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Stairway to the stars

Artists and writers have long been drawn to the picturesque setting of Box Hill, with its abundance of trees, flowers and wildlife. Stephanie Northen finds the spot where Jane Austen's Emma decided to unfurl her picnic rug, in the fourth of our summer series on al fresco dining through the ages.

Box Hill has got the loo, the view and the brew. One of the three has been drawing picnickers for centuries. Modern visitors scurry gratefully off to the toilet, and those who forgot to pack drinks rehydrate at the cafe, but the wonderful panorama has always been there. On a clear day you can see for 26 miles, all the way to the South Downs, says Orian Hutton, learning officer at the 1,200 acres of Surrey chalk ridge owned by the National Trust.

Artists and writers have long been fans of Box Hill, a 650ft summit in the North Downs near Dorking. In 1655 the diarist John Evelyn wrote of "those rare natural bowers, cabinets and shady walkes in the box coppses... there are such goodly walkes and hills shaded with yew and box as render the place extreamely agreeable". George Meredith, the Victorian writer, liked the place so much he decided to live there. "I am every morning at the top of Box Hill - as its flower, its bird, its prophet. I drop down the moon on one side, I draw up the sun on t'other. I breathe fine air. I shout 'ha-ha!' to the gates of the world." William Gilpin, clergyman, teacher and Georgian travel writer, was a fan, commenting that "its downy back and precipitous sides exhibit a great variety of pleasing views".

His words were responsible for Box Hill being chosen as the setting for possibly the most famous picnic in English literature. Jane Austen, a supporter of Gilpin, sent her Regency heroine Emma Woodhouse there to admire the view and learn a lesson. Gilpin was a champion of the Picturesque movement and its appreciation of landscape, says Maggie Lane, author of Jane Austen and Food. "Picturesque means capable of being formed into a picture," she says. "The movement had really taken off by the early 19th century. For the first time people were travelling to look at the English landscape, which had largely been ignored until then. This followed on from the era of the Grand Tour, when people looked at Italian scenery, and at Italian paintings of scenery, and had begun to think of landscape in terms of paintings."

Box Hill is clearly Picturesque, an asset that created problems in the late Georgian age. Daniel Defoe, visiting while on a tour of Britain in 1775, was not happy. He whinged about the "great noise" created on Sundays in the summer by the "rendezvous of coaches and horsemen, with abundance of gentlemen and ladies from Epsome to take the air, and walk in the boxwoods; and in a word, divert or debauch, or perhaps both". Defoe would be appalled by the fact that Box Hill, declared a country park in 1971, now caters for about one million visitors a year.

"Donkey Green gets heavily used in the summer," says Orian Hutton. "It is right on top opposite the shop, an open area with fantastic views out over the Weald." But don't let fear of crowds put you off packing your picnic rucksack. Solitude is still easy to find. The trust has artfully positioned the loo and the brew at the top of "Surrey's Alp" as an incentive for most visitors not to stray too far into the fragile chalk downland, one of the rarest natural habitats in the world. The gentle curves of the North and South Downs were formed by the erosion of a huge dome of chalk that once encrusted all of south-east England. The effects of two million years of nature nibbling away at the soft chalk are visible in the "Whites", an impressive cliff cut by the River Mole where it flows around the foot of the hill. Nearly half of the UK's naturally seeded box trees grow there in an ancient woodland that gave the place its name.

You can wander among beech, oak and wild cherry trees and admire fine hanging Yew woodlands and many rare flowers, including a dozen species of orchids. Box Hill's unusual plants draw unusual insects, with 40 of Britain's 60 species of butterflies in residence. Yellow meadow ants make their home here, another blessing for entomologists, but a curse when they get on your rug. Hopefully the large Roman snail, an edible legacy of our imperial occupiers, and the bloody-nosed beetle will keep a respectful distance. If you stay until dusk, keep an eye out for glow worms.

As you pack up your kit, remember poor Emma Woodhouse, who didn't enjoy her al fresco lunch - though she had been looking forward to it as a child looks forward to a birthday party. Picnicking was growing in popularity in Regency times when Emma was written. Sir John Middleton in Austen's Sense and Sensibility is referred to as "a blessing to all the juvenile part of the neighbourhood, for in the summer he was for ever forming parties to eat cold ham and chicken out of doors". This slightly risque leisure activity was an obvious source of fun for wealthy people such as Sir John and Emma who had time to fill as well as access to better roads and comfortable coaches. Also, the gap between breakfast and dinner had become so long that people needed a snack in the middle of the day. Sir John's choice of food was typical, says Maggie Lane. Meat was dominant. Vegetables tended to be used as garnishes, as did fruit, which was also popular as a decoration on hats.

Potatoes were still unusual. Jane Austen's mother was the first in her village to grow spuds, a habit her neighbours regarded with suspicion. We cannot know for sure what Emma would have eaten on her Box Hill picnic, says Mrs Lane, but certainly pigeon pie and cold lamb were on the menu.

Strawberries seem likely as Emma had been picking some the previous day, and rout cake, a rich sweet cake flavoured with fruit, might have featured.

Sandwiches were also becoming common, allegedly thanks to the fourth Earl of Sandwich's taste for salt beef served between slices of toast. Platters of sandwiches are served in Mansfield Park and in one of her letters Jane Austen refers to eating beef in bread "all over mustard". To drink, Miss Woodhouse and her friends might have had wine, though mead and spruce beer are also mentioned in the novel.

But their refreshments failed to cheer them up. Emma's Box Hill companions are grumpy and she is rude to the tedious Miss Bates, earning herself a severe reprimand from her future husband, Mr Knightley. Still, that need not dissuade the contemporary picnicker from following in her coach tracks to Box Hill. "It is not Switzerland," says Emma, trying to persuade a reluctant guest that it is just the place for a young man in need of a change. And it still is. George Meredith put it more poetically: "Anything grander than the days and nights in my porch you will not find away from the Alps: for the dark line of my hill runs up to the stars, the valley below is a soundless gulf."

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