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Dragon Interview: The Surrey Explorer

Dominic Crolla decided to give up his work in the city, and then as a wine importer, and pedal in a completely new direction. He tells Martin Giles of The Guildford Dragon about his new venture…

Tell me about the new business you have started up.

The Surrey Explorer offers an insight into the secrets of the Surrey Hills via all-inclusive guided bike tours for groups of up to five people. With over 20 routes available there are routes to suit all levels of experience and fitness, the pace of each tour is set by the customers who can stop as often or a little as they wish.

Each tour includes points of interest, special views, less well-known trails and visits to historic sites while cycling through the amazing valleys, woodlands, villages and heaths of the Surrey Hills. Bikes and helmets are provided and free pick up / drop off is available within a 10-mile radius of Guildford.

With half day or full day tours on offer locals and visitors alike have the opportunity to explore many of the secrets of the Surrey Hills while enjoying the fresh air and some exercise.

What gave you the idea?

I have been riding my mountain bike throughout the Surrey Hills for many years with friends and I always seem to be the “routemaster”: planning and leading all of the rides. My bike buddies seem perfectly happy with me taking the lead and showing them around different routes and often, out on the trails, we have talked about how it would be a good idea to take more people out and show them around the area.

Also, during a recent visit to Vietnam with my family we decided to visit the “real” Vietnam in the countryside one day – we drove for four hours to visit a village in the middle of nowhere, walked around a bit, and then we drove four hours back again. It was a great day out away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities.

This made me think that visitors to England may be interested in getting away from the usual tourist hotspots of London, Windsor Castle, Oxford, Cambridge and so on and come and see a slice of life and the beautiful countryside here in the Surrey Hills.

On putting the chat with my bike buddies together with the Vietnam experience the idea of The Surrey Explorer was born.

Looking across to the Greensand Hills from Hackhurst Downs.

How long have you been operating and how is it going?

I started to develop my website and offer services only recently in the last summer and have had some degree of success so far. A few groups have been out with me and interest has been expressed from London, Europe and the U.S. as well as from several people closer to home. This has been great as I have been able to check that my email links, downloadable forms and payment processes all work properly.

The biggest challenge for me, though, is to get the word out in a very crowded market when I do not really have a marketing budget. I am reliant on word of mouth and building a presence via social and other media (on a bit of a learning curve here).

Just recently I have joined up with Tourism South East and now appear on their visitsoutheastengland website. I fully expect getting the name out there is going to be a fairly slow process but I am confident this will happen and that interest levels will continue to grow over time.

Snacktime for Dominic on the heath at Rosemary Hill.

What aspects of West Surrey can you show your customers that they could not see otherwise?

The guided tours essentially operate on two levels in addition to the bike ride element.

Firstly, there are the physical and tangible points of interest that are difficult to spot, yet are close to tracks and bridleways, or just not known about. For example, a valley, a particular view, an ice house, or a folly such as Booker’s Tower. Is it well known that there are two iron age forts on Holmbury hill or that there are five vineyards within three miles of the centre of Guildford?

Maybe that’s common knowledge but somehow I don’t think so. The list goes on and on and there are many hidden or forgotten points of interest within the Surrey Hills just waiting to be re-discovered.

On Leith Hill, towering above the Surrey Hills at just over 1,000 above sea level.

Secondly, there is the contextual setting or background to a place, a building or a geological feature. This could be a historical context: such as when the army of Ethelwulf halted the Danes in their tracks on their march to Winchester at the battle on the slopes of Leith Hill; or an explanation of what happened at the gunpowder mills.

In addition, there are plenty of stories to bring to light, some of the more frequently mentioned being the drowning at Silent pool, or the discovery of Agatha Christie’s car in the quarry in Water Lane.

There are the quirky stories such as Julius Caesar, the Surrey and England cricketer, who played a cricket match in 1850 against Godalming in a team made up entirely of eleven Caesars.

And then there are the mythical stories – of Mother Ludlum’s cave, why the Devil’s Jumps are so called, and the origin of the name of Thursley, to name a few.

The guided bike tours thread together points of interest and the background and stories to reveal some of the secrets and less well-known aspects of the Surrey Hills while also visiting some of the more popular spots. Doing this with a mountain bike and a guide means that so much more can be seen over a shorter period without the worry of having to check the map all the time or getting lost.

The beautiful Tillingbourne Valley.

What are your favourite parts of the area?

The list of favourites is fairly long. I marvel at the way that innocuous little river, the Tillingbourne, has cut its mark on the history of the Surrey Hills, all those mills over hundreds of years creating employment, wealth and even misery in the valley.

The influence of Earl of Lovelace is wonderful to see too: the Horsley Towers, the Lovelace bridges, and Yew Tree Walk near Mountain Wood. The commons Thursley and Hankley are very special in their own ways. Then there is the stone circle at Hascombe.

Joint top of this list, though, are the panoramic views dotted all around the hills and the sunken lanes/the droves that cut through those very hills from north to south.

The views from Reynards Hill and Crooksbury Hill are so worth the climb. While cycling along Ride Lane is like travelling through history: it is a sunken lane with steep sides, lined by exposed overhanging tree roots, dark with flashes of sunlight, it crosses the path of a Roman road, was used to drive pigs to pastures on higher ground, was a smugglers route and an ancient north/south passageway now a public byway used for the more gentle pursuits of horse riding and cycling.

On the Wey, close to the gunpowder storage building at Stonebridge.

Which bits do you think are the most interesting historically?

When Winston Churchill made his famous “fight on the beaches” speech in 1940 he also said, “we shall fight in the hills” – I would like to think that this was a reference to The Surrey Hills through which the GHQ Stop Line ran. The notion that the Surrey Hills was the last line of defence protecting London adds an element of national and strategic importance to the hills.

Although never used in action, the dozens of pillboxes still standing within the Surrey Hills serve as a stark reminder of the real threat that the country faced back in World War Two. It is easy to be enthralled by this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but when you come across one of those pillboxes it is worthwhile pausing to reflect on what could have been, and be thankful that the pillboxes were never needed.

Another fascinating historical intrigue is the amount of recycling that used to go on hundreds of years. The prime example being the stones and brickwork from the dissolution of Waverley Abbey finding their way into Loseley House – a kind of regeneration of a 12th Century Abbey into a manor house still in full use today.

To improve your knowledge of local history you are taking Matthew Alexander’s local history course at Guildford Museum. How are you finding it?

Matthew is an amazing historian with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the local area. His course is focussed on the Guildford area and offers an educational overview right from the geological changes that shaped The Surrey Hills through to fairly recent times. The course is packed with insight and little gems of information all of which are making me look at Guildford in a very different way. I am thoroughly enjoying the course.

Where do your customers come from?

All over. Overseas visitors, visitors from London and the other parts of the UK, as well as from within the Surrey Hills.

With that [Scottish] accent you are not from Guildford. What is your background?

Born, bred, schooled, and university in Edinburgh, where I studied Spanish and Business. I lived in London for 20 years where I met Amanda, we have three super children – we have lived in Guildford for nearly 10 years.

Career wise I have worked in international banking, with a major telecommunications company, in the broadband industry, and importing and distributing wonderful wine from Argentina.

In recent years cycling, on and off road, has taken up more and more of my time. I have trained as a level 2 mountain bike leader and am a qualified remote first aider.

How can readers get more information about your bike rides?
They should go to www.thesurreyexplorer.co.uk or visit www.facebook.com/guidedbiketours/

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