northwards to Aldershot, then on towards London Waterloo (50 minutes) or Guildford, and southwards to Alton, with connecting services to the Watercress Line.