Surrey Hills in a Caterham 310R - best UK driving roads
Our old Fast Fleet Caterham and David Vivian cough and splutter into life for a picturesque trip a stone’s throw from the capital
I feel a cold coming on for the first time in years. Sore throat, sneezing and a creeping fug that numbs your hearing. Funny. Nine times out of ten this would lead to vaguely pathetic introspection regarding my chances of making it through the night. But it’s a dark, chilly, mid-December evening commute in central London, a press stud has come loose on the Caterham’s now flapping hood and the resulting flow of brrrr is being ducted directly into my left ear.
Buses are marauding apartment blocks from down here and, just to add to the sense of otherness, the way they mostly obscure the Christmas lights decorating The Strand – occasionally parting to grant just a glimpse – drizzles little drops of uplifting dazzle onto an otherwise dire drive home from evo’s base in the middle of the metropolis. I know two things. Tomorrow, the hood’s staying up and properly fastened, and a sunny morning in the Surrey Hills – which lie within our half-hour-or-so of parts of Greater London – will help me reconnect with a more normal version of reality.
Well, maybe. Rather like the Cotswolds, the Surrey Hills has de-luxe levels of scenic loveliness that slacken the jaw and often seem too good to be true. Back in the ’80s, when I was a road tester on Motor magazine in Sutton, Box Hill was a routine go-to for photography, supplying both the bends and the beauty in a neat package. We probably didn’t realise how lucky we were. It stands at the south-eastern corner of the Mole Gap, the valley carved by the River Mole through the North Downs. Today, there’s a National Trust Visitor Centre on the western section of the hill, and it’s from there photographer Matt Howell and I scissor our thickly padded limbs and torsos back under the Caterham’s canvas hood and slide into the toboggan-tight cockpit, wriggle the dinky Momo steering wheel back onto its column spline, click-lock the seat belt harnesses and bumble off in search of bends and beauty.
The Surrey Hills covers an area of 163 square miles – about a quarter of Surrey – and was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1958. It runs from the edge of Kent’s North Downs in the east to the South Downs National Park in the southwest. From a tourist board marketing perspective, it’s all about cycling. Fair enough, as Box Hill featured prominently on the route of the 2012 Olympic cycling road race events. But there’s also walking (possibly jogging), smelling flowers and spotting butterflies. It’s not the kind of place you’d take your Chiron for a shakedown. The more elemental and minimalist Caterham is a better fit – not for exploring the limits of its kidney-kicking low- and mid-range acceleration (though the odd exhaust-bark-rich second-gear hairpin skid is easy enough to sneak in without feeling too guilty), but for threading briskly down the sinuous and unfailingly gorgeous country lanes between the too-perfect villages with their comely pubs and cute cottages straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting.
After driving Box Hill, its immediate environs – including a section with speed humps that the superlight Seven glides over – and stopping briefly to admire a misty Dorking town down below, we head off towards the Vale of Holmesdale. It’s located at the foot of the ridge of the North Downs and includes the village of Holmesdale itself where, outside the pub, I compress myself, Houdini-like, to squeeze back out through the microwave-sized door aperture, have a big stretch, suck in a lungful of cool, fragrant Surrey Hills air and have a bit of a cough. Life isn’t so bad.
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