The name of the village evokes a past age that had largely faded into memory by the year 1800. In medieval times and later, many travellers could not afford the price of a bed at an inn; and where there was no religious house to take them in, it was necessary to seek rougher accommodation. One option was known as a cold harbour—often the ruins of an older structure such as a Roman villa—that offered no amenities beyond shelter from the elements and an open hearth. Villages across England bearing the name Coldharbour are thought to have been locations where the benighted could find at least this modest respite.
There is no relic of a cold harbour in the Surrey village of that name; but the name does imply that such a shelter once existed. Coldharbour lies in the shadow of the prehistoric hill fort of Anstiebury and not far from an ancient Roman road known as Stane Street. So it is entirely possible that buildings of the Roman era may have existed there. As a bow to the deeper past, I chose in my story Coldharbour Gentlemen to restore to the place a bit of this speculative history in the form of a ruined structure at the heart of the village.
In reality, after a lengthy period of obscurity Coldharbour was beginning to change by 1800—and for this the smuggling kingpin of Coldharbour Gentlemen, John Tilt, was partly responsible. The construction of a turnpike road in the lowlands below Coldharbour in the 1750s had almost led to the abandonment of the village by the wider world, as the narrow and difficult lane that led through it had ceased to be a main north-south route for travellers. Of that road John Aubrey had earlier said, ‘In this country a mountain can move [a reference to a major landslip next door to Coldharbour in the time of Queen Elizabeth], though a man and horse cannot owing to the foulness of the ways.’ The lane was impassable to wheeled traffic even in the early nineteenth century. Situated high on the slopes of Leith Hill, Coldharbour was convenient to nothing, remote even from its parish church and from manorial oversight.
In this disadvantage John Tilt saw opportunity. Coldharbour lay close to Leith Hill Tower, which overlooks the whole area of Darking Hundred and was therefore useful (according to Tilt family tradition) for signalling during a smuggling run. Perhaps for this reason the tower’s owner, Mr Perrin of Parkhurst—who had restored the tower and increased its height as recently as 1796—caused it to be filled with rubble in 1800 so that no one could enter. Nevertheless, Coldharbour’s access to the lonely paths across Leith Hill was useful to the Tilts’ enterprise, and there still exists a path there known as Smugglers’ Way.
John Tilt’s will also makes mention of his ‘new-built messuage or tenement buildings and garden . . . situate and being at Coldharbour’—a trio of attached cottages known in the nineteenth century as Martin, Sanders, and Dudley, that housed the families of a few of the employees in his smuggling enterprise. (‘The widow Dudley’ is mentioned in his will.) This structure is believed to be the one now occupied by the Plough inn and public house.
Whether there existed an inn at Coldharbour in 1800 is an uncertain question. There was a Plough Inn established there (in a different building) in 1641, but it seems not to have been in continuous operation. A blacksmith named George Tyler moved to Coldharbour in 1797 and his son later set himself up as a victualler, but the building that housed the original Plough was in a ruinous state at that time. I have chosen to give the enterprising revenue officer of Coldharbour Gentlemen a bed instead in the blacksmith’s home, Furze House, which lies across the street and slightly up the way from Tilt’s block of cottages.
Aside from the smithy and a cobbler’s shop, subsistence farming was the sole enterprise in Coldharbour before the Tilt family enlivened the scene. But only twenty years later the village was growing, and by 1850 it had its own parish church. Even so, unless one visits on a summer weekend with the day trippers and cyclists, a visit to this remote village surrounded by woodland still evokes the lost place of my tale—dense with Scotch fir, larch, and pine, fertile with bilberries and elderberries, and spangled by (in the words of the first clergyman to serve the village) ‘glow-worms by scores shining (like fallen stars) on the hillside.’
19 April 2019
J. R., A Guide to Cold Harbour (1891).
Bill Smith (compiler), Coldharbour: A Surrey Village (1985).
F. E. Green, The Surrey Hills (1915).
(with additional details supplied by local history experts and the Tilt family chronicler, Pam Palmer)