One of Britain's finest surviving heathlands, with a fascinating history stretching from Saxon times to troop training ahead of D-Day in WWII. Home to a staggering array of animals, insects, reptiles and birds, and a great country pub.
Thursley Common 01428 685 675
Thursley means 'Thor's Field', and the village's Saxon heritage is announced loud and proud on the sign at its entrance, which depicts the pagan god either side of the words 'Thors' and 'Lee'. Thursley Common blooms right on the village's doorstep, just beyond the church, and extends almost all the way to Elstead. Thursley is on the Greensland Way, and the marshy nature reserve is punctuated by ponds and crisscrossed by trails, some taking walkers across newly installed duckboard stretches, and it's possible to walk between the two villages on an easy hike. As well as walking paths, there are bridleways which offer good mountain biking and horseriding. In spring the whole place comes alive with dragonflies, damselflies and mayflies – some 26 species of dragonfly are found among the bog asphodel and marsh orchids, emerging in a kaleidoscope of colour and activity when the weather warms. There's an animal species for every season here, though. Butterflies, including elusive species such as the purple emperor, white-letter hairstreak and silver-studded blue, also thrive, and an abundance of insects mean the region is rich in reptiles and birdlife. Common lizards, sand lizards, grass snakes, smooth snakes and adders patrol between the ponds, and twitchers should look and listen for nightjars, woodlarks, redstarts, woodpeckers, terns, dabchicks, Dartford warblers and great grey shrikes. Curlews also breed here and, if you're lucky, you might spy peregrines, merlin, short-eared owls or even a soprano pipistrelle bat. Beyond the wildlife, the human history of the area is also fascinating. Lloyd George - Britain's WWI Prime Minister - lived here, and during WWII Allied troops trained for D-Day on the commons. The MoD is still active on the periphery, as occasional signs warning about the perils of playing with strange objects testify. Neighbouring Hankley Common has even more wartime history – Allied forces prepared for Operation Overlord ahead of D-Day here by building a 100-metre-long replica section of the Atlantic Wall, still visible in a part of the common called the Lion's Mouth. Hankley has featured in three James Bond films – The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day, and Skyfall – as well as episodes of Dr Who, Blackadder and Tenko. Be a bit careful, though, because this is still army territory: ppublic access can be restricted during military activity and you should obey warning signs and check for updates here. When you've earned a thirst, pop into Thursley's Three Horseshoes Pub, a walker-friendly, classic country pub with good local cask ales and great food.
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Thursley is just off the A3, around 5 miles southwest of Godalming. Parking is available in the village and at the Moat. Trains run from Guildford to Godalming, from where buses serve Elstead.