The beautiful vale on which we gaze from Leith Hill is about thirty miles in breadth and sixty in length, and is terminated at the south by the majestic range of the southern hills and the sea; about noon on a summer day, when the air is serene and clear, one can see the line of sea water through a chasm of the South Downs called Becting Gap. Then turning northward, one looks over Box Hill and sees the country beyond, between it and London; from this point Box Hill appears insignificant, whilst the richly clothed hills of Norbury form a charming perspective.
The whole circumference of this view is at least 200 miles, and it far exceeds that from the keep or terrace of Windsor Castle. The country looks like one fair garden spread before us; the fields of yellow, russet, or dark brown softening the brilliant green of the pastures. When we have descended from the hill to the main road, we have again to ascend and take the left turning to reach Abinger. Proceeding to Abinger Cross-ways and walking for about a quarter of a mile northward, we reach Everehed's Rough, where a memorial cross - a granite monolith - marks the spot where Wilberforce, Bishop of Winchester, one of the wittiest and most eloquent of prelates, was killed by a fall from his horse, July 19th, 1873.
Wotton, famous as the birth-place and residence of John Evelyn, lies to the right of the turnpike, in the direction of Leith Hill; a fine old place that has been in the Evelyn family since the reign of Elizabeth Evelyn, known to us by his "Sylva, or a Discourse on Forest Trees" and by his "Diary" is stated to have covered a great part of the parish of Wotton with trees of his own planting. He was one of the most excellent of men in a profligate age.
Reigate, not far from Dorking, is a town of great antiquity, nestling amongst hills and trees. Its old church, situated on a rising ground to the east of the town, with its square embattled tower, is highly picturesque.
Reigate had once a castle, said to have been built by the Earls of Warren and Surrey, but William, Earl of Warren, in the reign of John, is the first of his family mentioned as its owner by Dugdale.
The earl hesitated between the barons and the king, and, in consequence, lost his castle, which for a time was in the possession of Louis, the Dauphin of France, whom the barons had called in to oppose John. His occupation of it is shown by the French coins that have been found at times in the ground near the ruins.
But the castle that once crowned the heights above the town is entirely gone, not a vestige remains of it; and where it once stood on the top of the hill are now public gardens, prettily laid out, and fragrant in summer with lilies and roses, and with a velvet lawn bordered by flowers. On this height the air is very pure and fragrant, and there is an extensive view of Reigate Park to the south, Leith Hill and Reigate Hill on the west and north, the red roofs of the town clustering in the valley below.
In the centre of the lawn is a small pyramid of stones, having an opening in it which is an entrance to the singular and interesting caves below. A flight of rough steps, eighteen feet deep, and a descending passage of twenty-six feet or more, lead to a small cave which has the appearance of being a guard-room, at the bottom of this entrance, but no one is now allowed to descend the steps to it. To see the caves, we had to call on the gardener, who has a pretty cottage near a stone archway (erected in 1777), and ask him to conduct us to the caves. Walking down towards the ancient moat, and half round the mount, we descended some steps, the guide opened a door, and we entered the caves. Candles in holders are placed along the walls, and these the guide lighted as we proceeded, and we saw by their dim light the interior of the caves. From the small chamber at the entrance we passed into a passage rather more than a yard wide, and eight feet high, which widened to double the size as we advanced.
Our feet were on pure dry silver sand that carpets all the cave, and glitters delightfully. It is never damp there, the guide told us.
On the white sandstone of the sides of the passage are a great number of wonderful carvings. Several heads are Roman in feature, and wear the Roman casque, and in one or two places we recognized the white horse of the Saxon. Had time and light allowed, one might have deciphered something like a story inscribed on these stones.
The cave passage runs on till another joins it, that is about twenty-seven feet long, and opens into a cave called the Barons' Cave. It is rounded into the segment of a circle, and at the end is a stone seat, on which tradition says the barons sat when, in the security of this earth chamber, they deliberated on the demands to be made in Magna Charta. It was interesting to believe that we looked on the spot where the charter of our freedom was concocted; but unfortunately there is no proof of the truth of the tradition.
On the ground lay an immense stone cannon ball, that the guide told us was used to summon the soldiers from the guard-room. He lifted it and let it drop, and the sound reverberated through the caverns. The cave-passages lead direct to the guard-room, a good-sized cave, from which the passage and steps ascend to the garden; a very few men could have protected the barons from foes descending them, or entering by the doorway; and the cave is certainly well fitted as a meeting place for conspirators. The Barons' Cave is thirteen feet wide.
