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.’ Later, especially after the advent of the railways, it became the haunt of the hoi polloi, disorderly day-trippers leaving their picnic refuse all over the hilltop whilst they exclaimed ignorantly about the beauties of the view, to the disgust of the would-be discerning.
John Rowe, in his Hand Book of Dorking (1855), informed his readers in severe tones that the picturesque was more properly discovered in smaller views of nature than the broad panoramas visible from the hilltop. Jane Austen, in Emma (1815), damns the place with a single, blighting phrase—‘every body had a burst of admiration on arriving’—and then has nothing more to say on the subject.
Despite the slighting remarks of these cognoscenti, the masses continue to flock to Box Hill to this day and its admirers have always outnumbered its detractors. In 1714, a Scotsman named Mackay described it as ‘that Temple of Nature nowhere else to be equalled for affording so surprising and magnificent idea of heaven and earth’ (Bright, p. 167). Coldharbour Gentlemen tells the tale of Major Peter Labilliere’s burial, which took place on the summit without church rites in June 1800. Throughout his years of retirement in Darking, the Major visited the hilltop regularly, seeking and apparently finding a closer relationship with his Maker there. Even after he tripped and fell into a branch that poked out one of his eyes, he remained undeterred; and it was at his insistence that he ended up spending eternity there.
Clearly it was for him a place of inspiration, and he claimed to have seen visions on its heights. I imagine his feelings to have resembled those of another man who later gave years of his life to the place, the writer George Meredith. ‘I am every morning on the top of Box Hill,’ he wrote, ‘as its flower, its bird, its prophet. I drop down the moon on one side, I draw up the sun on t’other. I breathe the fine air, I shout haha to the gates of the world. Then I descend, and know myself a donkey for it’ (letter to Sir William Hardman, as quoted in F. E. Green, On Surrey Hills, pp. 83–84).
Box Hill was a haven for naturalists as well. One anonymous writer claimed that ‘the careful botanist may find every indigenous flower of our island’ on its slopes (Rowe, p. 67). Denham Jordan writes with eloquence and telling detail about his observations there in On Surrey Hills (1891); when Harry Steer in Coldharbour Gentlemen stands at the foot of the hill at dawn by the banks of the Mole and watches a hedgehog nuzzle his shoe, he is enjoying a moment of connection with the wild that Jordan actually experienced.
Box Hill is not the highest peak in the neighbourhood but it is the most dramatic. On the side from which it is most commonly approached, the northwest, it rises abruptly more than 450 feet from the Mole Valley. From different parts of the summit, one may see on a clear day the dome of St Paul’s in London; large stretches of the southern counties; or a series of more confined bucolic vistas of villages and fields, woods and cliffs. For those who never saw the earth from the air or travelled to the wilder landscapes of the north of Britain, a place like Box Hill could offer the closest experience to taking flight. Despite his tendency to analyse and carp, even John Rowe was moved: ‘the unity of impression, which we naturally receive from such a scene is in itself an element of the sublime, and . . . it must awaken even in the dullest soul, the sense of freedom, of grandeur, and of infinitude’ (p. 63). He should know. The more fulsome John Timbs (A Picturesque Promenade round Dorking, in Surrey, 1822, p. 243) exclaims, ‘Thousands, who have emerged from the metropolis to visit the Elysium of Box-Hill, have there reiterated these sentiments, with rapturous and soul-stirring ecstasy!’
Landowners at the turn of the nineteenth century may have seen Box Hill in a very different light. It was covered with timber, mostly box trees but also yew, the infamously pagan beech, fir, and more. The value of box as a commodity—it was used, among other purposes, for furniture veneers and woodcuts—fluctuated, but during wartime, when importing the wood from inexpensive overseas markets was difficult, it could bring the property owner a tidy profit. The man who owned most of Box Hill in the 1790s, Sir Henry St John-Paulet-Mildmay, took full advantage of this opportunity, selling off £22,000 worth of box wood over two years before selling the property to Mr Henry Peters in 1798. So in 1800, a great deal of the hill would have been coated in stumps. One wonders how Major Labilliere felt about that.
Today the woods have not been cut for many years, and it presents a very different appearance from what may be seen in nineteenth-century prints and paintings. The box trees are gnarled with age, roots snaking out in all directions to trip the unwary walker; only one slope is kept partially open, though unobstructed views may be had from a few directions. There are fewer wildflowers than there were and many of the birds so lovingly described by Denham Jordan are no longer found there. But still the westerly breeze lifts gently over the slopes and a visitor’s spirit may rise with the kestrel hovering far overhead.
7 September 2021
J. S. Bright, A History of Dorking and the Neighbouring Parishes (Dorking and London, 1884).
F. E. Green, The Surrey Hills (London, 1915).
Denham Jordan, On Surrey Hills (Edinburgh and London, 1891).
John Rowe, A Hand Book of Dorking (Dorking and London, 1855).
John Timbs, A Picturesque Promenade round Dorking, in Surrey (London, 1822).