"Emma had never been to Box Hill; she wished to see what everybody found so well worth seeing..."
Many a fan of classic English Literature, and of Jane Austen (1775 - 1817) in particular, has dreamed of visiting the locations featured in those well-loved novels. Towards the end of Austen's novel Emma (1815), a pivotal scene takes place at Box Hill, a site of outstanding natural beauty just twenty miles south-west of London, and seven miles from Emma's (fictional) home village of Highbury. It is on the slopes of Box Hill, among the cowslips, primroses and bluebells, that Emma commits the social sin of mocking a woman of inferior standing, the talkative spinster Miss Bates, earning her a reprimand from her closest friend Mr George Knightley. This, and the effect of taking in the magnificent views of the Surrey countryside, help Emma realize both she, and the world she thought she knew, are not so great in the greater scheme of life. But what can a modern-day visitor expect from a visit to Box Hill?
Inspired by Austen's timeless tale, I took a trip to Box Hill in September 2009. As I do not drive, and live just over 100 miles north-east of London, I traveled by rail, a mode of transport which didn't arrive at Box Hill until 1849. Although the area had fame as a tourist attraction since at least the time of Daniel Dafoe's A Tour Through the Whole Isle of Great Britain (1724-26), it wasn't until the railways arrived that Box Hill began to pull in large numbers of visitors from London and beyond, keen for fresh country air away from the increasingly industrialized large cities. Today, between 800,000 and one million people a year visit Box Hill, and enjoy its views, nature walks and other sites of interest.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Peter TrimmingArriving at Box Hill & Westhumble Station, I tried to get my bearings, assuming the hill would be visible from the stations, but not so. I made my way through the pleasant village of Westhumble, but it wasn't until I was nearer the main A24 road that I saw Box Hill in full. "Everybody had a burst of admiration on first arriving," as Austen puts it, and rightly so. Just to look at the hill from ground level is almost worth a trip in itself; imagine a very English Ayer's Rock, but of chalk and covered in woodland and pastures, landed in the middle of the countryside, and you're close to the first impression Box Hill may make upon you.
Rather like Emma and her "exploring party" of friends, I soon realized, despite my research, that I was ill-prepared for a full excursion, and found myself unable to find the famous Zig-Zag Road, traversed by the long-distance cyclists during the 2012 Olympic Games. Instead, I found myself at the foot of the 630ft escarpment, navigating a set of stepping-stones across the River Mole. Without the time to stop and look for the resident mallards or kingfishers, or indeed the trout sheltering in the cool waters, I hopped a little awkwardly across the great stones without mishap, but as you will learn, this is not a route for the unfit or faint-hearted.
Next came a footpath I didn't so much walk up as ascend. Steep and dizzying, the path almost set off my vertigo at a couple of points, and I cursed myself for not obtaining a better map or guide-book (don't just print off a map from the internet and hope for the best, as I did!). Still, at least I saw a part of the hill most visitors do not get to see, and certainly Emma or Austen would not have traversed. We do know Austen visited the area, for she had family connections with this part of Surrey. In June 1814, she made the trip to see her godfather, the Revd. Samuel Cooke, and his wife Cassandra, one of Jane's mother's cousins. The couple lived in Great Bookham, a village near the town of Leatherhead, a few miles to the north of Box Hill. This would put Jane around halfway through writing Emma, and it's easy to believe Austen included the impressive hill as a result of her visit. The village of Great Bookham itself, critics believe, served as inspiration for Emma's village of Highbury.
Once I reached the summit of the footpath, I joined Zig-Zag road, alas setting off in the wrong direction (if you find myself in my place, turn left and not right). Although this enabled me to walk through Box Hill village, not to mention some interesting back lanes and fields, this wasn't what I' wanted to see. Emma Woodhouse also experienced disappointment here, though for more personal reasons than an inept sense of geography. Hemmed in by social etiquette and expectation, she finds the site enclosing her, and confounding Emma's sense of
place in life. As scholar Fiona Stafford writes of the Box Hill scene, "its name encompasses not only the verbal sparring and considerable damage sustained there by Austen's characters, but also the sense of claustrophobia, of being boxed-in...as the same set of people embark on yet another frivolous expedition."
While Emma and company had visited Mr Knightley at his home in Donwell Abbey the day Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ian Capperbefore, and so allowing the chance for familiarity to breed contempt, such an expedition as this is a rarity for me, and I wanted to make the most of the day, which felt as if it were getting away from me. Asking directions from a friendly local, I got back on track and found my way to the National Trust's site on the hill. The hill has been a picnic site since long before the National Trust arrived, but for those unwilling to bring along a collation of cold meats and fresh strawberries, a coffee and a flapjack is just as sustaining. A visit to the National Trust shop provided me two books on the area (my parents, rather like Emma's father, enjoy flicking through guides of places their children or grandchildren have visited), and a splendid bookmark, which I usually have inserted at the Box Hill chapter of Emma.
There are a number of walks to choose from, all starting at the National Trust base, all of varying distances. I took a mid-length nature trail, of just under two hours. There is a great variety of flora and fauna to spot along the way: around 400 types of flower, a dozen varieties of orchid, several species of bee and wasp, and, according to the National Trust's wildlife guide, a remarkable "forty of the fifty-eight British species of butterfly," including the elephant hawkmoth, the tiger moth, the common blue and the rare blue adonis butterfly. Alas, I am no botanist, so I honestly cannot tell you what exactly I saw along the walk, although I did later meet a flock of the black-faced sheep who help keep the pastures from turning to scrub. The walk, though enjoyable, was also quite rigorous, with looser, chalky sections along some adverse cambers, so choose your walk carefully if you're not used to a more challenging stroll.
Austen tells us of the "two whole hours that were spent on the hill," and although Emma is quite glad to see the back of this particular corner of Surrey, two hours isn't really enough to do the hill full justice. Of course you can have a good walk and a picnic in half a day, but to really get to know the area, you will need good preparation, and perhaps embark upon one of the regular guided walks available to visitors, to know what you are looking at in terms of wildlife and geological features. As it was, I took in the fine views of Dorking, the largest nearby town, and the South Downs which expand away from the foot of the hill, from the Salomons Memorial viewing platform. I also looked around the Old Fort, a defense constructed in the 1890s as fears grew in England of a possible foreign invasion, concerns laid to rest by the entente cordiale of 1904. The Old Fort is now home to at least three species of bat, which you might see leaving the fort at dusk, as they hunt for food.
After a quick visit to Broadwood's Folly,Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domaina small circular stone tower constructed in the mid-nineteenth century during the fashion for such things, I turned back to the station, stopping for a coffee at Rykas Cafe, near the village of Mickleham, a famous meeting point for the biker community. Had I more time, I might have taken a look at the Camilla Lacey cottage, in the village of West Humble, built by one of Jane Austen's literary heroes, Fanny Burney, in 1797, and where she lived with her French husband until 1802. The evening had drawn in however, and the time had come to walk back to the station for the long haul home.
As Austen kept no journal, and her sister Cassandra destroyed many of her letters before her own death in 1845, we cannot exactly know how much time Austen spent on Box Hill. One critic, F W Bradbook, suggested Austen may have gained her knowledge from a contemporary guidebook, such as Observations on the Western Parts of England (1798) by William Gilpin. It's true that Austen doesn't give a detailed geographical account of Box Hill, concentrating, rightly, on the psychological interplay between her characters and the lasting effect of the trip on Emma Woodhouse's selfhood. However, this shouldn't distract from any fan of Jane Austen's work from visiting the site and enjoying one of the most spectacular examples of natural beauty in southern England.