On the southwestern outskirts of Epsom, overlooking the thrum of the A34, stands a building from another time. Hylands House is a redbrick mansion with a gated forecourt and solid, 300-year old masonry. The house is best-known for its connections with landscape painter John Constable, who lived here between 1809 and 1811, but it has another, earlier back story. In September 1762, it witnessed the birth of travel writer Mariana Starke, in what was then her family home.
Starke’s life was an extraordinary one. We know little of her early years in Surrey, although she would have been home-educated and her upbringing was a comfortable one. As a young woman, passionate about drama and history, she achieved moderate recognition through writing plays and poems. She also spent many years in Italy, and fame arrived when her extensive, warts-and-all tours around Western Europe formed the basis for what many now consider to be the prototypes for the modern guidebook.
It was just last year that the University of Surrey developed the world’s first AI-powered travel guide, a development that some would say can trace its origins all the way back to Mariana’s pioneering books. This year marks the 200th anniversary of her seminal 1820 work, Travels on the Continent, which, in the words of Dorling Kindersley’s comprehensive Journey: An Illustrated History of Travel, “set the template for the guidebook as it exists today”.
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