There are other caves in Reigate, some of which were discovered when the railway was made. One of them under the railway is used as a wine vault. It is of some extent, and has rather dangerous pits in it. We saw it, by courteous permission of the owner, lighted by a guide with a tallow candle on a rod, that faintly illumined the surrounding darkness. A little boy of the party ram away, and the guide was evidently uneasy till he came back again, as we could not have found him if he had hidden in the great dark caves, or he might have fallen into a sandpit.
Were these caves (said to extend for eight miles) refuges for the Surrey women and children when the Danes invaded England? For the inhabitants of this district were so successful in repelling them (the Danes), that they gave rise to a proverbial distich attributed to them by Camden,-
The reason that doubt has been cast on the story of Magna Charta having been concocted in the Barons' Cave, is that the Earl of Surrey of that time continued faithful to the king till resistance to their claims became hopeless. "it cannot, therefore," says Timbs, "be supposed that his castle would be chosen for their deliberations."
It is quite possible, however, that Lord Surrey and his friends may have held secret consultations in the Barons' Cave.
In 1265 a crime tarnished the reputation of John de Warren, Earl of Surrey. He had a lawsuit with Alan, Baron de la Zouche, about the title of a certain manor. The cause was decided against the earl, who was so exasperated that he insulted the baron, using abusive language to him. Surrey had armed retainers with him though their weapons were concealed; De la Zouche and his son were unarmed. By order of the earl, it is said, the followers of Surrey drew their swords and assaulted the unarmed gentlemen. Perceiving their danger, the father and son fled towards the king's chamber in the palace of Westminster; but the assailants followed, and wounded both De la Zoache and his son, the latter mortally.
The earl fled with his servants after this violence to the Thames, crossed the river, and took refuge in Reigate Castle.
Henry III. and Prince Edward thought it impossible to overlook so great a crime, though the earl had been to them a useful and loyal subject. They ordered Surrey to appear before the Court to answer for his offense.. The earl refused to obey, and Prince Edward, accompanied by the Archbishop of York and other nobles, proceeded to Reigate to take the culprit into custody.
At first he seemed resolved to defend the fortress, but he was persuaded to surrender. He was tried, and asserting in his defence that the act was one of sudden anger and not premeditated violence, he was merely fined 10,000 marks to the king, and 2,000 marks to the injured baron.
In the third year of Edward I. he visited Earl Warren at Reigate, and was magnificently entertained by him. In. return, the king remitted 1,000 marks of the fine that still remained unpaid.
In Reigate parish church lie the remains of the great Lord Charles Howard, of Effingham, who fought so gallantly against the Spanish Armada in Elizabeth's time. He was buried here. About a hundred years ago the vault was opened, and the following inscription on a brass plate, fixed to a leaden coffin, was seen:-
"Heare lyeth the body of Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham, Lord High Admyrall of England, Generall of Queene Elizabeth's Navy Royall at sea against the Spanyard's invinsable navy in the year of our Lord, 1588; who departed this life at Haling House the 14 day of Dec., in the yeare of our Lord, 1624. AEtatis suae, 87."
Box HILL. - This small but remarkable hill of trees, situated 445 feet above the level of the river Mole, is a very delightful spot to wander on, amidst trees and wild flowers that are here of great beauty. The view from the summit is that of the fertile and lovely land that has been often called the Garden of England, - a name worthy of the rich and beautiful pastoral county in which the hill stands.
The box trees are said to have been planted by Thomas, Earl of Arundel, who intended to build a house here, but had to forego his purpose on account of want of water. In 1800, the then owner of Box Hill and Betchworth Park sold the box on the hill for £15,000, the purchaser being allowed fourteen years to cut it down.
At the side of the main path, Major Lahelliere, an eccentric person, was buried in 1800 at his own request, with his head downwards, as he believed that the world would be turned upside down, and then he would be in a right position.
Boxhill belongs to the Hope family; on the summit of the hill Mr. Hope built a cottage where those who visit the spot, either as travellers, or for the purpose of playing any of the national sports, can get refreshments.
Descending the hill on the opposite side to Burford, and taking the path leading to the Betchworth road, we come to the principal entrance of Betchworth Park, about a mile east of Dorking. It forms a portion of the lovely Deepdene estate, where thick groves and fine avenues offer delightful walks to pedestrians. Here, also, beneath stately chestnut trees, are seats erected; and to this pleasant rural scene the people of Dorking proceed on Sunday afternoons to enjoy all the sweetness of nature in her summer garb of foliage and flowers, which the generous consideration of the owner allows them to share.
