diamond geezer

 Sunday, March 01, 2015

Beyond London (6): Mole Valley (part 1)

Mole Valley's one of the largest districts I'll be visiting on my outer orbital tour around London, covering a hundred square miles of deepest Surrey. It only just touches the capital, hanging by a thread from the bottom of Kingston, but that's a good enough reason for me to take a day trip. The top quarter of the district is M25-side commuter belt, the next quarter includes a row of settlements along the foot of the North Downs, and the remaining half is sparsely populated Wealden land. I didn't get as far as the rural half, sorry. Mole Valley's outdoor gems aren't best visited in winter drizzle, so I was glad I'd already visited Leith Hill, Headley Heath and Polesden Lacey in milder times. I did manage one muddy ascent into the clouds, but spent most of yesterday's visit down at River Mole level, in particular the district's two main towns. Let's start in the prettier of the two.

Somewhere pretty: Dorking
I like Dorking. That's not a confession, it's affection for the commuter town at the foot of the North Downs and its general affableness. I've visited before but somehow never quite got around to blogging about the place, so allow me to make up for that omission today.

Dorking Museum: Some local museums are a tad uninspiring, mainly because nothing of great local significance ever took place. But Dorking has a varied history, and its story is well told in this museum tucked off the main street in The Old Foundry. The whole place was given a major rejig three years ago, thanks to some clearly dedicated volunteers, and the two pound entrance fee feels a very fair price. That's a fossilised Iguanadon tail in the long cabinet by the door, part of the geological display every local museum has to have, with tales from the old coaching road beyond. Dorking used to be pretty much cut off before the turnpike came, then took off population-wise when two crisscrossing railways brought easy access. The grandest estate hereabouts was Deepdene, home to two Dukes of Norfolk, and one fascinating exhibit charts its decline after the town's bypass was driven in cutting within a hundred metres of the mansion's front terrace. The current temporary exhibition focuses instead on the bicycle, and the not-implausible suggestion that the contoured challenge of the surrounding countryside makes this the cycling capital of the UK. Meanwhile by the gift shop is a tall case containing what may be the UK's only collection of mousetraps, twenty of the things, from simple snappers to more decorative follies. You can sense the care with which the entire museum has been put together, with due attention to the under-10s as well as those seeking to be educated and informed. Turn up on Thursday, Friday or Saturday to get inside, or take a virtual skim online here.

West Street: Dorking has four ancient compass-pointed streets, each leading off from Pump Corner, with that leading east now the town's main High Street. West Street's really narrow, and a bit of a traffic bottleneck, but also an antiques hotspot. There are a couple of dozen antiques boutiques down here, interspersed with an Airfix model seller and a knitting/craft shop called the Fluff-a-torium. And that independent coffee shop near the museum, that's the last surviving UK home of one of the Pilgrim Fathers. William Mullins set off on the Mayflower in 1620, succumbing to the American winter a few months later, but his daughter Priscilla survived and gave birth to ten children... whose descendants later included President John Adams, Orson Welles and Marilyn Monroe.

Dorking Caves: As in nearby Reigate, the soil round here was ideal for burrowing, so several cellars and tunnels were dug under the town for the storage of wines and other produce. Entrance to the largest underground complex is on South Street, beside the War Memorial, down some innocuous-looking steps and beyond a locked blue door. Monthly tours halted a few years back, before I got my act together and went, but I'm pleased to say that the Museum's now taken ownership and have plans to restart tours in May. You'll need to assemble a group of twelve and prebook, there'll be no turning up on spec, but it'll be great to have the opportunity to explore down below again.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): One of England's finest composers grew up at Leith Hill, a few miles to the south, but in his fifties moved to Dorking and lived in the town for 25 years. With his wife Adeline he bought a grand half-timbered house to the west of town, and here composed some of his most significant works sat at an upright piano in the study. Alas White Gates no longer exists, it was demolished in 1967 to make way for a private road and residential development, but RVW's musical legacy lingers elsewhere in the town. In particular he was the driving force behind the Dorking Halls, a major concert venue opened in 1931. A bronze statue of Vaughan Williams stands outside, a-conducting, while every spring the Leith Hill Musical Festival takes place inside, now in its hundred and somethingth year.

Dorking Heritage Trail: To get the best out of my time in Dorking, I followed these two easy trails around town. And I'm glad I did, else I'd have completely missed a) the blue plaque outside the smart and very middle class terrace in Wathen Road where Sir Laurence Olivier was born, b) Cotmandene, the raised common land behind the High Street, where one of the earliest known pictures of a game of cricket was painted, c) the Dorking cockerel, a striking metal sculpture at the centre of the Deepdene Roundabout, commemorating the bulky five-toed bird supposedly brought to the UK by the Romans. You can pick up a leaflet at the museum, or download a map from here. P.S. Don't bother to get the 'Walking in Dorking' app, it's woefully uninteractive and a perfect example of why the smartphone will never replace a good paper map.
by train: Dorking, Dorking Deepdene, Dorking West  by bus: 465

Somewhere less pretty: Leatherhead
Having loved Dorking, I was expecting better of Leatherhead. But no, the famed commuter town off junction 9 of the M25 turned out to be a bit ordinary. It has a few fine old buildings, from a 15th century pub to a 1935 pumping station, but nothing you'd travel out of your way to visit. Nevertheless I did manage to follow the two loops of the Leatherhead Heritage Trail, this solely because I'd had the foresight to squirrel away a leaflet ten years ago. Both circuits start off from the Leatherhead Museum, housed in a quirky Jacobean cottage, but alas closed until Easter. Attractions included a former Post Office, the site of a former coaching inn, and some council offices that John Wesley never knew.

On the more interesting front, a) the 14-arched Town Bridge spans the Mole near a group of particularly possessive swans, b) the Town Guide map by the War Memorial was beautifully glazed onto an array of tiles in 1968, c) Anthony Hope Hawkins, author of The Prisoner of Zenda, is buried at the top end of the 11th century parish church's graveyard, c) a recent ironwork creation on the front of the Letherhead Institute (original spelling) depicts the Olympic cycling road race. And yet, even though it was a Saturday and by now the rain had stopped, the centre of town was remarkably quiet. I dropped in on one large independent shop where the owners were discussing the death of the High Street around the turn of the century, seemingly due to over-virulent pedestrianisation, and how only now were the restaurants regaining a reputation as somewhere to go. Given the choice, I'd say Dorking every time.
by train: Leatherhead  by bus: 465

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