England Grand Tour (2021): Day 8: When visiting Surrey, best not be in a hurry

Off to Guildford

We drove into Hook and had breakfast at an independent coffee shop there, agreeing afterwards that it had been nothing special. After briefly returning to Tylney Hall for showers and a change of clothes for the new day, we set off for a visit to Guildford, the county town of Surrey and just over twenty miles distant. Traffic conditions were reasonable until we crossed the town boundary of our destination, where further progress resembled a walk through treacle, such was the extent of the congestion. We eventually managed to access our chosen car park, paid for our planned stay and set out on foot.

The idea to visit Guildford had come from one of Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys, which had shown the town in a flattering light. And sure enough, with a castle, a cathedral and a decent high street on offer, it seemed to have the makings of a good day out. First up was the castle, just a short walk from where we had parked. Guildford Castle dates from Norman times, but I found what remains of it (mainly the keep) a little underwhelming. That might sound potentially unfair coming from an Edinburgh resident: everybody knows that our castle is spectacular, towering above the city centre on top of a volcanic plug. But I wasn’t comparing Guildford Castle with Edinburgh. Lewes in East Sussex has a small Norman castle, built in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. I visited it in 2018 and found it to be delightful. Alongside memories of comparable Lewes, Guildford’s castle didn’t quite measure up in my eyes.

Guildford Cathedral

Guildford, like Portsmouth, became the centre of a new diocese of the Church of England in 1927, when it was decided to reduce the size of the Diocese of Winchester. In Portsmouth’s case, as we have seen, a cathedral was formed by extending and upgrading an existing church. For Guildford, a new building was preferred and a site was available at the summit of Stag Hill. Construction was started in 1936. The building was consecrated in 1961, but not actually completed until 1965. It features red bricks from Surrey and Sussex, while the interior has a remarkably light and airy feel. I thought it was reasonably impressive, all things considered. Clearly it was never going to have the history or gravitas of Durham or Winchester, but that was a straightforward consequence of the building’s youthful age. The lower slopes of Stag Hill, incidentally, are occupied by the University of Surrey.

Lunch – Afternoon – Evening

Our return to the town centre brought the unexpected highlight of the day: a delicious al fresco lunch at the local branch of The Giggling Squid, a South of England chain that I first experienced in Bath, in 2018. The food was a delight.

Finally, we had a look at the High Street. As shopping streets in the UK generally go, this one was above average – but at the risk of sounding hard to please, I didn’t detect any great ‘wow factor’. In summary, Guildford overall proved to be a decent enough town, but perhaps a little prosaic.

We tried taking a more rural route back to Tylney Hall, but ended up in Home Counties traffic hell at Farnham, caused by a toxic combination of “school’s out”, a busy level crossing, and everyone stereotypically driving ‘Chelsea tractors’ on the narrow country roads. Frustrations aside, we eventually made it safely back to base.

A short visit was then made to Tesco in Hook, to buy supplies for what turned out to be another excellent in-room picnic. It was nice to end the day on a genuine high note!