For anyone visiting England, London is an obvious destination. The galleries and museums, the history and architecture, shops and restaurants, theatres and the opera are all magnets for the millions of tourists who visit each year. With the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton scheduled for the 29th of April 2011, VisitEngland – the national tourist agency – is predicting a massive boost to the numbers of tourists visiting the English capital.
Travelling out of town can be very rewarding too though and for holidaymakers interested in seeing some of the pretty countryside and attractive historic towns and villages just outside London, Guildford in Surrey is a good destination.
I grew up in a small village a few miles from Guildford and returned recently to visit. I was struck by how attractive the old town centre is. The High Street is an old-fashioned cobbled street still lined by medieval, 16th and 17th century buildings which these days tend to house upmarket clothes stores and bookshops. The ruins of the 12th century castle are set in pretty gardens. St Mary’s Church was built in Saxon times. The Guildford Museum charts life in the southern English county of Surrey from prehistoric times through Roman and Saxon times, to the Middle Ages, and on into the modern era. Boat trips on the gentle River Wey cruise through some of Surrey’s loveliest countryside. Rowing boats can be hired by the hour and barges can be booked for weekends or longer vacations on the river.
There’s a great choice of cafés, bars and restaurants whatever your budget. I ate in the genteel rooftop café of the old Army and Navy store on Guildford High Street where the huge windows give good views of the Surrey Hills. I also ate in the more relaxed, good value and (obviously) French-inspired Café Rouge. I browsed the town centre’s bookshops, clothes stores and department stores and then went to have a look at the 17th century Hospital of the Holy Trinity. Founded in 1619 by Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, it was one of the best old almshouses (homes for the poor) to be built in England. Opposite the equally historic Holy Trinity church, the Hospital has an imposing stone archway leading into a pretty courtyard – it exudes atmosphere.
As Guildford is a university town there’s plenty of entertainment for young people too – cheap bars, cinema screens and lively clubs.
For families, Guildford offers a good modern sports and leisure complex and lots of activities in pretty Stoke Park. The annual County Fair held in the park, as I remember it from my youth, features games, competitions, a pets’ corner with lambs, kids, calves and piglets and of course, several large beer tents.
Guildford’s open-air pool, the Lido, used to seem huge to me as a child and in fact it is pretty big – Olympic-sized. It’s open from May to September, set in 4½ acres of beautiful landscaped gardens and, England being England, it’s heated to 24 degrees centigrade because otherwise probably no-one would ever venture to swim in it!
Outside Guildford you can visit some beautiful gardens, English stately homes and historic villages. Wisley Gardens are renowned in Britain for their year-round displays of snowdrops, daffodils and tulips, followed by colourful azaleas and rhododendrons, then roses, sweet peas and delphiniums and autumnal crysanthemums and dahlias. The glasshouses are home to exotic plants and trees and there’s a large arboretum, rock garden and fruit and vegetable gardens.
Losely Park is a privately-owned Elizabethan mansion thrown open to visitors from May to September. Its beautiful parkland and wonderful traditional walled-garden are well worth visiting.
Hatchlands Park and Clandon Park were landmarks for me during my childhood. In the villages of East and West Clandon respectively, these huge 18th century stately homes always contrasted dramatically with the quaint village cottages nearby.
Clandon Park was built by Venetian architect, Leoni, for the English Lord Onslow. With typical Venetian extravagance, Leoni built an entire hall with marble, one of the finest in all Europe. The property houses a fine collection of 18th century furniture, porcelain and textiles.
Hatchlands is set in 430 acres of park and woodland. Built for an admiral in 1756, the interior was designed by Scottish neoclassical architect and designer, Robert Adam. Hatchlands houses a collection of historic keyboards played on by Bach, Elgar, Chopin, Mahler and other great composers.
One of the most stunning villages to visit outside Guildford is, without a doubt, Shere.
I went out to Shere to have lunch at the White Horse pub. It’s a former smugglers inn built in 1425, using timbers from Nelson’s ship Victory as beams. The White Horse claims to have a resident ghost after the body of a young girl was found many years ago hidden, or trapped, in a chimney. Because the pub is so old, so well preserved and evokes the atmosphere of old England it has become a popular film location. Several scenes from feelgood movie The Holiday – with Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Jack Black and Kate Winslet – were filmed in the White Horse and in Shere in 2006 (in the snow!). Shere church was used for the wedding scene at the end of the Bridget Jones film The Edge of Reason, filmed in 2004.
Walkers and cyclists love stopping off at the White Horse as do tourists exploring this pretty medieval village. The relaxed bar rooms are tucked away under old beams and in ingle nooks. In the restaurant, traditional dishes such as steak and cider pie are chalked up daily on the blackboard.
All this is around half an hour from London. So put Guildford and Surrey on your itinerary if you’re planning an English vacation. Even if your first idea is to visit London (to have a look at the royal wedding?) don’t miss Guildford, Shere and the beautiful green Surrey countryside.
** Guildford has fast, frequent rail links to Central London (35 minutes) and a direct rail link to Gatwick Airport. Trains from Guildford up to London terminate at Waterloo Station. **
** Renowned children’s author Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, bought The Chestnuts, a large 19th century house near Guildford Castle ruins, in 1868. The second ‘Alice’ book, Through the Looking Glass, was finished in Guildford in 1871. The last line of Carroll’s great nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark came to him during a walk in the Surrey countryside in summer 1875. The single line “For the Snark was a Boojum you see” came into his head – and from that he developed the other verses.