A Sicilian sojourn

I wonder what Sicily conjures up for you: Lemons? The Godfather? Erupting volcanoes? Well, it’s all of those things and more and having recently returned from a short pre-Easter break  I can recommend that it be added to a places-to-go list.

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We arrived at Catania airport at 10.30 in the morning via Easyjet having set off from Gatwick at the most ungodly hour. The flight is just under three hours which is just about bearable if you’ve equipped yourself with a good book although when flying I revert to small child mode after about thirty minutes, mumbling questions like ‘are we nearly there yet’ and fidgeting annoyingly due to being seated in an upright position with limited leg room. Whatever you hear about Easyjet though, they got us there on time, we were swiftly through passport control and ready to make the most of our early start.

So, having filled out reams of paperwork we secured a little hire car – we went for typically Italian.

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Fiat 500 parked in front of an old lava flow.

Hire Car Man was very concerned that we might be going into Catania – apparently their insurance won’t cover them for theft of vehicles in the city. We assured him we weren’t, and off we went. Well, that was the plan. I had the map, we could see the auto-route signs; we were heading north-east, to Taormina – simple.

Oh no it wasn’t. We hadn’t reckoned on the eccentricity of Italian road signage so we toured and became very familiar with the airport ring road before we discovered that when the Italians say east, they really mean west until there is a sign for north. Work that one out – it was just luck that we eventually found our way out of spaghetti junction heading in the right direction: Mount Etna to the left, Mediterranean to our right.


The summit of Mt Etna viewed from a safe distance

This was actually our second visit to the island. The first, a few years ago (and without hire car) was during July when a visit to Mount Etna brought welcome relief to the searing heat of a Sicilian summer. To get as near to the summit as is safe, you have to travel by cable car and truck and then follow an Italian geologist along well worn routes, passing hot spots and teetering alongside the edges of extinct craters while above, Etna spews out her fumes.


Well worn routes across Etna’s moonscape



Teetering on the edge of an extinct crater …

The scenery, like a breath taking moonscape is constantly changing as Mount Etna is an active volcano. The last major eruption was in 2008; on the lower slopes old lava flows are clearly visible.

This time though, we were headed for Taormina, a pretty little town nestled on the side of the north-east coast, just below the straits of Messina; on a clear day the Italian mainland is visible.

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Taormina’s beach with Isola Bella, viewed from the cliff top

Taormina is divided in two by its position on a cliff side – at sea level there are hotels, bars and restaurants and everything that goes with beach paraphernalia while at the top of the cliff is the main town with a plethora of further hotels, trattorias, cafes, bars, sophisticated restaurants and shops ranging from high-end designer to tacky souvenir. The two parts of the town are linked by a funicular railway, a set of steep stairs if you’re feeling like a challenge or a twisting, chicane-ridden road which is akin to being part of wacky races.  Driving Italian-style becomes a necessity.

We stayed two chicanes down the hillside from the bustling centre of town. On the walk up we passed this old wall – once part of the old cemetery.

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Part of the town’s old cemetery

Sicilians stay up late; they eat late – one of their main delights is to stroll, stop for a gelato or a coffee or a drink, watch the world go by then stroll a little more. They call this activity the passegiatta and it is an activity that is easy for tourists to accomplish. We were soon as much a part of the passegiatta as any native Sicilian.

The main street, which is largely pedestrianized, is called the Corso Umberto. Crammed full of all sorts of shops and bars, it opens out periodically into small squares, or piazzas, the loveliest of which is the Piazza IX Aprile.

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Piazza IX Aprile

This square was so named because on the 9th April 1860, mass in Taormina cathedral was interrupted to announce that Garibaldi had landed on the far side of the island to start his conquest of Sicily that would eventually make it a part of Italy.


The passegiatta on Piazza IX Aprile


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Night time on Piazza IX Aprile

Antique shops or bric-a-brac abound and all the shops stay open until well into the night.

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One of the many bric a brac shops

Puppets seemed to be popular …

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… and displays like this are everywhere.

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Shop windows are beautifully decorated. Here is a Sicilian delicacy – perhaps one or two of your five a day? I don’t think so, unless you want to precipitate diabetes: these fruits and veg are all made from marzipan.


Sugar rush, anyone?

