When the hamlet of Toys Hill in Kent acquired its well in 1898, it was not a charming rural feature but a life-changing source of water. It was sunk by social reformer and philanthropist Octavia Hill and, along with the terrace on which it sits, was part of one of the first gifts to the National Trust, which Hill co-founded in 1895.

The well overlooks an enormous swathe of the Weald of Kent – an “endlessly fascinating” county, according to historian Tristram Hunt, whose television work includes a series on the English civil war. We are about to walk the Octavia Hill trail, laid out to mark the centenary of Hill’s death in 1912. The Trust is planning a year of events to mark this anniversary, and the inauguration of the trail, which can be walked as a four-mile, six-mile or together as a 10-mile circuit, is among the first. We are doing the shortest version, although it is a wonder that Hunt has time even for that – as well as teaching at Queen Mary, University of London, he is also Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central.

Hill lived nearby at Crockham Hill, and the NT land we walk across as we begin the four-mile loop, including woodlands that will be glorious with bluebells a little later in the year, surrounds what little remains of the house that she also donated to the Trust. She was one of those extraordinary, driven Victorian women who applied themselves selflessly to improving the conditions around them.

This area has certainly changed a good deal since Hill rambled here. We set out past former farm cottages that now have gleaming top-of-the-range cars in their drives, but when Hill sank her well the local people would have had good reason to be grateful.

“This would have been a working, quite poor area,” says Hunt. “The 1880s and 1890s were harsh; there was an agricultural depression, it was not a boom time. Now, the landscape of work has become the landscape of leisure for ramblers, cyclists and dog walkers.” The farm workers of Hill’s era, he observes, probably did not have much of a Ruskinesque sense of beauty about the landscape that surrounded them – lovely though it was and still is. When we emerge from Scords Wood into open fields, the sudden opening up of the view across trees and farmland to the spire of St Mary’s Church at Ide Hill is breathtaking, particularly on a wintry day when milky skeins of mist are rising from the trees that stretch into the distance.

We’ve now joined the Greensand Way, one of the south-east’s long-distance footpaths, for a short stretch; it passes through woodlands that would have already been mature in Hill’s day. Climbing Ide Hill, we pause near the top at a stone seat inscribed “To the honoured memory of Octavia Hill who loving nature with a great love secured this view for the enjoyment of those who came after her”. This is not difficult terrain, but I am pleased not to be attempting the gradient in petticoats and can imagine Hill would have been glad to catch her breath and admire the gentle valley below with its cosy-looking farmhouse set at the foot of the hill.

Hester Lacey with Tristram Hunt
Hester Lacey with Tristram Hunt

Hill might well have approved of the idea of stepping out with a historian; she believed not only in relieving the miserable conditions the poor lived in but in enabling universal access to education, music and culture. (For those not lucky enough to enjoy a personal commentary on her exceptional life, Tristram Hunt’s essay on Octavia Hill, “A Woman of Substance”, is published in the spring 2012 issue of the National Trust magazine.) One of Hill’s particular interests was housing reform; so much so that she bought properties in a number of London slums and let them at affordable rents.

She also believed very strongly that everyone should have access to open space and campaigned to preserve the green spaces within reach of the city. Despite the rapid urban sprawl in the late 19th century, there was still, says Hunt, “the sense of nature close to the city, in contrast to the horrors of Marylebone, Deptford, Notting Hill and Southwark, where Octavia had her houses”. It was a desire to preserve that sense of nature on the city doorstep that led to the founding of the National Trust and the establishment of its roots in areas such as the one we are exploring.

From the stone seat, it is a few minutes’ walk to Ide Hill village green. From here, we cross a field and step down into a lane. This short section of the walk is the only one where we encounter a little traffic. “What’s exciting about the Trust celebrating Octavia with such enthusiasm,” says Hunt, as we flatten ourselves against the hedge to let a road-hogging Audi slide past, “is that a primary function is returning; it is beginning to reassert a slightly radical edge, rather than James Lees-Milne [renowned secretary to the Trust’s country house committee] cruising around buying up stately homes.”

The view on emerging from Scords Wood at Ide Hill, with St Mary's Church spire in the background
The view on emerging from Scords Wood at Ide Hill, with St Mary's Church spire in the background

When it began, the National Trust was, says Hunt, “a radical intervention about private property; the idea that people should have common land. It was about alleviating the conditions of the poor. It was only in the post-war years that the emphasis switched to rescuing the nation’s heritage.” And, he points out, a modern version of Octavia Hill’s principles still thrives in the Trust of today.

The trail leads us back through Emmetts Garden, another Trust property, passing tantalisingly beside the tea-room, which is closed for the winter and will not be serving scones with cream again until March. Much like the trippers of yesteryear, however, we have brought our own supplies and, fuelled on flapjacks, we head uphill, back towards the Toys Hill car park. Are we feeling the spirit of Octavia today, I wonder, as we climb the wide woodland rides?

“Nooo,” says Hunt reflectively. “There are no ragged children to be seen, just dog walkers.”

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A walk with the FT No. 2: The Octavia Hill Centenary Trail

Circular walk: 4 miles (option of additional 6-mile loop)

Grade: Easy

Main stages

The shorter loop of the Octavia Hill Centenary Trail is mapped out above. Both parts of the trail start at the well in Toys Hill.

Park in the National Trust Toys Hill car park, where the first Octavia Hill Centenary Trail waymarker disc can be found by the information panel. A National Trust leaflet describing the walk is also available here.

Walk down through the woods to the well in Toys Hill and the start of the trail.

Cross to Scords Lane, passing Toys Hill Farmhouse.

At the end of the lane look for a metal NT sign for Scords Wood.

Pick up the waymarked path and follow the path up Ide Hill to the stone seat.

Follow the path to Ide Hill village green and continue to follow the waymarks to Emmetts Garden. Take the footpath next to the tea-room and go straight ahead at a stile to pick up the waymarks, eventually returning to the Toys Hill car park .

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