Stepping on the train to Guildford at Waterloo station, I did wonder if this could even be classed as a ‘day trip’. Guildford is only 27 miles (43km) from London, and it’s a short 30-minute train ride to the town, situated almost in the centre of the county of Surrey. I was used to spending at least an hour on the train to get anywhere that felt far away from London, Canterbury or Cambridge for instance, so this felt wrong: like I would emerge in just another suburb of London. In fact, from Forest Hill station in southeast London, you can make the journey in only just over an hour door-to-door—incredible when you consider that Guildford is on the doorstep of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and feels miles away from the busy city.
I regret not knowing too much of Guildford’s history when I decided to visit—it was more of a spur-of-the-moment desire to get out of London for the afternoon, and despite the Portsmouth-London Waterloo train line being one of the most expensive lines in Britain (thanks to a hefty number of commuters into the capital), only £11.50 for a return. I resorted to looking up some facts when I’d got home, which suddenly gave immediate importance to the places I’d visited. Guilford: briefly inhabited by Romans but founded proper by the Saxons in the 10th century, who called it ‘Guldeford’, gold-ford, probably after the golden sand in the river. Guildford Castle was probably built not long after William the Conqueror’s conquest in 1066, and has housed Henry III, King John, and Eleanor of Castile during its 900 year history. Notable residents include Lewis Carroll, who preached in the church here and wrote Through the Looking Glass while staying in the town, and mathematician Alan Turing.
All of this was gleaned from a quick Google when I’d got home and, in fact, I think my time in Guildford was actually more enjoyable from not knowing its illustrious history—I had no idea what to expect, and was subsequently surprised that such a quaint, quiet, and picturesque town could exist so close to London. Leaving the train station, this wasn’t my first impression, this area of town being modern, and more becoming to Guildford’s existence as an important London commuter town. A friend who I was visiting had told me to head down into town towards the cobbled high street, but I must have made a wrong turn, emerging on a busy street filled with typical British high-street shops and not a cobblestone in sight. A right turn through an impressive Medieval-looking archway took me to the right spot, and it was almost like I’d walked into a different town entirely. Guildford’s high street is, in fact, cobblestone, and almost feels like a movie set with its timber-framed houses lining the street on both sides. Heading up the high-street away from the station, you reach the Elizabethan Guildhall, unmissable with its elaborate gold clock dating from 1683. Glance back down the high street at this point and you’ll find a pretty vista; I really had no idea that Guildford was surrounded by hills but here’s proof, with rolling hills just appearing behind the tower of St Nicholas Church at the bottom of the high street.
While you’re on the high street, it’s also worth taking a look at Abbot’s Hospital, an almshouse founded by an Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, in 1619. This is still a working almshouse, and you can only go as far in as the doorway, but it’s a beautiful building, and a surprise to find wedged between the pubs and familiar shops of the high street. I wandered from here down an enticing looking alleyway towards Guildford Castle, hidden just behind the high street. In this area, Guildford seems a lot less like a town and much more like a rural English village—white-washed houses, pubs, and trees line the small streets, and hint at further lush countryside just beyond the town’s boundary.
All that remains of Guildford Castle now is a great stone keep, but it’s worth paying the £3.50 entrance fee to enter the keep and climb to the top for panoramic views of the surrounding Surrey countryside. Here, it’s possible to see as far as Woking and across the Surrey Hills, though London is out of view. Looking south from the castle, you can also see the remains of St. Catherine’s Chapel on the hillside, almost hidden among the trees—just the addition of the ruined chapel in the view made the whole scene look like a 19th century Romantic painting. Northwards, the view is more urban, with Guildford Cathedral the most prominent sight in the vicinity, along with some less picturesque factories towards Woking.
If you don’t fancy climbing to the top of Guildford Castle, the castle grounds are as much worth a visit as the keep itself. Renovated in 2003, at this time of year the grounds are a vista of spring tulips, a sea of pink and purple surrounding the ancient castle. Old walls from the original castle structure have been restored and are visible around the castle grounds—the randomness of the ruins are a real contrast to the painstakingly landscaped flower patches, but result in a very pretty garden. If you head up towards the bowling green and around the edge of the gardens you’ll find the ‘Alice Garden’, a little tribute to Lewis Carroll. A bronze sculpture of Alice reaching through the looking glass is the centrepiece of this small garden, along with a plaque talking about Carroll’s connection to the town. Despite lecturing at Oxford University, Carroll spent most of his university holidays in Guildford, and lived in a house just the other side of the castle gardens.
With some sightseeing out of the way, I started to get peckish. The weather was picking up now: where rain had threatened this morning, now the sun was coming out, and an outdoor pub lunch sounded like just the thing. I headed to The Weyside, a popular pub in Guildford in the summer thanks to its outdoor decking which sits right on the edge of the river. I sat with a cider and watched canal boats glide up and down, a real postcard picture of English springtime. (Loop round the river for an even better postcard shot of the pub.)
Really, the reason to come to Guildford (aside from its history and quaint town centre) is its proximity to such beautiful areas of the Surrey countryside. I was surprised at just how close the countryside really was—head to other English cities which seem rural, and you’ll be walking for 40 minutes out of town to reach true ‘countryside’. Instead, less than a five minute walk from The Weyside was a small track, heading past the rowing club and carrying on down the river. It’s not far along the river to a quaint bridge and, on the other side of the river, a track leading up the steep, dusty bank to St. Catherine’s Chapel. From the top of the castle, this looked miles away, and once again I’m surprised by how close the countryside really is. I loop back around the other side and head back towards Guildford, saving the walk up to St. Catherine’s for another day.
As with most of these day trips I try and do, I leave myself too little time to really explore (earlier, I’d already spied a few cozy looking cafes in the town centre that I’m now saving for future reference). Overall, Guildford is an ideal spot for a day trip out of London: close enough that, on a warm summers day, you’re not spending hours in a stuffy train and sufficiently far enough away from the city to feel utterly rural. Looking at a map of the area, the green areas of the Surrey Hills and South Downs look enticingly close, and it would be easy to spend a whole day from Guildford wandering these hills. On the way back to the train station along the river I make a mental note to return again in the summer, and take advantage of this idyllic English town on London’s doorstep.