Better Than Fiction: Five Surrey Locations that Inspired Great Writers
21st November 2019
Beyond the city’s commuter belt and contiguous suburbs, Surrey awaits. Famed for its sprawling landscapes, historic racetracks and expansive woodlands, it’s no surprise that the English county has long-captivated great writers, past and present. From Austen to Barrie, Dickens to Conan Doyle; these literary legends found inspiration amongst the rolling hills of Surrey.
1. Richmond & Charles Dickens
A welcome respite from the hubbub of London, Charles Dickens often found himself venturing to the English countryside for some much-needed R & R. Journeying to The Star and Garter Hotel on Richmond Hill in March 1838, the novelist and his wife, Kate, had planned to be out of the city on the day of Nicholas Nickleby‘s release. Cautious to say the least, Dickens’ friend and biographer John Forster explained that “Having been away from town when Pickwick’s first number came out, he made it a superstition to be absent at many future similar times”.
Continuing to frequent the Star and Garter Hotel over the next 20 years, Dickens found in Richmond a much-needed haven; a place for meeting friends, celebrating milestones and recharging after weeks of working in the city. Hosting a legendary dinner party at the resort in June 1850, Dickens would toast to the publication of David Copperfield alongside Lord Alfred Tennyson and William Thackeray.
The influence of Surrey most prominent in Dickens later works, the writer’s vivid descriptions of Richmond often paint the borough as an idyllic escape from Victorian London; Little Dorrit (1857) placing the Meagles Cottage besides the river bordering Teddington Lock and Richmond Bridge:
“It was a charming place (none the worse for being a little eccentric), on the road by the river, and just what the residence of the Meagles family ought to be. It stood in a garden, no doubt as fresh and beautiful in the May of the Year as Pet now was in the May of her life; and it was defended by a goodly show of handsome trees and spreading evergreens…”
– Little Dorrit (1857), Charles Dickens
Dickens’ affection for the borough further echoed in Great Expectations (1861), the social novel famously relocates Estella to Richmond, having abandoned Kent and in turn Pip, to do so:
“We came to Richmond all too soon, and our destination there, was a house by the Green; a staid old house, where hoops and powder and patches, embroidered coats, rolled stockings, ruffles and swords, had had their court days many a time.”
– Great Expectations (1861), Charles Dickens
2. Box Hill & Jane Austen
Born and raised in the neighbouring county of Hampshire, Jane Austen’s relationship with her godfather, the Reverend Samuel Cooke, first brought the author to Bookham in 1799. Returning 15 years later with an unfinished manuscript of Emma in tow, Austen continued to write what critics would later refer to as her finest novel — greater yet than Pride and Prejudice (1813). Penning the masterpiece during her stay in Surrey, the fictional town of Highbury in which the novel takes place has often been compared to Leatherhead, Esher and Cobham — though its true inspiration has never been confirmed.
In one of Emma’s most pivotal and iconic scenes, the heroine’s picnic upon the North Downs at Box Hill — famously disastrous and leading to Emma Woodhouse’s moral redemption — forever synonymised the Surrey hills with Jane Austen’s legacy. Voted one of the top 10 picnic spots in the UK by the National Trust in 2011, Box Hill remains to this day the perfect spot for some al-fresco escapism — minus the Regency drama.
“They had a very fine day for Box Hill; and all the other outward circumstances of arrangement, accommodation, and punctuality, were in favour of a pleasant party […] Nothing was wanting but to be happy when they got there. Seven miles were travelled in expectation of enjoyment, and every body had a burst of admiration on first arriving…”
– Emma (1814), Jane Austen
3. Woking & H. G. Wells
In lieu of the BBC’s 2019 adaptation of The War of the Worlds, it’s evident that H.G. Wells’ connection to the borough of Woking still remains culturally relevant. Arriving in the area in May 1895, the writer’s move to Maybury Road signified a turning point in his literary career; setting the scene for the sci-fi epic which would inspire multiple films, radio dramas, comic books and video games.
