It’s a bright sunny Sunday, and the spring seems to have really arrived with temperatures high enough to leave the coat at home: what a relief! My next bit of location for research for my proposed North Downs book is Guildford, the County Town of Surrey which sits where the River Wey cuts through the hills. Guildford is a major road and rail interchange so has grown much larger than Dorking, and has it’s own cathedral and university.
Guildford also has an 11th century castle which has some remaining sections of wall. There is a garden among the walls that people seem to restful, and as I wandered through it and up to the keep among the daffodils, I was struck by the contrast of this peaceful Sunday morning with the chaos and horror of medieval warfare that this tower was built for.
All that remains of old Guildford is the few streets around the castle, and some of the High Street. This is now a pedestrian zone with all the main brands, but is a broad thoroughfare lined by some attractive buildings and old coaching inns. It was lively, with street performers and children prancing around the sculptures.
From the High Street, I walked steeply down to the River Wey which now has two courses: the largely man-made navigation channel which follows the valley without meandering, and the natural river course, which is extremely convoluted and picturesque. As a schoolboy, this was a fascinating as it brought to life my geography lessons and the pictures of ox-bow lakes we all drew in our exercise books.
As I left the town following the Navigation bank, I was accompanied by people strolling, running and rowing, all being very cheerful in the warm sunshine.
As the river valley broadened out the willows, at last bursting into leaf, rimmed flooded marshes, a reminder of the twelve months of bad weather we have endured.
After about a mile, I crossed the river on a footbridge signposted as the North Downs Way. This runs through the marshes, where lesser celandines were in flower but little else, however since my Dorking walk, nature is waking up, and it will be interesting to see how fast things develop now, provided the weather remains warmish.
The marsh felt quite remote, but very soon I emerged from a band of trees onto an open sports field where people were playing football, and cars rushed along the A281. I turned right along this to have a look at Shalford and get some lunch in a pub. Shalford church has a tall green copper lined spire, and a lot of yew shrubs in the graveyard and next to it, a terrace of white painted houses that look like they haven’t changed in centuries.
Shalford Mill is a water mill that still has it’s workings in place, though not in action. The mill race rushes through attractive gardens and roars down to the mill wheel, which has been cut off so that it can remain in place but not turn. A sweet, rather bumbly National Trust lady took my £2.50 and started to show a group of us around the interior. I was struck by how the clean, pure white flour we get these days would have seemed absolutely wonderful to people a few hundred years ago, when that best four was greyish, and often contained fragments of millstone grit that ground the eaters teeth to stumps over the years. Later on, they used chalk to make the bread look whiter, which at least wasn’t poisonous, and could help with the digestion.
I stopped for a bit of lunch at the Queen Victoria pub by the station, then followed a footpath past the cemetery and followed the Wey valley for a while. Again, this was lined with celandines, and I saw a couple of brimstone butterflies: I’ve seen a few of these since the weather warmed up, but no others. I turned off the path and back to the mill and then climbed steadily up through fields towards Chantries hill where the footpath met the North Downs Way. This is also the Pilgrim’s way, being the route to Canterbury taken by the Canterbury Pilgrims. I took the route up the hill through the pine woods, and caught sight of six more brimstone butterflies on the way.
They were thinning out the pine trees, and I counted the rings on one, which came to about 50, so these were planted in the early sixties: I wonder what they replaced? Ancient woodland? Hopefully mixed woodland will be planted here again one day, and even now the pines are interspersed with some broadleaf species.
The path was wide and easy going, after the steep ascent. and the ground springy with fallen needles until it met Halfpenny Lane, where there is a hamlet of houses ranged across the saddle between Chantries and St Marha’s Hill. I turned sharp right, descending back towards Guildford. As I left the forest, the Pewley Down opened up showing the true character of these hills, being long, rounded hills and valleys. The path climbed the Down at a gentle angle through huge fields which were beginning to show a little colour at last. At the top of Pewley down, there are great views east towards Farnham, and north towards the Chiltern Hills with the towers of Bracknell in the middle. The grassy sward was busy with sunday afternoon strollers. There are suburban houses right up to the top of Pewley Down, which fortunately come to a stop before the entire Down is obliterated, but without any restrictions, this could have been entirely lost under little boxes and tarmac.
The road from here down to my car park passed Semaphore House, which at one time would have passed messages to and from the coast to London, but apart from that was just a long street.
This route will look wonderful in a few weeks, when the bluebells are out, and the trees have some early leaf on them – I shall return!