Taormina is not without its ancient history. Wander around the Greek theatre to marvel at the archaeology while enjoying  spectacular views over the Bay of Naxos.


Remains of the Greek theatre

The theatre was built by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC and was designed to incorporate outstanding acoustics. In the first century AD, the Romans refurbished the theatre a little, removing some of the seating area and part of the stage to create a circular arena for their popular gladiator games.

After this, you can cool off in the Giardini Communale (communal gardens) under the shade of  banana trees and other exotic plants.

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The neat and tidy (and shady) Giardini Communale

It goes without saying really that the food in Sicily is wonderful. Everywhere there is fresh fish, pasta dishes galore and salad with those succulent Mediterranean tomatoes that you just can’t get anywhere else. One place we found deserves a special mention – the Trattoria da Nino – a small, unpretentious restaurant specialising in home cooked Sicilian food. The welcome is warm, the suggestions and dishes of the day spot on and the prices are reasonable. Their delicious tuna carpaccio and penne with artichoke sauce will definitely become one of my memorable meals.

We had planned to visit the Villa Romana del Casale, situated in the centre of the island and a couple of hours drive from Taormina. We wanted  to see the spectacular mosaic floor, supposed to be the best preserved in the world, but the delights of wandering around Taormina and the warmth of the spring sunshine lured us to the beach for some unexpected holiday laziness. We simply ran out of time.

So we’ll just have to go back someday… it’s as good an excuse as any.

Over the last few weeks we have been having problems with our internet connection. For some reason, without warning, we’d lose connectivity. Just like that. And it was often as I sat down with a cup of tea after work to catch up on all my blog reading. As you can imagine, I was less than amused.

After re-setting our router hundreds of times as per the limited trouble-shooting options in the accompanying manual, I even unplugged all the telephony filters, blew into them knowingly, re-plugged them but even this piece of advanced technological DIY had no positive effect. Banging the table with a clenched fist didn’t work either.

Things became so bad last week that after much weighing up of the situation, I decided to take action. Now, I deliberated because taking action meant that I would have to telephone our internet provider, BT. (British Telecom) and I’ve been down that unfulfilling path before.

When a company has ‘British’ attached to its title, one is lured into a false sense of security that you’ll be dealt with by a team of dedicated, polite and efficient customer care advisors who really do sympathise with your plight. In the same way as flying BA (British Airways – the world’s favourite airline, according to their advertising), one expects a certain superior level of service but these days this is about as far from reality as me getting to grips with long division using the chunking method.

So I ‘phoned and got through to the automated numbered instruction routine. After keying my telephone number into the keypad as requested about fourteen times I was still no nearer to speaking to a human being. There has to be a quicker way to do this, surely. I was getting madder. Patience with telephone answering systems is not my virtue, especially as one of the messages informed me that I could get help by looking at their website.


In exasperation I slammed the receiver down, tried the internet connection again – unsurprisingly, no change there. I paced the kitchen until a bright idea began to emerge. Why not telephone the BT sales team? I was betting that they would be available to chat about all their wonderful offers right away without all this ‘press one for Bill, press two for Direct Derrick’ (whoever he is) etc. I bet the good old sales team will be right on the money.

I scavenged around in the home file to find an old phone bill and yes, hallelujah, a direct line for the sales department. I was on to something here.

Without too much preamble Sales very helpfully put me straight through to the engineers (there’s a tip for the rest of you BT customers out there …) where I spoke to an actual person. A well-spoken, Queen’s-English-sort-of-a-person, who talked me through a simple procedure involving the unravelling of a wire paperclip and its insertion into my BT Home Hub (router).


Hidden at the back of the home hub is a tiny, barely visible  hole, into which I poked said paperclip. This apparently resets something that the engineers can then use to change its frequency.

The reason we were losing connection so frequently was because so many of our neighbours were using the same wavelength at the same time. Not any more, thanks to my trusty paperclip.

Where would technology be without them?

Since reading Gwen’s post on aging last week, something has occurred to me.  I am now doing things that two or three decades ago, I wouldn’t have dreamt of: visiting stately homes for instance.  Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by stately home. First of all, I don’t mean houses that have belonged to someone famous, such as Winston Churchill, Henry Moore or Agatha Christie. These places have meaning and are a delight to visit because they provide us with a glimpse into the worlds and therefore minds of their owners. No, I mean the ones that have been bequeathed to the nation by the families of the once very rich but now unknown socialites who think the rest of us will be interested in the history of their dysfunctional families, but in truth are trying in some way to recoup the enormous bill left by the death duties of their forbears.