Residing in Woking for a short period of just 18 months, Wells’ time in the area is often cited as his most productive; having completed The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), written the majority of The Invisible Man (1897) and begun work on The War of the Worlds (1898) prior to relocating.
His most recognised novel, Wells’ idea for The War of the Worlds was forged upon his love of cycling around the neighbourhood. Riding his bicycle around Woking and other nearby villages, Wells often considered what it would be like should aliens attack; destroying the perfect peace of small-town suburbia. Referencing this process in his autobiography, Wells described how he “wheeled about the district marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians”. Selecting Horsell Common as the landing site of the Martian invasion, the writer effectively put Woking on the map, crafting a unique heritage for the district. Paying homage to the sci-fi genius, in 2016 Woking Borough Council unveiled a seven foot bronze statue of the writer to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth.
“There were half a dozen villas burning on the Woking border.”
– The War of the Worlds (1898), H. G. Wells
4. Farnham & J. M. Barrie
About to embark on the “awfully big adventure” which would inspire J. M. Barrie’s beloved Peter Pan, the author’s imagination flourished amongst the rural backdrop of Tilford Village in Farnham. Dreaming up the children’s classic of a “boy who never grew up” from his country house, Black Lake Cottage, it was here that Barrie spent many summers entertaining the Llewelyn Davies boys — George, John (Jack), Michael, Peter and Nicholas — with miraculous tales of pirates, Red Indians, fairies and mermaids.
Having become acquainted with the Llewelyn Davies family in Kensington Gardens, Barrie and his wife, Mary, had first invited them to bring their sons to Tilford in 1901, residing in a nearby cottage. Taking the family on walks to the Black Lake Pond, Barrie created and played the role of the pirate Captain Swarthy, forcing a then four-year-old Peter to walk the plank and jump into the dark waters of what Barrie had renamed, the South Seas lagoon.
Brought to life by his companions at Tilford, Barrie first introduced the character of Peter Pan in his novel The Little White Bird (1902), later adapting his creation into a stage adaptation named Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up(1904). Adding a preface to the play in 1928, Barrie would credit each of the Llewelyn Davies boys with Peter Pan’s creation, writing “I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together….That is all he is, the spark I got from you.”
5. Hindhead Commons & Arthur Conan Doyle
A welcome addition to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes collection, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) quite literally brought a new lease of life to the series.
Having ended the serial eight years prior, Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem (1893) had left readers reeling after the tragic demise of Mr Holmes; the detective and his nemesis Moriarty plunging into the murky waters of Reichenbach Falls. Deciding to revive the character after negotiating a substantial publishing deal, Conan Doyle’s latest novel, set before the events of The Final Problem, would be written during his ten year residence in Hindhead Commons.
Moving to the village in 1897, Doyle had cherry picked the location in an attempt to accommodate the health requirements of his wife; the clean Surrey air supposedly good for sufferers of tuberculosis. Commissioning his friend and architect, Joseph Henry Ball to design what would later become Undershaw House, Conan Doyle’s move led him to the Haslemere countryside and nearby Devil’s Punch Bowl.
A biological site of scientific interest, legend has it that the devil spent time here taunting Thor, God of Thunder, by pelting him with enormous handfuls of earth and leaving behind a sloping bowl in the land. A place of mystery, it is no surprise that the Moorish hills and shaded woodlands of Surrey had plagued the writer’s interest. Crafting the tale of a spectral hound reeking havoc on the moors of Devon, it is often said that Grimpen Mire – the vast and murderous sandpit by Baskerville Hall – is directly influenced by the legend of the Devil’s Punch Bowl.
“That is the great Grimpen Mire…A false step yonder means death to man or beast. Only yesterday I saw one of the moor ponies wander into it. He never came out. I saw his head for quite a long time craning out of the bog-hole, but it sucked him down at last. Even in dry seasons it is a danger to cross it, but after these autumn rains it is an awful place. And yet I can find my way to the very heart of it and return alive.”
– The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), Arthur Conan Doyle