Though situated in convenient proximity to London, the neighbourhood of Darking has long been celebrated for its picturesque beauty. The grandeur of the vistas is justly famous; in the course of a morning’s ride, visitors may enjoy all the benefit of a sublime variety of scenery to stimulate the mind and inspire the heart.
Not all of us, however, are suited to the robust pleasures to be sought in nature. Has your physician recommended that you seek to restore your health through a change of scene? If so, you can do no better than to repair to the district of Darking Hundred, whose pure air is noted for its salubriousness. To the aforesaid attractions we may add one of even greater value—that of a select society, pleased to offer welcome to visitors of discernment, be their stay of long duration or short. The neighbourhood abounds with the landed estates of gentlemen and Darking town provides all the amenities a visitor might wish, from elegant lodging to well-stocked circulating libraries and shops that offer the style of goods ordinarily to be found only in London itself. Long a favourite place of resort in the summer season, Darking is certain to reward the traveller with comforts and amenities of no negligible order.
Welcome to Darking Hundred, and may your stay here be a long and contented one.
These are the chronicles of a particular place—the neighbourhood of a market town in Surrey, England—in a moment of time, the year 1800. The town still exists (though its name has migrated to a more prosaic form, Dorking), and these tales are embedded in its collective memory. The factual elements are drawn from the accumulated wisdom of members of historical societies that flourish in the neighbourhood; using their research as a basis, I have embellished reality with characters drawn solely from my imagination. If the result distorts the historical record in any way, the responsibility is entirely mine. . . .
In Anglo-Saxon times, society was organised for purposes of government into hundreds, each of which represented the quantity of land necessary to support one hundred families. In places with rich soil or other abundant natural resources, a hundred might be a very small area; but in Surrey, with its varied terrain and mostly problematic soils, the hundreds were relatively large. The hundred persisted as an administrative unit into the nineteenth century, when increased urbanisation made it a less meaningful entity. . . .
In 1801 the British government conducted its first nationwide census, which allows today’s student of history to obtain a fair snapshot of the time. The facts gathered were limited compared to the statistics routinely developed today, but nevertheless they provide a basis for the historical fiction writer’s speculations. From this census we know that Darking’s parish in 1800 had a population of just over three thousand souls. The town had no street lights, very primitive waste management and water supply, and mostly unpaved streets. The eighteenth century had seen a decline in its status as an important market town . . .