Although not a huge distance, the fact that this route traverses Box Hill’s steep slopes numerous times means that the climbs make up for the distance to turn this ‘hike’ into a decent challenge.
In winter, the chalky slopes ensure that the ground is less muddy than many nearby, lower level walks. Flint, too, is common on the slopes. This is a feature of many of the surrounding houses, elegantly showcasing beautiful flint studded walls.
Box Hill itself is named after the box bushes planted western slopes, overlooking the River Mole. Owned and managed by the National Trust, it sits only 19m (30km) from London, within Surrey’s designated Area of Natural Beauty. The land was first impacted by prehistoric man, clearing slopes for their grazing animals.
Almost constant grazing since that time has resulted in a rich range of biodiversity, including some rare or endangered species, leading to the site also being declared a site of special scientific interest.
Walking boots are a must, and the hike itself is best avoided in very icy conditions when the slopes, some of which are very steep, are likely to be dangerously slippery.
On fine summer days, the views across the escarpment and over the North Downs can be even more breathtaking than the climbs!
Easy on street parking can be found in Mickleham, point 3 on the National Trust route. If you use this as the starting point, you will also be rewarded with the opportunity of a drink in the Running Horses pub as an end goal. Alternatively, the start point can be Dorking Station (or the smaller West Humble Station), both serviced by direct trains from our local stations, Horsham or Warnham.
Mickleham itself is a pretty, well cared for little parish about 25 minute’s drive North from The Oaks, mid way between Dorking and Leatherhead. Being a conservation area, the village is home to several listed buildings, including a couple of interesting, sensitively converted houses which still clearly resemble their original lives as the village shop & post office.
The village church, with it’s grand but inviting entrance, originates from the 10th Century. It was remodelled in Norman, then Victorian times, it is suitably imposing. The Mickleham & West Humble History Society have produced a book which details the profiles of those whose names are recorded on the church’s striking war memorial.
We undertook this ‘hike’ (or climb, descent, repeat, repeat…!) on an overcast but dry 14th February this year, and loved it!
The wooded slopes were almost otherworldly in winter.
Where the evergreens were sparse, the winter forest was one of bare tree statues, patiently waiting for the warmer growing season.
Silent, apart from the gentle creaks of elderly trunks and branches, with a noticeable lack of birdsong. Almost feeling deserted. Hibernating, perhaps.
In places, where the moss hugged and climbed the tiny shoots between trees, the tiered green mounds looked like miniature Christmas trees in Gulliver’s Lilliput – surrounded by crispy leaves and a soft snowy white blanket.
Holly can always be relied upon to produce winter cheer – colourful berries to break the cold season’s browns and greys, and welcome food for winter birds.
In one stretch, near but clearly not at the top of a climb, evidence of an awful disaster, evidently a number of years before, still lay rusting inaccessibly. A reminder of how dangerous such steep slopes can be.
Spring will bring carpets of bluebells – a sign confirming the site’s ‘ancient woodland’ status.
In 2002, bluebells were voted Britain’s most popular plant. Fitting, as it was estimated that the UK was home to 50% of the world’s bluebells at the time. Symbolically, they are said to represent constancy, humility and gratitude, and folklore tells that the wearer of a bluebell garland is compelled to tell the truth. Perhaps not surprising, given how pretty and humble the flower looks, with it’s demurely bowed head.
However, the bluebell also has a strong and surprisingly important role in history. In Elizabethan times, oversized ruff collars (now enjoying a resurgence in some fashion circles) were stiffened using starch extracted from bluebell bulbs. During the Bronze Age, the plant’s sticky sap was used to attach feathers to arrows. Later, this gummy sap was used as glue for bookbinding. Being highly toxic, it is said that this prevented certain insects from attacking the binding.
Summer months on the hill will be quite different. Over 38 butterfly species were identified on Box Hill last year. A testament to the variety of summer flora and fauna, which includes 17 different species of orchid; some very rare.
Wonderful huge fungi – from a distance, this 10″ by 7″ being looked like a miniature dinosaur! A reminder, perhaps, of the site’s ancient history.
I was totally stumped trying to identify this stegosaurus look-alike, so asked for the help of a local wildlife expert. His contacts at the British Mycological Society confirmed that it as a Birch Polypore which is a type of Bracket fungus whose host is, predictably, the Birch tree. More information about Box Hill’s weird and wonderful fungi here.
See information from National Trust, who manage Box Hill, here.
A cornucopia of information about the history of Box Hill and it’s landmarks here.
Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ is set around Box Hill“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… everybody was in good time.”