The hero of Coldharbour Gentlemen, Harry Steer, never enters the doors of Burford Lodge, but it looms in the near distance as a threatening presence in a one of the less edifying episodes in his life. Built in 1776 by John Eckersall, it was a low-built house lacking the courage of its architectural convictions, a mishmash of borrowings from various eras that would come to be known as a cottage ornée. With a small park, lawns, and a six-acre orchard called The Weypole on the other side of the River Mole, it would have been a property for a gentleman of modest ambitions.
George Barclay, as imagined in Coldharbour Gentlemen, was decidedly not a man of modest ambitions when he took possession of Burford Lodge around the turn of the nineteenth century, but perhaps—considering that he went bankrupt in 1803 owing £300,000—it was a reflection of what he could actually afford. Its lands on the south side—the overgrown meadows along the river under the shadow of the Whites, the chalk cliffs at the base of Box Hill—provided a convenient hiding place for the smugglers in the story to wait for the delivery of their most shocking cargo, a shipment under the direction of Mr Barclay.
John Timbs, the author of many flowery but dubiously accurate descriptions of the neighbourhood, saw Burford Lodge thus: ‘Perhaps no place can furnish a more unique picture of rural elegance, than that which this elegant spot presents. The cottage opens on a rich carpet of verdure, while groups of cattle feeding in its domain give it the character of a rural landscape. The borders are washed by the Mole, and on the bank is a neatly trimmed path, communicating by wooden bridges with several romantic walks on Box-Hill, which, with its venerable heights, shelters the whole estate’ (A Picturesque Promenade round Dorking, in Surrey, pp. 37–38). Even such an uncritical narrator felt impelled to convey through his hedging language (‘a more unique picture of rural elegance’, ‘the character of a rural landscape’) that appearances and reality did not here entirely coincide.
Dr. Aikin, who chronicled the beauties of the neighbourhood in the Monthly Magazine (May 1798), apparently preferred to avert his eyes from the house itself: writing about Box Hill, he says, ‘The point of view whence the hill itself is the most striking spectacle, is from the very elegant cottage and grounds of Mr. Barclay, seated directly beneath it. The vast perpendicular wall of verdure, forming a side-screen to those grounds, has an effect of real sublimity, as well as uncommon beauty.’
Burford Lodge lay on the outskirts of the village of Mickleham, just north of Darking. No trace of the house remains today, but it was quite close to the Burford Bridge, which still spans the River Mole today though in a modified form. On the far side of the bridge lies the Burford Bridge Hotel, known in 1800 as the Fox and Hounds. (The current building was probably constructed a few years after my stories take place.) It was a popular hostelry going all the way back to the thirteenth century, and was frequented by many notables in the early nineteenth century. They included Lord Nelson, who stayed there with his mistress, Emma Hamilton, in 1805, shortly before the Battle of Trafalgar; and John Keats, who completed Endymion there in 1817. Throughout the nineteenth century it was a jumping-off point for the intrepid literary walkers, from F. E. Green to Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s father), who favoured Box Hill and the Darking neighbourhood for their tramps—and I can still highly recommend fortifying oneself with a dish of tea there before attempting to scale Box Hill’s steep northwestern face.
The Victorian novelist William Black wrote an evocative description of the spot in the 1870s: ‘It was a still and warm evening in June, and we were in a little old-fashioned inn at the foot of Box Hill, the windows open, a mild west wind blowing through the elms, the yellow sunset shining along the hills. A great silence lay over the valley; the air was fragrant with various scents; doves were calling in the distant trees. In the dusky corner of the room, where the piano stood, some one with a sweet strange thrill in her voice was singing . . .’ (Princess of Thule, dedicated to his wife).
I like to think of George Barclay enjoying just such a scene at his house on a summer’s evening, as he formulated the plans that would soon deprive him of all that beauty and peace.
7 September 2021
Dr. John Aikin, in Monthly Magazine (May 1798).
William Black, Princess of Thule (1874).
E. W. Brayley, A Topographical History of Surrey, vol. 4 (G. Willis, 1850), p. 459.
Ronald Shepperd, Micklam: The Story of a Parish (Mickleham Publications, 1991), gives somewhat different accounts of both Burford Lodge and the Burford Bridge Hotel but I have found his work generally unreliable.
John Timbs, A Picturesque Promenade round Dorking, in Surrey (John Warren, 1822).