It’s an absolute hamlet of a house: sprawling’s the word. Every century since the 17th, the Evelyn family enlarged and embellished Wotton House. Following a late 20th century stint as a school for firefighters, it has been a country house hotel of considerable renown and taste. John Evelyn, landscape architect and diarist, created the first Italian Renaissance garden in Britain. It still remains, along with a – what’s the collective noun? – let’s say a feast of streams and bridges and temples and grottoes and griffons. A river runs through it (the Tillingbourne). Although the Evelyns’ kangaroo paddock has gone. Incredibly this is all just an hour’s limo ride from London.
The three storey collegiate looking brick elevations around the entrance forecourt are topped by Dutch Billy gables. The garden front is lower rise in nature, punctuated by chamfered bay windows, and stretching the full length of the terrace. Overlooking the Italian Renaissance garden is The 1877 restaurant and bar. This double space combines a mirrored and frescoed reception room and an adjoining orangery. A plaque over the external door confirms: “Built about AD 1670 by George Evelyn Esquire. Enlarged and restored AD 1877 by W J Evelyn Esquire.” InterContinental Hotels Group has aptly named the bedrooms and meeting rooms after a botanical theme: Geranium; Heather; Hosta; Ivy; Japonica; Magnolia; Marigold; Poppy; Primula; Rose; Tulip; Thistle; Viola; and Wisteria.
Some buildings look like they have been there forever. The Church of St John the Evangelist in Wotton, a few kilometres from Dorking, is as case in point. Its yellowy pastel stone walls and pale grey slate roofs merge with the yellowy pastel fields and pale grey trees. The church practically has been around since the beginning of time, or at least for one millennium. This Grade I piece of ecclesiastical architecture is likely of Saxon origin (nave wall and tower) with Norman additions (chancel, north chapel, north transept and nave), a 17th century part (mortuary chapel) and completing elements dating from two centuries later (south porch and vestry). It was the estate church of the Evelyn family who owned nearby Wotton House. After admiring this spirit lifting church and daffodil’d setting, spirits can be lifted in a more material way at the Wotton Hatch Pub and Restaurant on the other side of the Dorking to Guildford road.
Opened in 1855, Dorking Cemetery now has somewhere for everyone: it’s multi-faith. Despite its location on the busy Reigate Road, upon entering through the archway of the lodge an air of tranquillity prevails. A sculpture park for the dead has the rolling Surrey Hills as a backdrop. The pretty flint faced (red roofed) lodge, the (gable ended) Anglican chapel and the (high hipped) nonconformist chapel were all completed the following year. The builder was Cubitt and Sons; the architect, Henry Clutton (1819 to 1893). The same year the cemetery opened, Henry Clutton along with William Burges won a competition to design Lille Cathedral. But after much brouhaha and not a little anti-English sentiment, the executed scheme was built to the design of local architect Charles Leroy, despite him only coming third place.
Company founder Thomas Cubitt (1788 to 1855) was a highly successful housebuilder and developer, best known for developing Belgravia and Lower Belgravia (Pimlico). Stuccoed neoclassical terraces are synonymous with his surname. There’s a statue to Thomas Cubitt in the centre of Dorking: “A great builder and a good man.” He lived just outside the town. Thomas Cubitt has the double honour of having a gastropub named after him on Elizabeth Street, Belgravia, and being the great great great grandfather of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. Cubitt and Sons continued as a building company for several decades after his demise.
“We now behold a spacious mansion of pleasing colour, diversified and varied in its features, replete with interior luxuries, and exterior beauties,” wrote John Britton in his 1826 Historical and Descriptive Account of Deepdene. Architect William Atkinson and his connoisseur and collector client Thomas Hope’s Italianate country house with its must-have belvedere, a palazzo in the Surrey Hills, vanished in 1969. Mole Valley District Council has restored the remnants of the early 19th century landscaping. A replica of one of the two Coade stone lions that once guarded the entrance to the house now stands on a lawned terrace overlooked by a timber tower. Thomas Hope designed a Grecian style family mausoleum following the death of his seven year old son in 1815. The landowner himself would be buried there 16 years later. A beech avenue blazes through a hilltop woodland reserve. The edges of the estate were developed with impeccable taste at the turn of last century: property porntastic stockbroker’s Tudor snuggles in wooded gardens: homes sweet homes.
Perched on a precipice overlooking the sublime Surrey countryside, Betchworth Castle is romantic in both senses of the word. In 1379, Sir John Fitzalan created a deer park in the Manor of West Betchworth and built a strategically sited castle. Half a millennium later, landowner Henry Hope bought the estate to expand his neighbouring property, Deepdene. He reshaped the rambling building into a ruin. In Ireland, ruins are shrouded in a darker layer of meaning; in England, they can simply be eyecatchers. A golf club and fishing lake keep up the sporting tradition of the estate. The 1790s Sir John Soane designed stable block has fared rather better than the castle: this pretty flint faced building has been fully restored and converted to cottages overlooking the 9th hole.
