The 2012 Olympic Games cycle road races featured nine ascents of the Zig Zag road, better known as Box Hill, for the men and two for the women. It was intended that this North Downs climb would smash the race apart.
Sadly, for the British team working for Mark Cavendish and despite setting the pace lap after lap they lost the plot, and the race finally saw Alexander Vinokourov attack and win on the Mall in London, leaving a bitter taste in a number of mouths including mine. Box Hill’s luscious and animated landscape once provided the scenery for a different kind of drama, another narrative ‘gone wrong’ and played out on the hill in the novel ‘Emma’ by Jane Austen.
Zig Zag Road
I must have ridden up the Zig Zag Road a trillion times and like so many other things in life, I gave Box Hill little thought. Effort yes, but not much care for how this great spot came into the public realm.
Famed for its box trees Box Hill is now owned by the National Trust and is a Special Area of Conservation, having been donated to the nation by Leopold Salomons in 1914. His act was prompted by the 1909 British government which proposed a budget that included an increase in land tax and this triggered the trustees of the Deepdene Estate to sell sections of land off for development. Salomon bought the old fort, Swiss Cottage and the hill. Later more land was acquired (including Headley Heath and Westhumble Farm) by others including Sir Robert Hunter, one of the founders of the National Trust (1895).
Even before it came into the hands of the National Trust many people travelled the 30km out from London to enjoy the natural landscape of Box Hill, and before the railway arrived in 1867 people of all walks of life would board charabancs or carriages (if they could afford to own or hire such a luxury) in good numbers to make the journey. Today some 850,000 are estimated to enjoy the area each year.
Our personal cycling battles and that of the 2012 Olympic road race are not the only ones to have been fought out on Box Hill.
John Logie Baird who lived in the Swiss Cottage (next to the visitor centre) lost out when the partnership of Marconi and EMI’s full electric television was proved to be better than his. Baird had pioneered TV but when his system and Marconi/EMI was used in parallel at Alexander Palace by the fledgling BBC TV they soon found that Baird’s concept, although ground breaking, was flawed.
In the novel ‘Emma’ by Jane Austen, the picnic set on Box Hill is a pivotal point in the narrative although not quite as dramatic as the Peter Weir movie ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’. For Georgian society as described by Austen formal organised events were an important part of the social fabric of polite society.
Austen scholars say that Box Hill was purposefully chosen to contrast the normal domestic piety of civilised society – home and town with that of the wilderness of Box Hill. The area contained many shady lanes, hidden nooks and crannies allowing for a discreet conversation to be held or an indiscretion to take place out of sight and mind.
“Box Hill, of course, is not the Alps, but its heights seem to crystallize the divisiveness and instability that the social norms of Highbury and Jane Austen’s prose work hard to judge and restrain. Somehow, as against the intense sociality of the rest of the book, on Box Hill “there seemed a principle of separation”(Link). Box Hill had a reputation for being “a dirty landscape of dubious reputation and transgressive acts” (Link).
Austen’s description of the picnic on Box Hill (no spoilers) in Emma is a pivotal point in the narrative as the event is far from successful and the interaction between the characters (read the book) reveals the angst hidden by gentile society and manners. For the picnickers being on ‘wild’ Box Hill was just too much.
Another fine tale from Box Hill, although in this case it is true is that of Peter Labilliere who was born in 1725 and who after leaving the British Army tried to entice soldiers not to take up arms against American’s fighting for independence. He was buried head down on Box Hill.
Olympic RR – cycle hot spot
The Zig Zag road is a big chain ring climb of 120 metres (390 ft) over 2.5 kilometres (1.6 mi) and it is known for its serpentine switchbacks. Before 2012 the road surface was broken tarmac, strewn with loose gravel, and rough, now it is much faster and easier having been resurfaced for the Olympics.
In the 2012 Olympic men’s road race the British team sternly drove the race for seven ascents, they rallied against Phillipe Gilbert’s attack on the penultimate climb, but on the final ninth ascent, other teams including Germany and Australia sensed a loss of control by the Mark Cavendish train as the Brit’s chased yet another move. One final long effort by Ian Stannard couldn’t neutralise subsequent attacks and then after a last ditch turn by Bradley Wiggins at the front it was clear that Cavendish’s train had been dis-railed.
The women’s race was decided when Marianne Vos, Lizzie Armitstead and Shelley Olds went clear on the final ascent and gained 40 seconds. The latter fell away and whilst Vos took the win from Armistead, Olga Zabelinskaya led in the rest.
It took multiple ascents for the hill to ask a price of the riders at the Olympics, and on its own it’s not even a major hill, but when ridden in combination with climbs such as Leith Hill or White Down it can really burn your legs. The first time I saw a pro rider take on Box Hill was when I attempted to follow mountain bike champions Barrie Clarke and Caroline Armstrong going up it and I also undertook a similarly vain struggle to stay with ex-pro Chris Lillywhite as he seemed to soft pedal the climb as part of his training ride. When the Tour of Britain assailed it in the 1990’s the riders simply motored up whilst joking and, I think, showing off a bit to us weekend warriors who have a tendency to talk up its status as an ascent.
When I began riding Box Hill I shared the road with some cars and a few fellow cyclists, but post 2012 I rarely ride it at the weekends because of its popularity. I think that in the future it will become even more popular and a greater number of e-bikes will join the crowds.
Box Hill is a great spot for cycling and will continue to be so – it will just have a different ambience caused by greater numbers of users and will be managed accordingly.
Jane Austen’s view of us cyclists would be interesting to read, especially regarding our ‘pride and prejudice’. Although we would probably seem far too wild for gentle society.