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On 11 September 2021 we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the repaired stepping-stones on the North Downs Way, across the River Mole at Burford Bridge, Westhumble, near Dorking in Surrey (grid reference TQ172 512). The land is owned by the National Trust.
The stones were replaced by James Chuter Ede, a member of the Open Spaces Society’s executive committee and shortly to become the society’s vice-president and then president. At that time he was Home Secretary (and he remains the longest-serving Home Secretary for the last 200 years).
Chuter Ede was born in Epsom, Surrey, and served on Surrey County Council before becoming MP for South Shields in the North East. Surrey was always dear to his heart, and he was particularly keen to promote environmental projects there.
The stepping-stones over the River Mole, close to his route to Dorking High School, had been damaged during the war. He encouraged Dorking Urban District Council to reinstate them; the council agreed to maintain them but passed the estimate for the initial work to Chuter Ede.
So Chuter Ede paid the sum of £156, 19s 6d, although it was ‘considerably higher than I expected’, in thanks for what Dorking had done for him in his boyhood.
On his 64th birthday, 11 September 1946, he invited the Prime Minister Clement Atlee to reopen the stones. There was a small ceremony, consisting of Atlee and his wife, the school’s headmaster, London’s Lord Mayor, Lawrence Chubb (the society’s secretary), and others.
The group crossed on the stones. There were photographs in the press, and the Surrey Advertiser explained that the PM ‘stepped out resolutely, but Mrs Attlee appeared nervous of the quickly running water … Mr Ede was the next to cross, followed by the Lord Mayor … All made the crossing without mishap’.
Left: the stepping-stones in 1932 before the war damage (the society’s lantern-slide collection; right: the stones today.
Says Kate Ashbrook, our general secretary: ‘We are proud to remember the contribution of our former president in replacing the damaged stepping-stones which are still much used and enjoyed today. At that time they marked the route of the Pilgrims’ Way, but today they are also crossed by the North Downs Way National Trail, and are an important feature in Surrey’s countryside.
‘While he was an MP, James Chuter Ede championed our cause, and asked many questions for us in the House of Commons, particularly about common land, which faced threats, then and now.’
James Chuter Ede (1882-1965) was Home Secretary from August 1945 to October 1951. He was president of the Open Spaces Society (then the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society) from 1955 to 1961, vice president from 1947, and an executive committee member from 1936 until his death in 1965. The only biography of him is James Chuter Ede, Humane Reformer and Politician by Stephen Hart (Pen & Sword, 2021.