The Devil’s Punch Bowl

Ah, Surrey! Land of the stockbroker!

Apparently it’s the most wooded county in England – and as I discovered yesterday morning, as I travelled through it on a warm and sunny spring day, it’s full of beautiful hills and vales, and neat little towns. It’s just a shame you have to be so rich to live there…

The Devil’s Punch Bowl is a deep hollow in the hills outside Hindhead. There are various stories of how it got its name, and they all involve the Devil getting up to mischief of one kind or another, and relate to other topographical features of the Surrey and Sussex landscape, including the Devil’s Jumps, at Frensham, and the Devil’s Dyke, in Poynings.

The Devil apparently amused himself by leaping between the three hills that form the Devil’s Jumps – or Three Jumps – and in doing so annoyed Thor, the Norse god of thunder, who threw a boulder at him. Not far from Frensham is the village of Thursley – from the Old English for Thunor (Thor)’s grove or field – so it isn’t difficult to see how the connection was made.

Another account tells how the Devil was chased along the Jumps by Mother Ludlam, a local witch, before finally escaping from her by diving into the Punch Bowl.

Then there is the Devil’s Dyke.

Like Tarr Steps in Somerset (see earlier post), the Devil – not being able to abide sunlight – worked through the night to try and finish a channel that would let in the sea, and flood the inland villages of Sussex.

The mud he threw up as he constructed his earthwork formed landmarks like the Isle of Wight and Chanctonbury Ring – but he was ultimately thwarted in his attempt to drown the villagers who had so incensed him by building new churches, as either St Cuthman, St Dunstan, or a local old woman – depending on which version you look at – used candlelight and the power of prayer to make the cocks crow especially early, and trick the (clearly not very bright) Devil into thinking that day had come, and so he vanished and left his work unfinished.

The Devil’s Punch Bowl does have a very real and grisly history, as the main London to Portsmouth road once ran along its edge, and used to be the haunt of highwaymen.

In September 1786 a sailor was attacked and murdered there, and the men responsible were soon caught and hanged, their tarred bodies strung up on what is still known as Gibbet Hill.

Since the opening of the Hindhead Tunnel in 2011, the London to Portsmouth road no longer runs through the Punch Bowl, and it has become a much more peaceful place as a result. Though no doubt haunted by more than a few ghosts…

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