Saturday, 2 May 2015

A Souvenir of Surrey

Picnic on Box Hill





My older (older? elder? the one before me, whichever...) brother reminds me of a memory.  Our grandparents (on father's side) sitting slightly stiffly on a plaid blanket on Box Hill. Surrey stretching away below.  For me it's hazy, but vaguely there, in amongst images of a maroon Standard 8 with a wind-up windscreen and our dad's Armstrong Siddeley with green leather upholstery and running boards.  I'm sure it was a lovely day.....





For reasons I won't go into I am staying in the Burford Bridge Hotel (from its origins in the 16th century until 1905 known as The Fox and Hounds). I am possibly sleeping in the very room where Lord Nelson gave Emma Hamilton his last salute before hitting the deck at Trafalgar.  


Or it could be that I share a bed with the spirit of John Keats who escaped the fetid fogs of London in 1817 to finish his Endymion here ....


There is a paly flame of hope that plays 
Where’er I look: but yet, I’ll say ’tis naught 
And here I bid it die. Have not I caught, 
Already, a more healthy countenance? 
By this the sun is setting; we may chance 
Meet some of our near-dwellers with my car.


Quite what car Keats drove I am not sure, though I like to think it might have been a thing of beauty.....



Five years old when Endymion was published



Alternatively, I could be sharing with Jane Austen, who I believe directed one of her most famous scenes on the slopes above us here.....




Emma and Chris Martin face each other.....




They had a very fine day for Box Hill; and all the other outward circumstances of arrangement, accommodation, and punctuality, were in favour of a pleasant party. Mr. Weston directed the whole, officiating safely between Hartfield and the Vicarage, and every body was in good time. Emma and Harriet went together; Miss Bates and her niece, with the Eltons; the gentlemen on horseback. Mrs. Weston remained with Mr. Woodhouse. Nothing was wanting but to be happy when they got there. Seven miles were travelled in expectation of enjoyment, and every body had a burst of admiration on first arriving.....
Jane Austen - Emma




Where the bee sucks.... Cowslips on the chalk downs

Box Hill, not to be confused with Boot Hill, despite the existentially similar names, takes its name from Box (as, confusingly, does Bexhill). The reason not being that this has anything to do with Pandora, nor indeed with Mohammed (Ali that is). No, Box is bucus sempervivens, described by Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, as a drab, malodorous and not especially useful shrub.....


Much maligned - some people like the smell of cat piss....

Indeed, Box Hill was a popular picnic spot as long ago as the reign of Charles II, when the diarist John Evelyn praised its yews and box trees, it seeming from these evergreens to be summer all the winter. 


To quote Richard Mabey again, The exceptional hardness of box timber made it a valuable raw material, and it was used for chessmen, rulers, rolling pins, pestles, and especially for printing blocks; the nineteenth-century engraver Thomas Bewick claimed one of his blocks was still sound after 900,000 printings......  Box wood does not float in water.  It was also used in WWII for Spitfire propeller blades...


An aged beech on the wooded slopes



There aren't so many box trees here today, but the hill is now owned and maintained by the National Trust and parts are still shaded by dense thickets of box, yew, and mixed deciduous woodland.




The original site of 230 acres was given to the NT in 1914, by Leopold Salomons, one of the founders of the Employers' Liability Assurance Association (1880) which vestigially still exists, after many transmutations, as Aviva, which covers, amongst many other lesser things, my wife's car insurance (so I guess I owe Leo respect.....)


The Burford Spur


From the hotel I escape the spirits (with their exorbitant prices) to climb the Burford Spur.  As I begin to puff a little, I look thirstily down across Denbies Wine Estate (the largest single estate vineyard in England, established in 1986 - though first planted by the Romans a little earlier).  The North Downs Way, which here coincides with the Pilgrims' Way from Winchester to Canterbury, passes through nearby, crossing the river Mole and climbing past Westhumble to Ranmore Common.  At the same time, behind me on the Zig-Zag road, I hear the whizz and whirr of Olympian bicycles....





