The south of England has a lot of history to offer

August 15, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin --

Dorking is an ancient British market town located in the Mole Valley of Surrey, a county south of London. I know Dorking only because my brother, sister and I ended up going to a boarding school in the nearby village of Mickleham, which is located at the base of a large chalk hill on the North Downs, Box Hill.

My brother and I returned to this area in June on a sentimental journey when we attended Box Hill Schoolís 40th anniversary dinner. We spent two nights at Dorkingís White Horse Hotel and much time wandering the familiar landmarks of an area that hasnít changed very much at all in the past 30 years.

Few famous people are directly associated with Dorking. However, Laurence Olivier was born there, and Oliver Reed once lived in Ockley, a pretty village a few miles outside Dorking.

Dorking today has a large number of antique shops for the well-heeled to browse through, many of them located on West Street. There are no bargains when it comes to shopping for antiques in this Tudor-style enclave.

I preferred to shop at the Oxfam thrift shop on High Street. I bought a little white jug for about $3 because it looked so British. When I got home I found that it was more valuable than it looked Ė a collector appraised it at $75.

I also heard that the group Oasis made some recordings in a Dorking studio and stayed at The White Horse Hotel, but we didnít see anyone who looked like he or she belonged to a band. Besides, I was looking for writers.

You canít take a step in England without bumping into a writer and this part of England is no exception. But most of them are dead.

Jane Austen very likely visited the White Horse Hotel, for she had friends in Dorking and mentions a picnic on Box Hill in her novel "Emma."

We started off our first day in England by taking the bus from Dorking to the Burford Bridge Hotel at the base of Box Hill. Robert Louis Stevenson lived at the Burford Bridge for several months in 1878-79.

We climbed this 400-foot hill, one of the highest points on the North Downs, stopping frequently to enjoy the view of the patchwork quilt of the valley. Stevenson must have made the same climb many times. We also had a view of a quaint house, Flint Cottage, tucked along the zig-zag road that climbs alongside the hill, where novelist and poet George Meredith lived from 1867 until his death in 1909.

J.M. Barrie of "Peter Pan" fame wrote an essay about Meredith on watching his funeral cortege en route to the Dorking cemetery. According to my scribbled notes, other writers who lived at Flint Cottage included Henry James, George Gissing and, during World War II, Max Beerbohm. Keats also was supposed to have written the latter part of his poem "Endymion" at the Burford Bridge.

Box Hill has been a tourist attraction, a day trip for Londoners, for more than 100 years. On this visit, when we finally made it to the top of Box Hill, we found a National Trust shop and a knowledgeable lady behind the counter who told us that Jane Austen had friends in the village of Mickleham.

The village of Mickleham today consists of Box Hill School (a red brick Victorian mansion), a shop, a pub called The Running Horses, and a very ancient church called St. Michaelís (old enough to be noted in the Doomsday Book), plus a handful of private homes. Austen must have visited the pub and the church when she visited her Mickleham friends, because there was nothing else to do.

I sat in St. Michaelís wondering if Jane Austen had worshipped in the same pew. And why hadnít anyone at the school ever mentioned the Jane Austen connection? I like to think it would have meant something to me even though I would have been more impressed at the time if there had been a local connection with any one of the Beatles.

When my brother and I arrived at the school that evening for the anniversary ball, we were reunited with old friends: a hospital administrator, several teachers, a stockbroker, a politician. But no writers.

Yet for some reason as we sat talking about days gone by, we all shared the same striking memory Ė an elaborate summer term production of "A Midsummerís Night Dream." So the ghost that hovered over our table that night was the greatest writer of them all, alive or dead.

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