Travel is partly about contrasts, even when it’s to places you know fairly well. The contrast jerks you out of the rut which is inevitable if you stay anywhere for any length of time, and makes you look at things in a different way. I scribbled most of this when I was flying back from England last month, but with thoughts of marathons, American football and pretty Welsh villages crowding my mind, I must have forgotten about it, and it only turned up yesterday as I was sorting through some papers.
I journeyed from a familiar place to a familiar country, albeit an unfamiliar part of it. This was my second visit to Guildford, the first was only in April. A true northerner, outside of London, I don’t know the south of the country of my birth at all. I had forays to Torquay, Dover, Bournemouth, Plymouth and places en route, but I never spent any significant time south of Birmingham, let alone of Watford.
Discovering Guildford last spring was a delight. The blossom, the willows bending over the river Wey, the neatness and the well-preserved state of the old buildings was balm to eyes accustomed to a desert landscape. Even in October, with leaves red and gold amongst the green, and some trees already bare, there was richness to the scenery. There is a long history there, although its beginnings are uncertain. It seems as if the area wasn’t of any interest to the Romans, but soon after they gave up on Britain, a Saxon settlement was established, and it’s been a thriving community ever since.
The origin of the name is uncertain, but there are two, main theories. It seems to come from the word “gold”, and refer to either golden sand on the river bank, or golden-colored flowers which grew there.
Modern Guildford is most definitely thriving. On the weekend I visited, the High Street thronged with shoppers, and the volume and quality of goods in the shops were quite breathtaking, really hard to believe that there’s a recession there. A disadvantage of living on an island is simply that there are some things which will never be imported. The market will always be insufficient for some traders. Hence my nose pressed up against shop windows in Guildford! A recent visit to the Meridiano shopping mall in Santa Cruz had been disappointing, every shop seemed to stock the same things, but in Guildford there were clothes of every type and hue and size, all the latest books, and, well, I have to admit to sheer confusion when I went to Boots to buy shampoo (pause for melodramatic sigh) there was just too much choice for me!
Wandering the main streets, evidence of Guildford’s history was all around. The guildhall dates back to 1300, although it’s been extended and altered over the centuries in between, and by contrast the town is now quite famous as home to well-known video games designers, producing world-famous products. This apparently follows a pattern in the area’s development. From a Saxon village of 700 souls to a population of almost 67,000 today, there has been a steady blossoming. On my first visit, last April, it crossed my mind that possibly it’s the kind of place which foreigners think of as “typically English”……a quaint, cobbled town centre, beautiful walks along a picturesque river and canals, rolling, green fields beyond and expensive houses to be glimpsed amongst the surrounding trees. It’s affluent and pleasant, most of the people we met whilst walking had smiles, including a lovely lady walking her Jack Russell, who spent a good while chatting with us. In addition, it’s only 35 minutes by train to London for theater, art galleries and history, and great sporting events.
There has to be a snag, right? English people will already have guess what it is ….. the cost of living in Guildford is said to be the highest outside of London. Still, it was a good visit. The high street is lined with great shopping, but also with excellent restaurants, most of them totally booked up on Saturday night, another sign that the recession is maybe be biting less there than elsewhere?
I considered it our luck, though, that we found a table in the delightful “Coal” bistro (so good I excuse them the glaring mistake of grammar on this page, one which always makes me cringe!) which I would recommend without hesitation. It’s a chain, but not a huge, impersonal one. Not only was the food delicious but the service was outstanding, and the atmosphere relaxed and mellow. The next night we tried Wagamama, which is a dining experience I’d been looking forward to since I first read about it. One of a chain again, friendly but basic (as advertised), and the food was perfect. It really was Asian food with a new twist, which is what they say, and the touch of offering free green tea went down well with me, since I was on a health kick!
My favorite is Giraffe though. Guy took me for breakfast there in April, and going back was high on my to-do list for my October trip. No wonder it’s so busy, but we snuck in just before the Sunday brunch crowds, happily. Smoothies and Eggs Benedict (as good as I Hop’s), in fact, eggs just about any way you’d like them, plus other breakfast/brunch goodies. No wonder that I needed a brisk walk by the river to walk it all off! I didn’t even look at the evening menu – well you have to leave something for next time’s adventure. I’ve made a note that they have a restaurant at Manchester Airport now, so I’ll remember that when I’m trip planning my next visit “home”.
The thing which strikes me now about all three of these places is that they are all chains. When I left the UK 23 years ago, dining in a chain restaurant almost always meant lower quality, but all of these had that feeling of a privately-run business, pride in service and product, and a cosy kind of feel. It brought home to me again that I’ve really become quite out of touch with everyday life in the UK.