So when my friend (the sea-sick one who valiantly accompanied me on my boat trip down the river Thames to view the Barrier), suggested a day out at Mottisfont in Hampshire, I wasn’t immediately jumping with excitement, until she went on to explain that it was also the venue for an exhibition of the photography of the late Patrick Lichfield. Famous for the official royal wedding pictures of Charles and Diana, as well as many celebrity portraits, this is the first large scale exhibition to document Lichfield’s work from the 1960’s right up to 2004, the year before his death.

Lichfield himself is no stranger to hereditary wealth and title. He inherited an earldom and huge estate in Staffordshire – Shugborough – from his father. During his life time he turned its ownership over to the National Trust (who cannily leased it for 99 years to the County Council), while he maintained an apartment in the house and kept a keen eye on the running of the estate.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of our National Trust (I may have mentioned this several times before. I make no apology), but I have to concede that this is a clever way to get the punters in. A series of rooms on the top floor at Mottisfont have been converted into a spacious art gallery where a series of exhibitions can be viewed throughout the year.

The Lichfield show comprises over fifty portraits of celebrities, ranging from Pele to the Queen, some in colour, others monochrome. Visitor photography is prohibited in the galleries, but you can see a sample of Lichfield’s work here. Some of his photographs are so well known that they come as no surprise – like the informal snap of Mick Jagger and Bianca in the back of their wedding car – but others, such as the Queen leaning over the railings of the royal yacht or Princess Margaret surrounded by adoring young things on her holiday island gives the visitor a glimpse into not only Lichfield’s world, but also to his mastery behind the lens.

Part of the River Test runs through the grounds

Part of the River Test runs through the grounds

 Mottisfont is situated in Hampshire alongside the River Test, a beautiful meandering chalk stream famous for some of the finest fly fishing in the country as well as featuring in Richard Adam’s novel, Watership Down. As we drove along the lanes, through the Somborne villages approaching Mottisfont, there were still signs of the recent flooding: sandbags piled high, diversions in place – fairly deep extended puddles to navigate – I glanced sideways at SSF (Sea Sick Friend) to make sure she was coping with all this unexpected water.

Our first priority on a day out like this, on arrival, is to locate the coffee shop, which in the case of Mottisfont, is round the back by the tradesman’s entrance, in the old kitchen.  The coffee is good and the selection of homemade cakes and scones are tempting. We reined in gluttony by sharing a substantial teacake before starting our tour of the house.

Back view of Mottisfont, coffee shop is bottom left of building

Back view of Mottisfont, coffee shop is bottom left of building

The National Trust has looked after Mottisfont since 1957 when the owner, Mrs Maud Russell passed it to them. She, like Lichfield at Shugborough, continued to live in a section of the house until 1972, when she moved to smaller premises in the village. She and her husband Gilbert bought Mottisfont in the early 1930’s, beginning a program of restoration on the house which had fallen into disrepair. The house became an oasis for artists, writers and philosophers; Maud’s weekend parties were apparently legendary.

As we toured the house it became evident that Maud Russell, while being incredibly wealthy, was an avid art collector. She owned pictures by Picasso, Degas and Modigliani. We spied works by Lowry, Ben Nicholson, Matisse and Pasmore. The art works are jumbled up along the dark hallway, in the reception rooms and the bedrooms. It is necessary to pay close attention in case you miss the Piper and the Hepworth. Maud Russell’s collection is revelatory.

So what, you may wonder, is my beef with the National Trust? It is that the houses of which they are custodians become institutionalised; there is a common theme threading through nearly all of the properties I have visited.  Although Maud’s paintings were there for all to see, there was no feeling in the house of Maud, the woman, her family or of the social whirl in which she lived. The Trust takes these houses on and yes, they preserve them but the essence of their former owners is gone. Original fixtures and fittings go and in their place the Trust put in ‘furniture of the period;’ they create libraries with fake book spines glued to the walls to create the illusion that the last incumbent was intellectual and they put down fitted contract carpeting. I am well aware that my gripes probably put me somewhere on the A spectrum, but I do like things to be correct – and this so patently isn’t.

