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. . . .
I am afraid the storyline of Coldharbour Gentlemen is somewhat unfair to Mr George Barclay of Burford Lodge. He is cast there as the deepest-dyed of villains—a traitor and all-around blackguard. It must be confessed that there is nothing in the historical record to indicate that he was guilty of the crimes I have laid at his door. In truth, however, he seems to have been, if not a blackguard, at least a very-dark-grey-guard . . .
Box Hill has long been a spot to which many have resorted in search of refreshment for body and spirit. In fact, it was so popular with so many that the more gentlemanly sort of visitor became fond of holding the place up to scorn. Daniel Defoe, in the early eighteenth century, even hints darkly at pagan rites: in the account of J. S. Bright (A History of Dorking and the Neighbouring Parishes, p. 166), he ‘has left a singular account of a large number of people who met on Sundays near the “Great Beech” on Box Hill. Ladies and gentlemen were accustomed to come in their carriages from Epsom, and other places in the vicinity, for the purpose of seeking pleasure amid these bowers, walks, and glades. He suggests that . . . the whole scene recalled “the groves and high places” of Judaea, where deities were worshipped, who never frowned upon the sensual delights of their devotees.’ . . .