Deepdene is an Italian villa, surrounded by fine grounds, which, as Timbs says, "display unceasing variety in their disposal"; and in truth every portion of this princely domain, whether viewed in the palmy days of summer, or in the shady splendour of autumn, abounds with positive proof of the highly cultivated tastes of the late proprietor and his predecessor; the ornamental bridges, porticoes, lodges, wineries, gates, and even rustic seats, have some peculiarity which denote that they were designed by no ordinary skill.
Lord Beaconsfield wrote "Coningsby" amid the shades of Deepdene:
The house contains a gallery of exquisite sculpture, a collection of fine paintings, a number of valuable Etruscan vases, and an extensive and well-chosen library. Mr. Hope's great wealth enabled him to travel and collect the treasures placed here; he was known as a man of genius and of the most highly cultivated taste.
NORBURY. - Writing in his diary August 27th, 1655, Evelyn says:-
"I went to Box Hill to see those rare natural bowers, cabinets, and shady walks in the box-copses, and then walked to Mickleham and saw Sir F. Stidolph's seat environed with elm trees and walnuts inumerable, from which last he told me they derived a considerable revenue. Here are such goodly walks and hills shaded with yew and box as render the place extremely agreeable, it seeming, from these evergreens, to be summer all the winter through" Sir F. Stidolph's place was Norbury Park, the most beautiful spot in beautiful Surrey.
Edward the Confessor found the remains of a Roman stronghold at Norbury. He converted it into a district lordship held direct from the Crown. At the Conquest it was given to Richard of Tunbridge, and from him was inherited by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. He - the earl - may have taken hither the lovely little princess Joanna, when, after their marriage, she loved to visit his noble castles before settling down in their rural home of Clerkenwell. For many generations the Husee family were tenants of the Earls of Gloucester, and at length they purchased Norbury. A daughter received it as her portion when she married Wymeldon in the reign of Henry VI. Heirs male failing, Norbury passed to the Stidolphs, an old Kentish family. In time the Stidolphs also died out, and Norbury was sold to a man by the name of Chapman, who bought it to make money out of it, and cut down every saleable tree. Beautiful Norbury would have been destroyed had not Mr. Lock bought it of him in 1774.
He was a man of great taste, and restored and improved the place, building a fine house on the crest of the hill. The windows commanded an exquisite view, and the decorations of his saloon were so fine that they became the talk of the time.
He entertained here Dr. Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Burke and Gibbon, and all the most distinguished characters in England.
When the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror drove the noblesse of France into emigration the fame of Mr. Lock's house and hospitality, which had long before reached Paris, brought some remarkable exiles to Surrey. At Juniper Hill Madame de Stael established her menage with Talleyrand, the Comte de Narbonne, the Duc de Montmorency, Monsieur Sicard and General D'Arblay; they were all entertained at Norbury. Fanny Burney, the novelist, used to stay at the house, and there fell in love with General D'Arblay. They were both very poor, hut Miss Burney had a pension of a hundred a year from Queen Charlotte, in whose hard service she had spent the best of her life, and she made money by her pen, though not to any great amount. However, they married, and Mr. Lock gave them "a piece of ground in his beautiful park," she writes, "upon which we shall build a little neat and plain habitation." Her novel "Camilla" furnished the funds for building the house, which was finished in 1797, and called after the book, Camilla Cottage. It is now Camilla Lacey. Her diary contains amusing and graphic accounts of their residence here, of General D'Arblay cutting down asparagus with his sword, etc., etc.
At Norbury, in 1819, Mr. Lock's son died, and the property was sold to a Mr. Robinson, then to Mr. Fuller Maitland, who exchanged it with Mr. Speding. At length it was bought, in 1848, by Mr. Grissell, grandson of the builder of the new Houses of Parliament, who has greatly improved the grounds. There is a grove of yews here that are a perfect show, and Sir Joseph Paxton has been seen to embrace and kiss the bark of a magnificent beech here: he declared that the yews and beeches of Norbury were the finest in England.
About a mile distant from Norbury is the inn at Burford, where Nelson spent his last days in England, and where, about ten or eleven years afterwards, Keats, then barely twenty-one, wrote the latter part of his fine poem "Endymion."