The pleached lime walk

The pleached lime walk

After returning to the cafe for a spot of lunch – very good, wholesome food – we took a wander around the grounds. The gardens here were created by several landscape artists, all friends of Maud, including Geoffrey Jellicoe who designed the pleached lime walk and Norah Lindsay, the Tudor parterre.

Cornus and hellebores in the winter garden

Cornus and hellebores in the winter garden

My favourite part of the grounds however, was the little winter garden, where soft heads of hellebores were out in full bloom contrasting with the stark, flaming stems of Cornus sericea and miniature daffodils fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

The winter garden

The winter garden



So there we are. Stately homes grow on you (me) with age. But it’s a slippery slope. What next, I wonder? Buying fridge magnets from the gift shop?

There is nothing better guaranteed to lift my mood and alleviate stress (other than my rediscovered ability to take a walk) than to watch a bit of junk TV. None of the worthwhile stuff that I probably should be watching – the news, documentaries, serious drama, – oh no – I mean the half-hour comedy shows that don’t pretend to educate: they just make us laugh. And that, as we know only too well, is the best medicine.

One show I make a point of trying to catch is Room 101. I like the concept. The title is taken from a place in  George Orwell’s novel 1984, where prisoners are subjected to their worst nightmare or phobia. Apparently Orwell named room 101 after a conference room at the BBC where he used to sit through endless tedious meetings. After some of our recent staff meetings, I know how he feels.

 On the TV show (which was originally a radio programme), guests are invited to consign three things that, in their opinion, should be forever banished. This is right up my street – humour mixed with a little light-hearted ranting. As you might imagine, should I ever become famous enough and get invited onto the show, I have my own list of items ready and waiting.

 As I’m a realist and that is never going to happen, I might as well share them with you now.

 The first item I’d banish was going to be the pesky mosquito, but then I thought that might upset some of the more ecologically balanced of you so I did a bit of research and discovered that they are vital to the food chain (unfortunately for me, who has started to itch just writing about them); their larvae providing nutrient-packed snacks for fish and other aquatic animals as well as their adult form being equally nutritious to birds, bats and spiders.

So I’ll leave the wildlife alone and concentrate on life’s minutiae.

First of all, I’d get rid of a certain type of junk mail. I’m not adverse to all of it – some has proved quite useful, especially during my papier-mâché phase – but the mail that irritates me the most and which goes straight through and gums up our home shredder, is that which contains those self-adhesive name and address labels that all charities seem hell bent on sending to all and sundry. I do not want hundreds of labels with my details printed next to the charity’s logo. I never use them. Nor do I want to buy endless raffle tickets or use the greetings cards and bookmark they so thoughtfully enclose. Why are these charities wasting all this money sending stuff out that I don’t want? I reckon I get at least one envelope filled with this rubbish every week. I feel sorry for our overloaded postman.

Secondly, there is nothing that maddens me more than looking forward to an evening at a London theatre, sitting in a seat costing not an inconsiderable sum, to discover that the CONSTANTLY NOSHING family has purchased the seats either in front or directly behind me.

The Constantly-Noshing’s usually arrive last and push their way along the row, dangling their plastic bags full of crackly wrapped confectionary over their arms, aiming to clout as many as possible of their fellow theatregoers over the head on the way. They then proceed (usually breathing heavily due to an abnormal burst of exercise), to noisily remove their outer garments and hang them over the seats in front, infringing any personal space one might have hoped to secure in an old Victorian theatre. While for most of us, the curtain going up heralds the start of the performance, to the Constantly-Noshing’s this is a signal to begin passing their substantial boxes of chocolates amongst them, making sure to take as long as possible to unwrap each sweet and then smooth each wrapper out before dropping it on the floor. Unless you are watching back to back performances of all Shakespeare’s Henry’s, the play is unlikely to outlast the Constantly-Noshing’s supply of unnecessary nourishment.

So my second item for my Room 101 would be the Constantly-Noshing family unless they would like to confine their activity to the multiplex cinema – our local is called the Odeon, which I refer to as the OOO – Odeon of Obesity – because you have to wade through a popcorn mountain and super-sized, clanking iced-filled plastic beakers to get anywhere near a screen. Now that I have discovered our little local independent cinema, which screens films I actually want to see, where the average age of the audience is probably ninety-five and where tea, coffee and tepid Chablis are on sale in an ante room during the interval, I’m happy to let the Constantly-Noshing’s and their mobile-phone wielding off-spring have the run (waddle) of the OOO.

