Almost anyone who knows Dorking at all well has a special affection for West Street. It has a character and atmosphere all of its own. This is due in part to the long history of the street, said to be the oldest in the town – and appropriately the home of the Dorking Museum – the wealth of historic buildings and the shape of the street that widens and then narrows. But it is much more than this.
The distinctive character of West Street is also produced by the mix of shops, businesses and inns with a long tradition of service and the narrow passages that lead off to some other part of the town.
Most of all West Street is famous for the antiques trade that draws people to its shops and its workshops from all over the world. A walk along West Street is to experience Aladdin’s Cave. Shop windows display a myriad of objects from grandfather clocks to antique jewellery.
Denbies is Britain’s largest vineyard and at 265 acres the largest privately owned in Europe. An all year round attraction, Denbies offers a whole range of facilities for visitors. Wine Experience Tours operate daily starting with a state of the art 360º cinema film followed by a trip through the winery and a guided wine tasting in the impressive cellars.
The Vineyard Land Train is also available from April to October to take you up the North Downs Way for amazing views of the Surrey Hills. The visitor centre houses the fabulous Atrium Restaurant, the third floor Gallery Restaurant with panoramic views and a gift shop packed with wonderful ideas and award winning wines. The visitor Centre also includes The Picture Gallery, which features exhibits from local artists. The Kitchen Garden Centre opened in 2005 and stocks a wide range of plants, vines, herbs and fruit trees. An exceptional venue where you can indulge, unwind and browse at your leisure.
The character of Dorking owes much to its traditions of building. Although parts of the town have an eclectic mix of Victorian and Edwardian buildings reflecting the growth of the town following the building of the direct rail line to London in 1867, along the main commercial streets hugely different architectural styles stand cheek by jowl.
It is this mixture that makes the magic of Dorking’s town centre. Rooflines rise and fall, chimneys pepper the skyline, gables, parapets and dormer windows create a complex roofscape, and the modern and the ancient sit comfortably together.
This mix of buildings is also the result of the different uses typical of a small but thriving town that for centuries has provided a range of services to it local population. The town has many historic pubs and inns that benefited from the town’s function as a staging post between London and the south coast. The Bull’s Head and the White Horse Hotel are two notable examples of hostelries that have provided their services since medieval times. Industrial buildings are represented by the mill buildings along the Pipp Brook that skirts the northern edge of the town centre.
Dorking in the 19th century was a sought after residents for the London gentry and many fine houses were built in or close to the town. Pippbrook, now the public library, was one such example. It was built in 1856 for William Henry Forman. The richly decorated interior provides a distraction for those who come to read in the library.
Charles Rose, writing in the 1870’s, wrote about the town in terms that are still appropriate today. ‘Although all along the High Street time has brought its changes, in some instances by the substitution of a new house for an old one, and in more by giving an old friend a new face, its general aspect is that of a familiar acquaintance’.
One of the many attractive features of the Dorking Museum is its situation. It lies in the historic centre of the town, behind West Street. It was probably near this location that the first market was established. The original name of the Museum site, The Stockhouse, could be well be connected with it. In the 1820’s the site became a foundry and it is from this site that manhole covers and gutter grates, that can be seen in Dorking’s streets today, were made.
The Museum still contains many reminders of its former occupation. An excellent library and archive to the left of the entrance courtyard originally housed the main office to the old foundry. Today it holds an extensive collection of books and pamphlets relating to the area and its people. It is a treasure-trove of books, maps, newspaper cuttings and ephemera.
In 1940 the machine shop on the right hand side of the courtyard was rebuilt and enlarged when the foundry was in its heyday. This building now houses the museum. It contains an amazing variety of displays from children’s toys to agricultural equipment and has an extensive fossil collection, bygones including early radios, vacuum cleaners and sewing machines, a Victorian dolls house and Victorian kitchen and laundry artifacts.
The Museum is financed by the Dorking and District Preservation Society, donations, grants and modest entry charges. Adult entry is £1 and concessions 50 pence. Children are free. Opening times are Wednesdays and Thursdays 2pm - 5pm. Saturdays 10am - 4pm.