I’m constantly amazed by how many walks around London there are that you can do on a sunny weekend. Surrey Hills have been on my list for a long time, and I’ve always been curious about what’s so special about them. The hills were even designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1958, so I went with the whole family to find out why.
I set my sights on Box Hill, one of the most popular in the Surrey Hills region. Admittedly, the plans I made at home didn’t exactly match the reality, as the hikes around it in the main take a good four hours; and even more if you plan to take a number of breaks. With a two-year-old daughter in my toddler carrier asking for a dummy, sweets, water, juice and stones to throw at every turn, there was no way we could stretch our adventure to more than a couple of hours. So we decided to brave the route down the 275 steps to Stepping Stones, crossing the River Mole. In total, that’s a 2 mile (3.2 km) return trip.
Box Hill and the surrounding areas are owned and managed by the National Trust. There is a visitor centre which provides a lot of free leaflets and maps. The 3D map of the region is the one I found most useful, as it gives you the best idea about the altitudes of each individual hill. There are many facilities at the centre, such as toilets, including baby changing and disabled facilities, a café and shop and a commendable recycling centre. Box Hill is also dog friendly; I noticed quite a few chasing sticks in the River Mole. The authorities recommend keeping them on leads when around grazing livestock, though.
Most routes start from the visitor centre, where is a large-capacity car park with mobility access. The cost is £4 per day or free if you’re a National Trust member (price correct as of August 2014). I decided to take out a membership on that very day, as my future plans include a lot of National Trust managed sites, so it’s good value for money at £4.80 per month.
The trail starts going downhill towards Salomon’s Memorial, which offers a great outlook over the hills and Dorking. As we passed the memorial, we entered the yew woods, a rather dense coniferous forest with a lot of interesting trees. It certainly had a wow factor for us, as we didn’t expect this, nor the 275 steps to reach it… The sloping path is strewn with many roots emerging from the ground, so extra care is recommended. The steps can also be slippery when wet, but our day was nice and sunny, so nothing for us to worry about there.
There are a couple of forks in the path, one leading to a “secret” trail, which probably takes you into a more dense area of the forest. At the larger junction, we took a left, following the friendly National Trust signs.
Once we reached the Stepping Stones, we breathed a sigh of relief. The seventeen stones were exposed enough to allow us to cross the River Mole. There were actually people queuing up to cross it. A few were quite slippery, so be prepared for an impromptu bath, just in case. The water is only a couple of feet deep though, and swimming is not recommended as the currents can be dangerous.
Interesting Facts – The Stepping Stones go back as far as 1841, but they were removed during the WWII to prevent enemies invading by crossing the river. The new ones were built in 1946.
After we crossed the stones, we headed towards the bridge, which is only a couple of minutes away. The bridge is called - guess what? - Stepping Stones Footbridge. The old bridge was replaced in 1992, and I suspect the original one was built just after WWII.
There are two options for making your way back. You can either climb the hill via the 275 steps or follow the recommended route towards Burford Bridge Hotel and Box Hill Fort. We chose the first option, which is shorter but more strenuous. We didn’t actually see any other hikers going up the stairs, so we attracted a few compassionate looks from people passing in the other direction.
From time to time, you can see glimpses of hills through the yew branches.
After sweating out a couple of pounds, we arrived back at Salomon’s Memorial, then went for a well-deserved picnic. We were generally agreed that we would leave the eight-mile Box Hill Hike for another time, when I’d probably choose to adventure alone, as it’s a rather demanding walk.
Box Hill is a spectacular landmark without a single doubt, and one of the best places in London to go hiking. It’s family-friendly and provides a wide range of walks for all types of visitors. One thing I noticed is that some people decided to brave it down to the Stepping Stones in flip-flops or similar light footwear. I recommend wearing something more suitable, such as hiking boots, to prevent any injuries.