Sunny Surrey

Polesden Lacey

I had hoped to visit Hastings this past weekend, but rather typically, the one iffy day we had weather wise was on Saturday, when my university friend Emma had planned to come up from London and go to the seaside with me. Undaunted, we flicked through the pages of my National Trust guidebook and decided to pop over the county border to Surrey for the day, taking in an Edwardian mansion and a famous beauty spot featured in one of my favourite novels.

Polesden Lacey garden

Our first port of call was Polesden Lacey, a picturesque mansion set amidst the Surrey Hills just outside of Dorking. It was extensively remodelled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from an earlier house, and its last owner was Mrs Margaret Greville, a famous Edwardian hostess. Despite being born illegitimate on the back streets of Glasgow, she grew up to become an intimate of royalty and the wife of an aristocrat. The Queen’s parents spent part of their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey, and it was soon evident as to why they would have chosen such a spot. The house is exquisite inside, with a series of beautifully decorated rooms that manage to both be wonderfully palatial and comfortably cosy. The internal phone lines meant that guests could contact servants at the lift of a receiver, communicating exactly what they wanted and having it brought to them in minutes. The bathroom sinks are made of silver, the hallways are hung with what was then some of the most valuable art in a private collection, and every room has glorious views either across the surrounding countryside or onto the beautiful gardens. Mixing the comforts of the highest end hotels with the cosiness of a home meant that Mrs Greville never lacked house guests, and as she was widowed shortly after moving into Polesden Lacey and never had children, she thoroughly enjoyed always having the house alive with laughter and conversation.

Polesden Lacey Garden

The house is set in absolutely delightful gardens, which have amazing views across the hills that undulate from the steeply sloping lawns into the far distance. Formal lawns give way to colourful wildflower meadows, a walled rose garden creates wonderful fragrances and rambling vines trail across the Italian-looking terrace at the back of the house. I could just imagine the ladies in white tea gowns strolling along the gravel paths and picnicking on the lawn. To have been a guest here must have been quite the experience.

Dorking Church

As the sun began to break through the clouds later in the afternoon, we decided to move on to our next destination. Firstly, however, we thought we’d stop off in the local town of Dorking to see if there was anything worth visiting. A depressing main high street soon gave way to a lovely range of little alleys and streets filled with higgledy piggledy 18th and 19th century buildings, most of which are now high end antique shops, and we were pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful and imposing church behind the modern shopping centre. There wasn’t much to write home about, though, and after 30 minutes of strolling, we headed back to the car and on to Box Hill.

Box Hill

As all Austenites will know, Box Hill is the backdrop to a scene of great importance in Emma. Emma’s badly judged criticism of Miss Bates during the Box Hill picnic leads to a nasty ticking off from Mr Knightley, which I would argue is the catalyst for both Emma and Mr Knightley realising the strength of their feelings for one another. I have wanted to go to the real Box Hill and see the view that the Highbury picnickers would have enjoyed for years, but for one reason or another, I never got around to it. Driving up the incredibly steep and winding road to the top, I kept thinking what an ordeal it would have been to get horses and carts full of food and people up there, presumably before a proper road was built, too. Emma’s day to Box Hill would have been a real expedition. Nowadays there is a car park and a National Trust shop and cafe at the summit, which makes it all very civilised. After a cup of tea and a slice of coconut and cherry cake, my Emma and I went off on the signposted route to take in the main sights. First was the viewing point, which provides a truly spectacular view across three counties, followed by the grave of a man who was buried head downwards as he thought the world would eventually turn upside down and he would then be the right way up, followed by a derelict fort. Then, back to the car park. There’s not masses to do if you’re not into hiking, but the view is definitely worth the trip; we could have sat there and watched the world go by for hours.

