Although Surrey Heath is now a thriving, modern Borough, its origins lie back in the mists of history. The heathland itself is thought to derive from over-grazing in Neolithic times and indeed, evidence of Neolithic activity has been found in Bagshot, Lightwater and Frimley, whilst there are Bronze Age burial-mounds in West End. Excavations in Lightwater have also revealed a Romano-British site which continued to be occupied into the Saxon period.
By the middle ages the general area was part of Windsor Forest, then a royal hunting ground, and references to a royal park at Bagshot appear from 1486. Both Chobham, the only local village to be mentioned in the Domesday Book and Frimley were granted by the Crown to the Abbots of Chertsey who held them until the dissolution of the monasteries.
In 1635, Charles I issued a proclamation from Bagshot Park extending the postal service hitherto used for state documents, the Royal Mail, to the public.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the area known as Bagshot Heath stretched as far as Blackwater and was a haunt of notorious highwaymen like The Golden Farmer and Claude Duval. Bagshot was a prosperous village, for the main road from London to Salisbury and Exeter ran through the village and by the 1790s there were more than eleven inns serving the coaching trade. The sandy heathland soil was later found to be particularly well suited to growing rhododendrons and azaleas and, from the nineteenth century, some notable nurseries grew up around West End, Windlesham and Bagshot.
The heathland landscape was also particularly suitable for military manoeuvres and army camps were held in this area from the late eighteenth century. This made it an obvious choice when the authorities were looking for a permanent home for its new Royal Military College (now RMA Sandhurst) and an isolated site near the river Blackwater was chosen. As the College grew, a small community of shopkeepers and College servants began to flourish at the gates. The eventually became known as Yorktown, which still boasts many Victorian properties.
In 1862, with the establishment of the Staff College further to the east, local landowner Captain Charles Raleigh Knight saw an opportunity for speculative development. Besides building the Cambridge Hotel, he laid out the streets of central Camberley and the major roads on Crawley Hill. This new settlement, was initially called Cambridge Town. To avoid confusion with the University town of Cambridge, in 1877 it changed its name to Camberley, deriving from two local features; the RiverCam, Amber Hill, and the traditional place-naming ending "ley", a pasture or clearing.
In 1853 a large military camp assembled on Chobham Common. Known as the Great Camp, it became something of a tourist attraction, and the troops were inspected by Queen Victoria. After the Queen's death in 1901, the War Office presented the village with a cannon to commemorate the occasion. Its replacement may be seen at the top of Chobham High Street today.
As its military character grew, Camberley became a popular area for retired army officers. This, together with the fact that from the late nineteenth century the air was recommended for those suffering from lung complaints, meant that by the early twentieth century it had become the largest town in the district, a position which was further accentuated by the advent of the M3 motorway in 1973.
Frimley is a Saxon name from Fremma's Lea' meaning Fremma's clearing, and from AD 673 to 1537 formed part of the land held by Chertsey Abbey. For centuries it was a farming village and an album of Victorian photographs in the Borough Museum shows haymaking and harvesting where the Albany Park Industrial Estate now stands. The site of the old village pound, where stray animals were 'impounded', may still be seen on the Grove opposite Frimley Park Hospital. Notable personalities associated with Frimley include Dame Ethel Smyth, the celebrated composer and suffragette, and the American author Bret Harte, who lies buried in Frimley Churchyard.
Frimley Green and Mytchett
The development of the last fifty years has blurred the boundaries between Frimley and Frimley Green, although the latter's original village green survives, together with a few half timbered buildings. Lakeside Country Club is situated outside Frimley Green. To the south is Mytchett, once farmland but now mainly residential. Mytchett Lake is popular with anglers, and local people can also enjoy sport and leisure activities at Frimley Lodge Park, where the historic Basingstoke Canal, once a commercial waterway, now offers opportunities for pleasant walks and boat trips.
Bisley and Deepcut
Acres of open heathland and woods mostly owned by the Ministry of Defence surround Deepcut, now the home of the Royal Logistic Corps, and of the RLC Museum. Bisley, once a remote heathland hamlet, is now famous as the home of the annual National Rifle Association Championships, which was moved to Bisley from Wimbledon in 1890. Now each summer the ranges attract marksmen from all over the world. The rifle range was used in the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
Most of the village of Lightwater dates from the twentieth century including the parish church of All Saints, but High Curley Hill appears as a landmark on the earliest local maps. This vantage point, 129 metres high, offers extensive views of the local countryside and is the dominant feature of Lightwater Country Park.
Heading towards London from Camberley, the A30 passes through the ancient village of Bagshot. The main coaching route from London to the west went through the village, and numerous inns once catered for the needs of the thousands of travellers who passed through each year. Of these, only 'The Three Mariners' survives in something like its original form, retaining many early features. Bagshot Village Centre is now a Conservation Area as is also Church Road. The Duke of Connaught, Queen Victoria's third son, lived at Bagshot Park and was an active patron of the village until his death in 1942. His name is commemorated in Connaught Park, the large housing development on the edge of Bagshot.
In 1997 two late 16th to early 17th century wall paintings were discovered in a building in part dating back to the 14th century. The paintings had been concealed behind later wall panels and were found during building work. The paintings largely in the grotesque style and which include a sunburst design with the three feathers of the Prince of Wales with a cornet above, cover two walls with some evidence on a third wall. The paintings are now protected behind glass and conservation plans are underway.
Like much of Surrey Heath, Windlesham was once part of Windsor Great Forest and developed as a traditional farming community centred around several manors and the church. Today, Windlesham is a secluded village of heathland, woods and nursery gardens, containing many large residential properties hidden from view by trees, but ancient buildings and fascinating placenames point to a varied history: for instance, Snow's Ride is named after Captain Snow, a notorious local highwayman. Other 'gentlemen of the road' who plied their dubious trade locally were William Davis, better known as 'The Golden Farmer' who lived (and was eventually hung) near the site of the 'Jolly Farmer' pub, on Jenkins Hill, and Claude Duval, a somewhat romantic figure, who is commemorated in Duval Close, Bagshot. Like Bagshot, Windlesham contains two conservation areas.
West End is so called because it was once the west end of Chobham. Although many new houses have been built around the village it was, until recently, a noted centre of nursery gardening. West End Common is home to many rare heathland plants and has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest by English Nature.
Chobham still retains a real village atmosphere, and the main centre is a conservation area. Historic buildings including pubs, shops, and restaurants line the High Street, which is dominated by the twelfth century church of St Lawrence's and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. Chobham Common, owned by Surrey County Council, comprises 81 hectares of heathland scattered with pines and winding paths. Near to Chobham Clump, a well-known local landmark, a commemorative cross marks the site where in 1853, Queen Victoria reviewed her troops before they left for the Crimea. The cannon sited at the top of the High Street is a replacement for an original presented to the village in 1901 to commemorate the Queen's earlier visit, as the original was sacrificed to the metal salvage collections of World War II.