3627378331[1]Lastly (well, not really, but as I’m only allowed three things, lastly for now), I’d have to ban unimaginative packaging, best illustrated at the moment by the pile-‘em-high, sell-‘em-for-a-fortune boxes of thin chocolate eggs that have been on sale in our supermarkets since New Year’s Eve.

These Easter eggs are nestling in boxes with the exact same design as the always available chocolate bars which provide more actual chocolate for your money.

It doesn’t take much to package something up prettily. I refuse to buy anything that is sold in a stack, preferring to seek out something like these little eggs (a local super market’s own brand – good on them) and shoving them in a nest made from the shredded remains of my junk mail.


Grrr… Well that’s enough of that. I’m off up the common.  What would you banish?


Things have been rather fraught here this week. The atmosphere at home has been charged with every emotion imaginable. If I compare it to something like the thrill of winning marathon gold to then be told that, as you cross the finishing line, you’re about to face extensive root canal work, should give you some idea of the peaks and troughs we’ve been experiencing.

I am talking about Son’s book. (I mentioned it last year in my post ‘Waiting for D-Day,’ which if you haven’t already, you can read about here ). His three years of research and writing about the 101st American Airborne’s time in England prior to the D-Day invasion in 1944 is on the brink of being published. (Marathon gold).

Proofs came back last week and while the cover and layout were perfect, inevitably there were minor changes required – a typo here, an upper case there and captions to check for the umpteenth time. (Root canal work).

Now that’s all been done, the book is back at the publisher’s awaiting final approval, there is nothing more Son can do but sit tight and wait and let that malignant enemy of all writers, self-doubt, descend.

So while being immensely proud I’ve been doling out pep talks and reassurance in equal measure. It’s exhausting. (And far more nerve-wracking than it ever was waiting for exam results). All being well – and it will be – (I have faith), his book will be available at the end of the month via Amazon. I will of course post details here as soon as he has a release date.

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My walks on the common therefore have been even more welcome this week. A sanctuary where there’s no phone coverage and where I can begin to deal with all the thoughts buzzing in my brain; to prioritise my own writing tasks I need to have finished by the end of the month and to let a dose of fresh air inspire me.

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I begin to see the wood for the trees.

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As the late afternoon sunshine sends its lengthening Giacometti shadows I turn for home, wondering which end of the spectrum I’ll be facing this evening. I trudge in my waterproofs over the slowly drying heath land and spy the season’s first wild crocus; green shoots of possibility pushing heads tentatively through a dormant tangle of brown bracken.

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 There’s an analogy in there somewhere but for now I’ll just do what’s needed.

Having made sense of my notes and with the reviving benefit of double shot espresso, let’s cross the High Street and head for Guildford Castle. The Great Tower looms over the landscape, affording great views of the town from the top. Restored in 2003/4 visitors can see a model of the castle as it would have been in the 1300’s and buy souvenirs from the modest gift shop.


Although there is no documentary evidence, it’s almost certain that the castle was built soon after the Norman Conquest of 1066.  At that time Guildford was one of only two towns in Surrey (the other was Southwark – long since swallowed up by the sprawl of South London). Holding a strategic place on the route between the capital and the south coast, and being on a hill, Guildford was an obvious place to build a castle. Built from local Bargate stone, the walls retain the honeyed tone that graces many of our local buildings.

By the thirteenth century, the castle had been taken over by Henry III, from whence it was referred to as a palace. He made alterations and improvements which included a set of rooms for his son, Edward I and new daughter-in-law Eleanor of Castile, as well as more accommodation for his own queen’s knights.

You can read more about the history of the castle here.

Opposite the castle grounds, high up on the wall of the small modern shopping mall known as Tunsgate, is this sundial by local artist, the late Ann Garland, showing Edward and Eleanor. As I have a bit of a penchant for sundials I’m pleased to be able to include this one here.


Before we move on I think the castle grounds deserve a special mention – they are maintained by the Borough Council and are kept in immaculate condition,  supplying an ever changing variety of flowers through the seasons. This picture shows parts of the old wall, near Castle Arch.