Proverbs 4:18, “The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.”
Charles Dickens writes in his unfinished last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, “A brilliant morning shines on the old city. Its antiquaries and ruins are surpassingly beautiful with a lusty ivy gleaming in the sun, and the rich trees waving in the balmy air.” The sun shines brighter in Rochester; it’s a good day for a pilgrimage, whatever that may entail. “A pilgrimage is a journey, a quest,” advises John Armson in his Rochester Pilgrim Guide (1999). He continues, “The cathedral church has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries.” Prepare for an avalanche of pictures. The Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary is the supermodel of English ecclesiastical architecture: it’s got good features and is very photogenic. “Growing in Christ since AD 604,” states the Order of Service for Sunday Eucharist. Free of hobgoblins and foul fiends, the nave is filled with the sound of a rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah to be performed tonight and tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrow. The town is the catwalk of English settlements with beauties parading wherever you gaze.
According to the Rochester Pilgrim Guide, “Like most old churches, the building is based on the shape of a cross lying flat on the ground. The cross, of course, is so shaped because it had to carry the human form when people were crucified – as Jesus Christ was crucified. The cathedral is a crucifix in stone. It represents, symbolically, the body of Jesus Christ – the nave is his torso, the transepts are his arms, the sanctuary is his head. If the sun is shining it will be filled with light. The cream coloured stone from Caen in Normandy glows in the sunshine.” The writer suggests, “Christians can remind themselves of all this by making the sign of the cross on their own bodies.”
The immaculate state of the cathedral contrasts with the ruinous presence of the neighbouring castle. Coffins are piled up against the ramparts in a Larkinesque gesture: “dead lie round”. The Norman Gundulf Bishop of Rochester (1077 to 1108) commenced the construction of the castle. His contemporary William de Corneil Archbishop of Canterbury built its keep. The keep – an accidentally minimalist structure with gaping holes in place of windows and doors – has been reinvented as an adventurous walk up spiral staircases and along loggias and gangways and battlements overlooking the cavernous void below and across the former city beyond.
Looking down on the southwest front of the cathedral is Minor Canon Row, England’s best preserved terrace. It was built in 1722 for the lucky cathedral clergy. The Spitalfields Trust has taken it over and now every precious square centimetre is virtuously munificently pristinely gloriously restored. The doorsteps and basement areas of each townhouse are protected by unusual timber balustrades. A parapet rising from the brick front and side elevations conceals narrow hipped pitches visible to the rear: each three bay house is the width of two pitches. The top floor of the three storey over basement houses has casement windows to the rear. In The Mystery of Edwin Drood it is alliteratively renamed Minor Canon Corner, the home of Reverend Septimus Crisparkle and his widowed mother.
Rochester High Street does kooky (Store 104 and Victoria’s Books, Yarns, Coffee), cookery (Pastures New) and cookies (The Candy Bar). Its shopfronts are well dressed. Established in 1985, or so the sign says, is The Candy Bar with its suitably candyfloss pink shopfront. A calorific display contains dozens of Mrs Bridges pots (banoffee curd; celebration Champagne marmalade; chilli jam; mango chutney with lime and ginger; Scottish raspberry preserve) and very sweet stuff (cherry Bakewell fudge; coconut ice; fruit fondant creams, peanut butter fudge; raspberry Prosecco fudge; Rochester rock). It’s as if the “Lumps of Delight Shop” in The Mystery of Edwin Drood has come to life. Pavement presentations are nakedly ambitious: colourful tailor’s dummies pose outside vintage shop Fieldstaff. Rochester boasts England’s largest secondhand bookshop (Baggins Book Bazaar). Pied wagtails living up to their name (wagging their tails) flutter down the pavements in a fuss of monochromatism.
The novelist spent some of his childhood on the outskirts of the town when his father got a job in nearby Chatham Dockyard. Dickensian is a literal adjective in Rochester. A plaque on the front wall of The Bull Hotel states “This ‘good house’ with ‘nice beds’ described by Mr Jingle in Pickwick Papers is also ‘The Blue Boar’ in ‘Great Expectations’.” It still retains a coaching inn appearance: a regular Georgian façade gives way to two return wings featuring a merry assortment of weatherboarding, half timbered jettied and gabled projections, box sash tripartite windows, Crittal windows and a rectangular oriel window. The seminal film of Great Expectations is David Lean’s 1946 version starring the Northern Irish born actress Valerie Hobson as Estella.