I love Box Hill, for several reasons. A picnic on Burford Spur at Box Hill plays a pivotal role in Emma, where the titled character exhibits some truly cringe-worthy behavior. As a Jane Austen fanatic, Box Hill was at the top of my must-see list when we first moved to London. Box Hill is in Surrey, and the area around it is an Area of Outstanding Beauty known as the North Downs. The view at the top provides an excellent vista over the hills and towns below. If this wasn’t enough reason to love the place, the area is filled with such quaint British-sounding names: the far-reaching views are over the town of Dorking, the Burford Spur is a wonderful grassy slope nearby, and the River Mole threads its way through the area. The names are half of the charm!
The base of the hill is just a short jaunt from the Box Hill and Westhumble (another great name!) train station, so it is easily reached by public transport, and within a very easy distance of London. Since it is such a short jaunt and the area is so stunning, we have been back more than once to walk through the fields and admire the scenery.
I had seen pictures of a lovely set of stepping stones that you can use to hop your way over the River Mole, so that was our first stop for the day. Once we found the river, we walked up and down it several times, but we couldn’t for the life of us find any kind of crossing other than a metal bridge. After consulting several maps, which helped not at all, we got up the nerve to ask a couple who looked like very serious walkers; if I asked this couple for some flint and steel or a snake venom extractor, they would have produced it, no problem. They looked at us a little oddly, like maybe we were a bit slow, but kindly explained that the stones were obviously covered and impassable since it rained recently. Obviously.
Chastened, we settled for crossing the bridge, and mentally steeled ourselves for slogging 275 steps to the top. After sliding, slipping, getting stuck in the mud, and flailing our arms about like windmills on more than one occasional, we finally reached the top and were rewarded with a view!
During the 2012 London Olympics, Box Hill and the surrounding countryside formed part of the cycling route for the road racing events. Since then, the route has become immensely popular with cyclists. These aren’t the kind out for a bit of exercise and a picnic: these are competitive cyclists training hard to improve their times, so you do have to take care not to get run over.
The National Trust owns part of the hill and operates a tea room at the top where you can get food for a picnic or just warm your hands on a hot beverage. We went after a few days of steady rain, so we were ankle deep in mud the whole way. By the time we got to the top, my boots were caked in mud, and I felt guilty about entering their pristine cafe looking like I had been on the losing end of a mud-wrestling fight. Luckily, the cafe was prepared, and they had a large basket filled with shoe covers at the front door, so the amount of caked mud I tramped into the place was minimal.
After a slice of Victoria Sponge and a bracing cup of tea, we walked back out to explore an old fort nearby. Just as we stepped outside, it started to snow. At first the white flakes piling up on our shoulders and hair was charming, and we spent some time trying to catch bits on our tongues. The snow quickly gave way to sleet, which bit at our cheeks and made our eyes water, and we were severely regretting ever having come. We huddled together under a tree for a while until the sleet gave way to rain, and we begrudgingly continued on our way. I absolutely had to see Burford Spur before I left, so I promised a wet and grouchy Stephen we would stay just long enough to take a quick picture and then run back to the train station.
Not 20 minutes later, we emerged through a set of trees onto a very steep and very lovely hill, with the sun shining off of the golden grass and looking like it hadn’t seen rain in weeks. English weather at its best, my friends. Snow to sleet to rain to blazing sunshine in the matter of half an hour. Our moods considerably improved, we lounged on the grass for a while. I told a distracted Stephen all about the plot of Emma, and why the Box Hill scene was such a turning point in the book, and how utterly heartbreaking it was when Mr. Kinghtly said “It was badly done, indeed!”, and how much I prefer Romola Garai to Gwenyth Paltrow. To his credit, he attempted to look interested and at least didn’t interrupt, even if he was probably daydreaming about Nandos and tower cranes during my entire spiel.
After soaking up the sun and letting our jackets dry off, we started down the slope to head back to the train station.
The only thing that I regret is not bringing a picnic of my own! If Box Hill was this beautiful in the dead of winter, I can’t imagine how stunning it is in spring and summer when the grass is green. It is a perfect outing. If we are still here come springtime, you know where to find me: on Box Hill, with a picnic, reading Emma.