“Over the great city,
Where the wind rustles through the parks and gardens,
In the air, the high clouds brooding,
In the lines of street perspective, the lamps, the traffic,
The pavements and the innumerable feet upon them,
I Am: make no mistake- do not be deluded” – Edward Carpenter.
About three years ago I made the decision to move to the United Kingdom. I was finishing a job that had brought me around the world and I, for the first time, had the opportunity to live wherever I chose. England had never really called to me before that point, but something about it was calling to me then, and so I went. I’m not a city person, although I enjoy the culture and energy they allow, I find myself drawn to live in smaller places and so I began the search for a nest out side London. Close enough to the city so that I could wander it’s streets and enjoy it’s offerings but a place that also reminded me a bit of my own home in Canada, small and quaint and close to nature. Fate or intuition or something, led me to the small(ish) town of Guildford, Surrey. Located in the rolling surrey hills (named an Area of Outstanding National Beauty) it very quickly became my new home.
Guildford began as a village in Saxon times and by the mid 900’s upgraded to a town, it was a fortified settlement in the hills complete with it’s own royal mint and church. A castle was built in stone overlooking the town and river in the 1200’s and the town continued to grow. The history of Guildford exists as you walk through it, you can find a 13th century undercroft (wine cellar) on the cobbled high street and a short walk away you can stroll through the grounds of Guildford Castle which was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, a stones throw away from the town’s oldest (and apparently most haunted) pub, The Kings Head built in the 1500’s.
I didn’t know anything about Guildford before I’d blindly decided to pack my bags and relocate there, but shortly after booking my flight I found out that one of my creative heroes, someone who has long influenced my photography, my storytelling and my creativity, lived and spent his last days in the very town I was moving to. Lewis Carroll, or Charles Dodgson, spent most of his life in Oxford but in his later years bought a house in Guildford, next door to the castle and spent the rest of his life there, penning Alice Through The Looking Glass in the gardens of the castle grounds. His influence can be found in the town, statues dot the public spaces and his humble gravestone sits in a cemetary on the hillside.
When I first arrived to Guildford I was struck first by how green and lush it was but also by how peaceful it felt. Within the first few days I’d found some beautifully quiet spots just a few steps away from my new front door. I’d soon spend many hours walking and running alongside the River Wey, a tributary of the River Thames. It would lead me to some beautiful parks where swans and geese and the occasional cow would make themselves feel at home.
But my favourite place, my “spot” was found almost a month into my stay. I read about a church, St.Martha’s on the Hill, that sat perched on a hilltop just beyond the town’s border. On the first day of winter I walked to the church to sing carolswith some others and on the way found the Chantry Woods, a truly magical forest that felt like one from a dream. Over the course of the next two years I’d return to the woods often, whenever I missed home, the tall towering trees would help me feel almost like I was back in Canada. But the best moments in the woods happened over a few weeks in the spring. The forest floor erupts in a brilliant pop of blue and purple as wild bluebells carpeted the ground for as far the eye could see, I’d never seen such an amazing display of natural beauty and it’s one of my favourite parts of the area.
Guildford is truly a great place to spend time. It’s cobbled high street and tight alleyways filled with shops and cafes make me feel a bit like I’m in a Harry Potter chapter and it’s connection to so many parts of history are impressive. In a few minutes walk you can see medevial ruins, anti-tank bollards from WW11, walk in the footsteps of former residents like Alan Turing, Brian May, Lewis Carroll and others. I appreciated how in just a few minutes you can be walking past high end shops and the next you can be walking along a riverbank to a 1000 year old church.
It’s been a year since I moved away from this golden town in the hills, but I know it’s a place that I’ll always enjoy coming back to and visiting, it’s certainly a home away from home.