“I like this place very much,” noted poet John Keats during his stay by Box Hill – who are we to disagree? This National Trust site, named for the box trees on its flanks, has long been popular as a fresh-air escape. Even Jane Austen’s Emma day-tripped here. You can see why – the views of the undulating downs are worth the steep climb, while the nearby countryside, dotted with grand estates and verdant vines, is a joy to explore.
1. LEAVING WESTHUMBLE
Several footpaths spider this stretch of North Downs, but a figure-of-eight from Westhumble station, 50 minutes by train from London Victoria, combines a bit of everything. Walking left from the station down Crabtree Lane, the area’s literary pedigree is introduced: opposite the small Chapel of Ease sits the house of 18th-century novelist Fanny Burney, who was inspired by the surrounding Mole Valley. Soak up these scenes as you walk
along the lane, through some potentially muddy woodland (look out for the yew trees) to the Polesden Lacey Estate.
2. A WALK IN THE WOODS
This regency pile – once home to 18th-century playwright Richard Sheridan – is worth a detour for its formal gardens. Otherwise continue on a wide path though the mossy woodland of Ranmore Common. As you emerge on Steers Field, views open up south over the market town of Dorking to Leith Hill and beyond.
3. REGIONAL TIPPLE
Continue, past the 45m (148ft)-high octagonal spire of St Barnabus church (known to serve tea and cake in summer) on to the Denbies Estate, a sweep of serried vines lending the countryside a hint of the continent. This is the largest vineyard in England; its sparkling whites are delicious. Once through two sets of gates, grand views of Box Hill, stolid and chalk-streaked, open up, though don’t let it distract from scouring the banks for orchids.
4. UP WITH THE BUTTERFLIES
Walk through the vines, turning left before Denbies Visitor Centre, to return to Westhumble. Head towards the busy A24 (cross via the subway) and take the path behind the Burford Bridge Hotel to make the steep ascent of Box Hill. This 193m (633ft)-high outcrop is a haven for wildlife. You can find 40 species of butterfly, 12 types of orchids, 400 other varieties of flowering planets (including the wonderfully named ladies bedstraw and viper’s bugloss), plus many bats, who’ve taken up residence in the abandoned 1890s concrete fort.
5. BEYOND BOX HILL
Time permitting, explore the greater Box Hill site – the
Long Walk Trail weaves over Donkey Green towards Happy Valley and emerges conveniently close to the Running Horses pub. Otherwise, have a cuppa at the National Trust café and check out the view from Salomons Memorial, taking the path to the right all the way down to the stepping-stones to hop over the River Mole for home.
Old London Road, Mickleham RH5 6DU
Offers tasty English fare (try the fish pie) and characterful B&B.
Denbies Wine Estate
London Road, Dorking RH5 6AA
Take a tour of the vineyard.
Burford Bridge Hotel
Box Hill RH5 6BX
The Burford Bridge Hotel once hosted Keats and Nelson.
This estate has Edwardian interiors and a good farm shop.