I’m standing on millions of years’ worth of skeletons and shells and enjoying, arguably, the best view in the southeast. The chalk of the North Downs once made up the bottom of a warm, shallow sea. Over aeons, the remains of sea creatures built up in crusty layers and compressed under their own weight to create deep folds of white rock. Box Hill is one crest of the chalk, and lifts out of the ground to more than 300ft. It is a great, shaggy rhombus, covered in – you guessed it – box trees.
From Salomons Memorial, the viewpoint on the south side of the hill, there is a commanding panorama across the South Downs, Gatwick, and the quaint village of Dorking. ‘It gets its name from Leopold Salomons,’ says Rory Walsh, a member of the Discovering Britain team, and writer of this trail. ‘In 1912, Box Hill was up for sale on the open market. To protect it from development, Salomons bought the hill and donated it to the public. The land has been protected ever since and today the National Trust looks after 490 hectares here.’
There is a basic monument for Salomons, but a better homage are the hundreds of thousands of visitors who access the hill every year. On a warm autumn day like today it is ground zero for picnics, kite flying and the occasional football. Children play in the trees at the clearing’s edges while adults pick at the grass absent-mindedly during conversation. Although it is a hubbub of noise, the memorial manages to keep a stillness, as though everyone is in mutual admiration of the view. ‘It is quite something,’ says Walsh. ‘I’ve lived near Box Hill since I was small and Salomons Memorial is always a highlight when visiting.’
“The ground slopes gently from the east before plunging – like the crest of a huge wave – down a vertical fall to the west”
Walking northwest of the monument, along the ridge, the scene changes immediately to a forest of low trees. Across the footpath, exposed roots have knitted together wherever they can find a foothold. ‘Chalk produces very thin soils,’ says Walsh, ‘so trees have to grow out and across, instead of down into the ground.’
Clumpy, round shrubs blot the undergrowth at intervals. These are box trees, wild versions of the kind that can be shaped into strange sculptures in botanical gardens. ‘They are just about the only trees that enjoy the difficult growing conditions,’ says Walsh. In fact, they thrive on Box Hill, with the region home to over 40 per cent of England’s native box tree forests. Their cover provides essential footholds for the region’s notable rare bat population, as well as its orchid species.
Further along, I get a shock. The ground slopes gently from the east before plunging – like the crest of a huge wave – down a vertical fall to the west. I check the map and an excited scribble of contour lines confirms my suspicions; these are The Whites, the true summit of Box Hill.
Box and yew trees are the only ones hardy enough to cling to the steep sides, which overhang the River Mole below. It is so steep on the one side because water once cut through it like a hot knife through butter. During the cold periods that occurred 20 or so times over the past 2.5 million years, when ice sheets waxed and waned further north in the country, this area would have had the climate of a tundra. Back then permafrost within the chalk would have prevented melt water from sinking into the ground. It was forced to flow over the surface of the land, often as a sludge of loose rock, slicing big welts into the Downs that we can see today.
“Creative types continue to visit the hill and nearby Burford Bridge Hotel – where the writers stayed and swapped ideas – in want of their own inspiration”
Water is no longer the primary force shaping the landscape. Beneath my feet the path is a brilliant white, as though the chalk has been worn to the bone, while the grass either side is thinning to dust. ‘Visitors put a lot of pressure on the area,’ says Walsh. ‘Around 800,000 people enjoy Box Hill every year – it is so accessible from London and Surrey towns. It can get crowded on weekends and during the summer.’
Not only is it close to the city, the area has gravitas with specific interest groups too. Following the path along the top, the cliff becomes less steep. Rounding the corner, the cliff softens into the Burford Spur, a gently sloping hill. Peter Pan was conjured on this slope by author JM Barrie, who was in turn drawn to the area by a renowned Victorian novelist, George Meredith. John Keats climbed the hill by moonlight while writing Endymion, and Jane Austen used the grassy banks for an important scene in Emma: ‘Emma had never been to Box Hill; she wished to see what everybody found so well worth seeing.’
Its accumulated glory has made it a literary landmark in its own right. Creative types continue to visit the hill and nearby Burford Bridge Hotel – where the writers stayed and swapped ideas – in want of their own inspiration.
On the far side of the spur, there is a flash of metal. It is a group of cyclists, zipping through the trees, slowing down only for a treacherous series of hairpin bends. The tarmac-covered Zig Zag Road gained fame in the 2012 London Olympics when it was used to stage the cycling road race. Although it has always been one of the most popular road cycling segments in the country, there has been a noticeable jump in numbers over the past four years.
Whatever the source, heavy footfall (and cycle use) is a concerning issue for Box Hill’s natural splendour. ‘Crowds especially strain the ecosystems in the area,’ says Walsh. ‘Maintaining Box Hill so that people and wildlife can both enjoy them is a delicate balance.’ Luckily, both the hill and Burford Spur are now listed as part of a European Special Area of Conservation. Preserving our shared natural heritage remains the priority so that the box trees and stunning views will continue to delight for aeons to come.
This was published in the October 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.