Peeking just above the trees by the M25 in southwest London can be found a curious octagonal building which was built 200 years ago as part of the defence of Britain.
This is the Chatley Heath semaphore tower and is a rare survivor of a series of towers built to send signals to/from London and the coast at a time when an invasion by Napoleon was a very real fear. The construction of the line was ordered in 1816 and was completed in 1822, and it was one of a line of towers to relay signals across the country, but it was short lived as the modern telegraph was about to be invented, and the semaphore towers were closed down in 1847.
Heath wardens and gamekeepers lived in the tower until 60 years ago, when in 1963 due to lack of facilities and decay, the tower was closed. Given some restoration in 1988 and rented out, the tower again fell into decay until a few years ago. That’s when the Landmark Trust took over the tower and raised the money for a full restoration – opening in 2021 as a bed and breakfast that people can spend the weekend in.
And a couple of times a year, it’s open to the public to visit and to climb the 100 steps to the roof for some pretty impressive views across west London.
Although it’s a five-story tower, since it was built, trees have grown to reach very nearly to the top, so it looms out of the woods suddenly as you walk into an open space at the top of the hill. Although it’s a tall tower, it’s not massively wide – with just enough space inside for one room on each floor and a very narrow staircase to get between the floors.
A mechanical model of the semaphore tower is on the ground floor, and yes I spelt out Hello World in semaphore signals.
Several floors follow, with a couple for bedrooms and a living room, and then at the top is the new kitchen, with Landmark Trust branded soap in the dish. But more interesting is the pillar in the middle – which is supporting the semaphore pole above, and contains the controls to make it work.
The restoration is what I would describe as understated simplicity, a mix of neutral but quite appropriate colours and finishes that suggest a restored cottage, which is impressive considering the fact that you’re standing in a tall tower. There’s a guest book in one of the rooms, and yes, some people have filled their comments in using semaphore flags.
One of the temptations when climbing a tower is to spoil the surprise at the top by looking out of the windows on the way up, but here, the trees block the views of the distance, while providing pleasing backgrounds of their own to the window views.
However, what you’re really here for is undeniably the views from the roof, which reach half-way across Greater London.
There’s enough space up here for a table and some chairs, and to stand around looking mostly towards London spotting the landmarks in the distance. Or peering over the edge at the people below.
In the distance it’s easy to see the City’s towers, and over to the left is a smaller cluster, which turned out after squinting through the binoculars for a while to be Stratford. Wembley’s white arch is clearly visible when it’s visible, but being white it had a tendency to fade from view at times rather like a Cheshire Cat on the horizon.
A person can spend a surprising amount of time up here looking across the landscape just soaking in the views, or peering through binoculars for specific buildings.
There are also open days at other buildings owned by the Landmark Trust, and details of those are here.
Getting to the Semaphore Tower
The tower is in a wood, and there is parking a modest walk from it.
If coming by public transport, the easiest route is to catch the train to Effingham Junction, and then it’s about a 20-30 minute walk along roads without pavements. Leave the station and head to Martyr’s Green, and the Black Swan pub (filming location for An American Werewolf in London), then walk along Ockham Lane and turn left at the first junction. At the end, past a couple of posh houses, is the wood, and footpaths to the tower.
On my visit, I also detoured in the wood to the Samuelson Mausoleum, which is worth a visit, and when I left, I took the longer way home via Cobham, just because I wanted to.