“My velvet escape travel tip” is a guest series about what the name ‘Velvet Escape’ evokes and what that would be in the hometown or favourite place of the guest writer. With this series, I hope to uncover travel tips from places around the world to help visitors have a truly local experience. Today’s guest post is by travel writer Andrea Kirkby who reveals her favourite Velvet Escape in England.
One of the best things about Guildford – a pretty market town famous for being the resting place and inspiration for Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll – is getting out and about in its local area. The town’s idyllic setting in rolling, verdant countryside makes it a good base for some of England’s best country walking… ideal for a healthy weekend break just half an hour by train from central London.
The North Downs Way is a 153 mile trail which goes through both the Surrey Hills and Kent Downs Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). It passes just south of Guildford, past St Martha’s Church on its hill, over the expansive landscapes of the Downs and towards the valley villages of Shere and Gomshall with their fast flowing chalk streams and watercress beds. If you felt so inclined, you could follow it to Canterbury and even further, to the coast at Dover.
When I took the path in early summer, clouds of butterflies drifted across St Martha’s Hill, bright copper and palest blue; one came too close, and caressed my face for a brief moment with its fluttering wings. Earlier in the year, the woods on the lower slopes of the Downs are filled with the shimmering haze of bluebells; in winter, you can tramp the hills in crunchy snow, under a sky of electric blue.
Nature isn’t the only attraction. As you head out of Guildford you’re following the pilgrims’ way that took the devout – and, as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales remind us, the not so pious too – towards the shrine of St Thomas a Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.
St Martha’s is said to have been one of the stops en route (though Chaucer’s pilgrims actually took Watling Street, now the A2); an anchoress lived in a cell there at one time and the church was originally Norman, though it was much restored in Queen Victoria’s day. Another anchoress, Christine Carpenter, had a cell in the church at Shere, where the tiny quatrefoil window that allowed her to see the altar is still visible (her story is intriguing; enclosed in her cell for life, she left it to go wandering, then later petitioned the Church to allow her to be re-enclosed).
Shere is perhaps Surrey’s prettiest village and certainly its most photographed. Ducks on the river, a little ford, and half timber houses – it has all the ingredients of a fairytale Olde England village, apart from the fact that it’s cars rather than horse carts clogging up the High Street. Much of the half timber is Tudor work; the village was a wealthy one, its industries of weaving and tanning based on the agricultural life of the Downs with their wide sheep grazing and the fast flowing water of the Tillingbourne. But some of it is much later – Edwin Lutyens provided a number of sympathetic additions to the village, including the lych gate to the churchyard, around 1900.
The Downs do though involve a lot of ‘ups’. A more restful option is to take the river Wey out of Guildford, towards the ruins of Newark Priory and Pyrford Lock, with the riverside Anchor pub. Kingfishers sometimes flash across the river; narrowboats still use the Wey Navigations, England’s first commercial canal, opened in the seventeenth century. It’s an intimate world of trees and water, which feels miles away from the exposed uplands’ dramatic landscapes, yet you can walk both in a single day and still have time for a pint of beer in Guildford as dusk falls. And the town’s good rail connections also enable you to walk a little further afield.
Box Hill, near Dorking, provides one of the Down’s stiffest ascents, as well as rich wildlife, including the flourishing box trees which give the hill its name. Below the escarpment, the River Mole is home to kingfishers, moorhens and wagtails, but also to the more exotic mandarin ducks and ring-necked parakeets.
Although there are a few climbs, this is gentle countryside; the North Downs Way is well waymarked and most paths are easy to follow. The worst obstacle you’re likely to meet is a patch of mud. And it’s a good thing the going isn’t too strenuous, as this is country that repays a leisurely approach.
But if you do take this trail and end up with lots of aches and pains after a hard day’s hiking, you might enjoy unwinding in one of the newest spas in Surrey.
A guest post by Andrea Kirkby.
Note: this post was brought to you in partnership with London Hotels Insight.