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31 comments

  1. Oh, Rachel, this is all the reasons why your blog is my favorite of any! First, you show the best flower pictures I’ve seen in a decade. I almost frothed at the cornflowers. Second, you went to Polesden Lacey, which I’ve been curious about ever since reading James Pope-Hennessy’s incredible description of its chatelaine in his masterly 1950s biography of Queen Mary. Apparently she was one of the most poisonous snobs of the age, and somebody quite famous is quoted as saying, “I’d rather be near an open sewer than Maggie Greville.” Yet she left a fortune in jewels & money to Princess Margaret, I think. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, you show me, what I never realized, that Dorking is right near Box Hill – and it is mentioned in the same scene in Emma that you quote. “Let my accents swell from Mickleham on on side and Dorking on the other,” Frank Churchill says, when he’s behaving badly with Emma. Now, where is Mickleham? Your blog is TOO rich, and for one who has spent her life in America instead of England as she ought to have done, it helps to make up for what I am missing. Much more than blogs “about” England. Or straight book blogs. What you do is travel with the curiosity of a literary person, and you may imagine that I am like the camera on the cat’s head in that video where they tried to show what it was like to live a cat’s life. If you see what I mean…

    1. Oh, Diana! You are far too complimentary – thank you! :) You make me blush! I wish you could live here and see it all for yourself. The National Trust only give you the positives about Margaret Greville so I didn’t really learn an awful lot – though I did think it rather strange to leave all your money to Royals who clearly didn’t need the extra cash! Mickleham is a village just on the other side of Box Hill – so he was saying let my voice be heard across the whole surrounding area. Next time you come to England, you should visit – Dorking is only 30 minutes or so from London on the train! And thank you for the facebook mention – how kind you are! I’m so pleased my slices of England make you so happy!

  2. Just the mention of your National Trust guidebook had me thinking “Right, that’s it, time to move to London and spend the odd weekend exploring National Trust sights with Rachel.” Despite your persuasive arguments earlier this month, this is unlikely to happen but photos of daytrips like this make it seem so, so tempting!

    I especially liked hearing about your reaction to Box Hill. As a great fan of Emma, it is a place I long to visit. The view looks spectacular.

    1. Well, Claire…you know what you need to do! I’ll get you over here in the end! :)

      Isn’t it amazing? Next time you come over here we should go!

  3. Hi Ms BookSnob, I loved this post, so well written, I went to Polesden Lacey years ago when I used to live in Surrey and thought it was one of the most charming houses ever, so attractive and you could actually want to live there, not like those huge forbidding piles like many of the National Trust houses. Loved your Box Hill Emma bit too. xx

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Blighty! Yes, it’s not a cold house at all – certainly a manageable size and lovely and cosy. If only I could afford to live in such luxury! :)

  4. Sounds like a grand day out. It makes me want to visit too. The National Trust should be paying you! I noticed a slight Americanism in your writing , i.e. ‘quite the experience’ as opposed to ‘quite an experience’. (Not a criticism – ” just sayin’ “, as the young folk say nowadays! I realise from reading your blog that you spent time Stateside.

  5. As well as being a snob, Mrs Greville was a noted appeaser and hosted parties with representatives of the Nazi regime. There are photos of these gatherings on the walls.

  6. Finally…the holiday is here for you! Glad to see you enjoying it and I loved reading about it. Have a wonderful break.

  7. Gorgeous flowers. Being a Surrey girl, my parents used to drag us out to Polesden Lacey and Box Hill the whole time. I’m sure that as child I knew it was beautiful but I didn’t appreciate it at all back then – just looking for slopes to roll down and kite-flying opps.

  8. Wonderfully described. Another place to go and see. My parents are thinking of joining the National Trust and I must make sure they visit here. Thank you for sharing so eloquently.

    1. Thanks Jo! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Your parents must join – it’s so worth it. I get my money’s worth every year and I’ve never regretted joining.

  9. Gorgeous gorgeous flowers. Whenever I hear of Dorking I’m always reminded if Room with a view. Happy holidays.

    1. Thanks! Hope you are having a lovely summer with baby Alice. It’s been so long since I read that but I do remember them living there now you mention it…I’ll have to go back and look at the description of their house!

  10. Ah, so lovely. And to go to Box Hill (which really exists!) with an Emma. I hope you didn’t have occasion to go all Mr. Knightley on her!

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