InfoBritain - Travel Through History In The UK :
Box Hill, Surrey
Box Hill represents one of the earliest tourist attractions in Britain. As early as the 1650s, during the dour rule of Cromwell and Parliament, people were visiting Box Hill for pleasure. This must have been a guilty pleasure since any sort of enjoyment was not encouraged when Cromwell and the puritans were in charge. It was in August 1655 when diarist John Evelyn wrote of Box Hill: "There were such goodly walkes and hills shaded with yew as render the place extreamely agreeable, it seeming to be summer all the winter for many miles prospect."
Following Charles II's return to the throne in 1660 pleasure seeking became much more fashionable. Early tourist attractions were being set up at the Tower of London, spa towns began to attract larger crowds, and trips to Box Hill became ever more popular. On occasion it seems that things got out of hand at Box Hill. In the 1720s Daniel Defoe wrote in A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain: "Here every Sunday, during the summer season, there used to be a rendezvous of coaches and horsemen, with abundance of gentlemen and ladies from Epsome to take the air, and walk in the box woods; and in a word, divert, or debauch, or perhaps both, as they thought fit, and the game increased so much, that it began almost on a sudden, to make a great noise in the country."
In the new industrial age that began towards the end of the eighteenth century, Box Hill became one of many idealised natural landscapes. The early nineteenth century poet John Keats found inspiration in landscapes near cities. It was in places like that a now primarily urban population found their experience of the natural world. Keats was inspired by Hampstead Heath, a few miles north of London, and by Box Hill, which Londoners would visit on day trips. In 1817 Keats stayed at the Burford Bridge Hotel at the foot of Box Hill. It was here that he finished his poem Endymion. Box Hill is a lovely place, almost other-worldly as you leave the busy road heading into Dorking, and quite suddenly find yourself above it all. And yet this isn't some distant nirvana; this is a place that people visit for a walk on a bank holiday. There's a National Trust kiosk where a nice lady will do you a cup of tasty soup with some chunky bread. Keats wrote in Endymion:
A thing of beauty is a joy forever
It's loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness, but will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams and health and quiet breathing
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flower band to bind us to the earth
Spite of the despondence of the inhuman dearth
These famous opening lines of Endymion suggest that escape brings people back to where they came from. Keats is often thought of as an escapist poet, which is actually misleading. Keats did indeed want to drift away, but his escape always seemed to allow deeper and more satisfying involvement with the world. Box Hill is just the sort of place to give this combination. There is a sense of escape in going there, but rather than fairytale escapism it's a down to earth variety, within reach of people who are wondering what to do on their day off.
Keats was not the only writer to find inspiration at Box Hill. Jane Austen came here a number of times, while visiting relatives in nearby Great Bookham. Jane Austen's Emma goes to Box Hill wishing to see what all the fuss is about. She has a disappointing picnic. In her disappointment she wishes she was "sitting almost alone, and quite unattended to, in tranquil observation of the beautiful views beneath her". Austen's work is about the dreams of people in a closely circumscribed world. Box Hill suggests immensity, even as it keeps day trippers like Emma close to home. George Meredith, another writer who visited Box Hill, got carried away in his description of the place, and then came down to earth again: "I am every morning at the top of Box Hill - 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 fine air. I shout ha ha to the gates of the world. Then I descend and know myself a donkey for doing it."
So if you want an everyday nirvana with a nice cup of soup at the National Trust kiosk, Box Hill is for you.
The National Trust runs a shop and information centre. Children's activities are organised, and there is an educational programme suitable for all ages. Activities centre on geology and ecology. Box Hill has some of the most ancient woodland in Britain, particularly on the steep slopes down to the river Mole which have been undisturbed by farmers. Woodland has been continuous here since the end of the last ice age. Maps and leaflets illustrate long and short walks around the area. The North Downs Way runs over Box Hill, and has provided a route for travellers for many thousands of years.
Opening Times: Opening hours for National Trust properties can be complex. Please use contact details below.
Address: Box Hill, The Old Fort, Box Hill Road, Box Hill, Tadworth, Surrey KT20 7LB
Directions: Box Hill is one mile north of Dorking, off the A24. There is ample car parking on the summit. The nearest railway station is at Box Hill and West Humble, a mile and a half from the summit. Click here for an interactive map centred on the visitors' area at Box Hill.
Access: Wheelchair access is possible in the shop and information centre, and at the servery. Adapted toilet facilities are available. Paths are well maintained, but there are steep slopes.
telephone: 01306 885502