The River Mole has many faces, depending on where the visitor encounters it in Darking Hundred. Most of the areas accessible to the public show a sullen face, as it travels muddy and sluggish through meadows and alongside fields. This is the river as seen under Box Hill, and along the Coffin Path that leads from the village of Brockham to Betchworth.
By contrast, the upper reaches of the Mole are little known to the public, flowing mostly through private lands. Here it is fed by dozens of tiny streams and rills, clear, sparkling bits of water that in 1800 nurtured trout.
Near Mickleham is where the river practices the disappearing act that has made it a local wonder for centuries: in times of drought, fissures in the riverbed and banks suck water underground and the river disappears for stretches up to several miles, before the elevation of the riverbed sinks far enough for the water to re-emerge. Peter Brown offers an excellent account of this phenomenon in The Vanishing River of Box Hill (Dorking, 2019). This feature has led the popular imagination to ascribe the name Mole to its burrowing habit, though cooler heads dispute the attribution. A. R. Hope Moncrieff, writing in 1906, links the name instead to ‘Molesley, the Mole island, where the river enters the Thames’; to hedge his bet he adds, ‘The Emlyn is the Mole’s old alias, which has been connected with a Celtic word for “mill”; and when we compare the Latin Mola and Molina a more probable origin of the name may be suggested’ (Surrey, pp. 87–88).
Such pedestrian associations have not satisfied poets throughout the ages, starting with Edmund Spenser, who wrote in The Faerie Queene, book IV, canto XI (1596), amid a panoply of personified waterways, of
Mole, that like a noursling Mole doth make
His way still under ground, till Thamis he o’ertake.
John Keats stayed for a time at the Fox and Hounds on the banks of the Mole, hard by Burford Bridge, while he was finishing Endymion in 1818. It is hard not to picture the scene at the foot of Box Hill in his words from book IV:
Where shall our dwelling be? Under the brow
Of some steep mossy hill, where ivy dun
Would hide us up, although spring leaves were none;
And where dark yew trees, as we rustle through,
Will drop their scarlet berry cups of dew?
O thou wouldst joy to live in such a place;
Dusk for our loves, yet light enough to grace
Those gentle limbs on mossy bed reclin’d:
For by one step the blue sky shouldst thou find,
And by another, in deep dell below,
See, through the trees, a little river go
All in its mid-day gold and glimmering.
(Though when he starts adding Bacchus, satyrs, and panthers to his vision, we have to imagine the view to have been enhanced by liberal imbibing!)
Less-poetic voices have also found the Mole inspiring. Writing near the end of the nineteenth century, Denham Jordan offers beautifully detailed descriptions of the scenery and wildlife of the river (On Surrey Hills, pp. 100–147). The scene in Coldharbour Gentlemen when Harry Steer is cowering under a willow, hiding from capture by the militiamen, draws heavily from Jordan’s observations. His words have enabled me to visualise in vivid terms how the landscapes of Darking Hundred appeared in the nineteenth century, for instance: ‘As the mist rose and fell again, according to the temperature, strange forms floated over the surface of the water and round about the trees. The cries of birds and animals are different by night from what they are by day, and they come on the ear with startling distinctness. The moor-hen as it flies overhead gives out a call like the clicketing “kevit-kevit” of the barn owl, which also comes flitting now here, now there, on noiseless wings, uttering his harsh hissing scream. As you stand close to the river-tangle you hear the sough of wings overhead; and then a dusky form, looking like some shadow, drops close to you. It is the heron: he is near you, but his form is not visible. Night-jars hum in the trees, and the whirring noise made as they pursue their prey sounds in strange vibrations over woods and meadows . . .’ (pp. 116–17). His words evoke a magic in the natural world that I have tried to capture in brief moments when bringing Darking Hundred to life.
Of course, Darking Hundred was also a place for hard living of a more everyday sort. There were water-mills on the river, producing the flour necessary to make bread; in 1800, the Parliament sought to secure all the finer grade of flour for use by the military, leaving only coarse dark flour for the people who had grown the wheat. Poor people sought out the river to eke out their inadequate diets with fish, and were often prosecuted severely by landowners for their incursions. There were few bridges over the river, and many of them were overtopped in flood-time, threatening death by drowning.
In the nineteenth century it was popular for reverential gentlemen to undertake walking tours in Surrey, stopping to beg hospitality from the local gentry and then rewarding them by publishing works praising the beauties and grandeur they discovered. M. C. Turner took delight in satirising these fawning works in his rollicking mock-travel account A Saunter through Surrey (London, 1857). He brought the flowery descriptions of the Mole down to earth where they perhaps always belonged, and I shall give him the last word: ‘This river has been almost “done to death” by the poets,’ he says, ‘which is one of the reasons, I believe, why so little of it remains; it has had almost every adjective in the language applied to it, which is why I drop the subject’ (pp. 35–36).
16 October 2021
J. S. Bright, A History of Dorking and the Neighbouring Parishes (London, 1884).
Peter Brown, The Vanishing River of Box Hill: The Curious Tale of a River that Just Disappears (Dorking, 2019).
Mortimer Collins, Pen Sketches by a Vanished Hand, vol. I (1879).
A. R. Hope Moncrieff, with paintings by Sutton Palmer, Surrey (London, 1906).
Denham Jordan, On Surrey Hills (Edinburgh and London, 1891).
John Keats, Endymion (1818).
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1596).
John Timbs, A Picturesque Promenade round Dorking, in Surrey (London, 1822).