I walk up, past the upside-down grave of eccentric Major Peter Labilliere, who was buried near here in June 1800, to the National Trust tea room, and then to the Salomons Memorial, with the same stunning view that my grandparents enjoyed all those years ago.....  I pause briefly to record a scene with my palette knife.....




Towards Polesden Lacey



The scenery is heavy with the England I love.  I think of my grandparents, Great War scarred, connecting the centuries.  I think of myself (sometimes) as part Dad's Army and part Postman Pat, but they were part Queen Victoria and part Battenberg; Little Nell and Far From the Madding Crowd. This is the scenery of H G Wells, and of Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose house, at Leith Hill Place, once belonged to Josiah Wedgwood (whose grandson Charles Darwin experimented in the garden).  From Box Hill you can make out Leith Hill, with its Tower, about six miles south (and slightly west) of Dorking.....  I can hear larks ascending.....




And on the way down I meet a traveller (from an antique land).  He has walked through the night, and aims to reach Farnham before dusk. He has been eating ramsons and tells me that last night he was spooked by catching twelve pairs of red eyes in his head torch as he surprised a family of deer on his walk.  (I really must try the ramsons.....)


Ramsons - wild garlic

He is a young man on the Pilgrim's Way, a walking metaphor in this time of political uncertainty. His wandering is salutary. Together we admire the world about us, 


Bluebells and Ramsons - an unusual combination

then he accelerates across the Stepping Stones (dedicated in 1946 by Clement Atlee) leaving me wobbling on the first stone, unsure of my balance...





This is a beautiful spot.  The river Mole (quite possibly named after a Roman mill - mola) is tranquil, though it wasn't on Christmas Eve 2013 when it burst through the ground floor of the Burford Bridge Hotel, and guests had to be evacuated (and not readmitted until September, a policy that seems still to affect service at the hotel)....





I wander along through Burford Meadow, catching a flash of bright rust and cobalt as a Kingfisher dashes for cover.  I stand, still, to glimpse it again, then another bolts across the surface of the water and into a bush.  I have the wrong camera to shoot them, but doubt that I would have the skill to frame one at that speed anyway.... I content myself with a snap of their nesting site in the clay bank cut by the river, and imagine that sharp, feisty bird posing for me in his (or her) tropical glory....





Above the river, but carved by it over time, rise the Whites. The North Downs chalk gleams amidst the dark box and yew, freckled with fresh young beech and sycamore leaves. A breeze flutters across the grass and up the hill.  Another memory stirs within the archives of my mind. A few days after my grandfather died I woke suddenly in the warm summer night.  My curtain billowed like a spinnaker and a cool air filled the room.  My grandfather had come to say good-bye.  

Perhaps he is here now, picnicking on Box Hill in the ever after? I sense Dora and him gently reposing on a blanket of gossamer, sipping cowslip wine, as he reads Jane Austen in gentle voice....








Even Emma grew tired at last of flattery and merriment, and wished herself rather walking quietly about with any of the others, or sitting almost alone, and quite unattended to, in tranquil observation of the beautiful views beneath her.





2 comments:

  1. Simon (The elder)5 May 2015 at 07:53

    'The past is another country...' but I remember it too but differently. They were, as I recall the photograph, not sitting on a plaid blanket but under a waterproof cape (possibly one of those rubberised ones that are no longer readily available) with their heads nestled together, smiling sweetly. I suspect, the cape was not to keep out moisture (there is no sign of rain in/on the photograph, but because it was not a warm summer day but cool. Perhaps it was autumn. I don't know because I was not there. I don't think I had been born.
    In your ramblings did a lark ascend?
    Also, apropos Emma, judging from your photo every body (at least hers) would have been bursting out to be admired. Mr Weston, of course, as was the custom of those days, unlike those of previous, and more recent, accounts of the style of the tudors, would have kept his cod in a very small and discrete pocket well out of sight.
    Still, your piece awakens the memory and fancies of places that were different in the past. Did the box trees that were there, quiver as the spitfires flew over in 1940? What would Keats have thought of such a prospect? Happy days? 'It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.'

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