The Silent Pool is a lake of crystal clear water at the foot of the North Downs in Surrey, near Guildford. Water feeding the lake comes from springs in the Downs' lower chalk. Natural filtration leaves the water completely clear, with a beautiful blue green colour. Although some of the pool's appearance is due to seventeenth century damming, the upper part of the Silent Pool has a genuinely ancient history. It is not known whether the Silent Pool was a prehistoric religious site - springs were often places of worship - but its deeply affecting clear, still waters have long made people think it should have been. In the nineteenth century the pool became a popular place to visit, and it was at this time that one man decided to create a few legends for which the Silent Pool seemed a fitting setting. In 1858 Martin Tupper from nearby Albury wrote a story for the Silent Pool, using actual historical characters. I've seen this story reproduced as "folklore" in a publication sold at National Trust properties in the area, which indicates that Tupper succeeded in his aim to produce an instant Silent Pool legend.
Tupper's story claims that a famous thirteenth century archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, was born in Friday Street, a tiny hamlet not far from the Silent Pool. In Tupper's fantasy, Stephen was orphaned when his father died on crusade, and his mother died soon afterwards. As young Stephen had a good singing voice he was adopted by some local monks who educated and cared for him. But, so the story goes, when his voice cracked, Stephen had no further value to the monks. At the age of eighteen he lived with an aunt in Albury, and fell in love with his cousin Alice. But on a summer's evening, walking in the woods between St Martha's Chapel and the Silent Pool, the young lovers were seized by a band of thugs led by none other than Prince John, the future King John! Alice was carried off, while Stephen was beaten senseless. When he came round he assumed Alice was dead and rushed off in despair to devote himself to a life in the Church. Alice meanwhile escaped from John, and thinking that Stephen was dead, she became a nun.
Some years later, Tupper continued, a beautiful young woman named Emma took to bathing naked in the Silent Pool. Prince John heard of this and rode up to see for himself. He arrived to see Emma hanging from the branch of a tree, dipping in and out of the clear water. Emma saw John and his men arrive, and tried to escape by wading deeper into the pool. John pursued on his horse, until Emma, out of her depth, sank beneath the water. Just for good measure, Emma's brother also died trying to rescue her. Stephen Langton, heard of this tragedy, and by now knew that Alice was a nun, and therefore would never be his. His hatred for King John meant that it was Langton who led a group of barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. Naturally the story ends by claiming that Emma's ghost now haunts the Silent Pool.
The Stephen Langton pub at Friday Street
The fact that this is a completely ludicrous story did not prevent it from becoming established in the popular view of King John. Even today, the pub at Friday Street, is called the Stephen Langton, and, as I said, Tupper's story is reproduced as "folklore" in publications sold at local National Trust properties. History, like everything else, has to compete for people's attention, and the history that is most read, and longest remembered, is that which tells a striking story. Tupper's fairytale shows that even in recorded history there can be as much myth making as that linked with figures such as King Arthur.
A rather more famous writer, Alfred Tennyson, was also interested in the Silent Pool. When Tennyson was living at Blackdown, his son Hallam Tennyson, records a number of visits by his father to the Silent Pool (Alfred Lord Tennyson, A Memoir By His Son P594). Tennyson was writing during the Industrial Revolution. Dreams, legends, and religious reassurances seemed to be fading in the new society, and many of Tennyson's greatest poems seek to explore and even replace lost mysteries and legends. Fittingly the Silent Pool with its air of mystery, was able to provide a setting for newly created legends.
Interestingly in 1926, a young and distressed Agatha Christie, already a famous author, used the Silent Pool to stage another short lived myth. On the evening of 3rd December 1926, following a marital row, Archie Christie left his wife to live with another woman, Nancy Neele. That same evening Mrs Christie wrote to the Deputy Chief Constable of Surrey claiming that her life was in danger. Then, leaving her daughter asleep in bed, Mrs Christie drove off in her car, which was later found at the Silent Pool car park. The car was abandoned, covered in frost with its headlights on. A huge hunt was then mounted involving hundreds of policemen. On the weekend after the author's disappearance fifteen thousand volunteers joined in the search. Archie Christie was a suspect in the possible murder of his wife and was given a police guard. A week later Agatha Christie was found at the Hydro Hotel in Harrogate, claiming she had amnesia. Christie was to recover from this episode, but during her time of emotional turmoil, it seemed she wanted to make a murder mystery out of her life, with Archie Christie as the chief suspect. It was at the Silent Pool that she chose to create her mystery.
Opening Times: The Silent Pool is on public land and there are no restrictions to visiting.
Directions: The Silent Pool is just off the A25 a few miles east of Guildford. There is a signposted car park beside the road, followed by a short walk to the pool itself. Click here for an interactive map centred on the Silent Pool. (Use the satellite view and zoom in to see the remarkable blue colour of the pool.)
Access: Paths leading to the pool are well maintained, although it would be muddy in wet weather, and it is quite steep in places. There is a wooden viewing walkway around the pool, which can only be reached via steps.
Contact: Surrey County Council
web site: http://www.surreycc.gov.uk/
telephone: 03456 009009
fax: 020 8541 9575