Being so close to the busy town centre it’s a good place to come for some peace and quiet, with a good book and a picnic lunch but we don’t have time for that now – come on, I’ve a riddle for you.

I wasn’t going to single out any of Guildford’s many quirky little shops – I wouldn’t know where to start – however this one might give you a clue to the identity of a famous author with connections to the town.


Is the name on the tip of your tongue? Perhaps this little statue will help. Created by local sculptor Edwin Russell and cast in bronze, this sculpture of Alice and the White Rabbit was unveiled in 1984. It is situated on the banks of the river Wey, between the theatre and the auction house.


Although Lewis Carroll never lived in Guildford, as head of the family after his father died, he was made liable for the wellbeing of his six unmarried sisters so he purchased a house here and made frequent visits.

(I wonder if this weight of responsibility was the reason for his alleged dabbling with opium? Just a thought … ).

Right – that just about wraps up the town centre for now but there’s somewhere else I want to show you. We’ll have to jump in the car – it’s not far, it’s not old but it’s on the way home. Can you guess where we are going?


Guildford Cathedral is some way out of the centre. Sitting majestically on top of Stag Hill next to the main London to Portsmouth road link it can be seen on the skyline from miles around and the closer we get, the more formidable the building becomes.


If you are a fan of horror films it may even look familiar because, against better judgement at the time, it was used as the location in The Omen where the possessed Damian throws a tantrum and refuses to go to church. You can watch the original clip here. Unsurprisingly, this connection has had a negative backlash over the years, which is a shame as Guildford Cathedral is actually a beautiful place with some interesting recent history.

The diocese of Guildford was created in 1927 when it split from the auspices of Winchester. A competition for the design of a new cathedral was announced and won by one Edward Maufe (who would later be knighted and become a Royal Academician). The Stag Hill site was donated by the Earl of Onslow and building began in 1936.  With the outbreak of war in 1939, work on the cathedral had to stop. The structure, only partly roofed, was boarded up.

After the war, building permits were only given for housing needs: work on the cathedral would not be resumed until 1952.  However, the original budget of £250,000 was by then completely inadequate so a massive fund raising drive was put into action. People were invited to ‘buy a brick’ to help finish their cathedral. Over 200,000 members of the public purchased a brick for half a crown (12½p), work continued and Guildford Cathedral was finally consecrated in 1961 by the Bishop of Guildford, in the presence of the Queen.


Inside, the cathedral is light and uncluttered. On the day I visited, it couldn’t really be called peaceful as there were builders in repairing damage to the roof on the southern side, sustained in the recent storms, but as in all places of worship, there was that unerring air of calm.


As I walked down the Nave towards the altar I was struck by the assortment of kneelers and discovered later that there are 1400 of them, all different. This one caught my eye – rather appropriate, considering.


The Cathedral plays host to ever changing art exhibitions. On the wall here below the organ pipes are two paintings by the artist Chris Gollon, from his series ‘Incarnation, Mary and Women from the Bible.’


Through those three arch ways????????????????? is the Chapel of the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment (I love how the light is flooding in here), while behind me is the Children’s Chapel – one of very few in the country and where this little cross hangs, as if floating in mid air,  in a small lighted alcove.

So there’s a glimpse of Guildford Cathedral  for you.  At this point, I’m sorry to say that I have some technical problems with my camera. (I shall call it Damian from now on). There’s still the Lady Chapel (used for every day worship), the Baptistry and the High Altar to see, so if you’d like to have a look, click here to go to their website where a virtual tour is available.

As I drive home, there’s one thing bothering me about my Guildford visit. (Apart from Damian).  Guildford is the county town of Surrey; it has a cathedral, Surrey University and the new Surrey Sport’s Park where some of our athletes trained for London 2012.  It has culture, history and a diverse business centre.

Why then, is Guildford not a city? Once home, after a bit of rummaging I find out that to be a city a royal charter must be granted and for some reason, despite its historical royal connections, Guildford has never had this honour bestowed. Apparently the Borough Council have applied several times without success and the current thinking is – do we really need the label anyway?

Probably not – the town seems to rub along quite nicely without it thank you very much – and how much difference would it actually make? While we all ponder that one, I’m off to make that very British of institutions – a cup of tea.

 Where shall we go to next?

My week started off badly when, on Monday, I ‘mislaid’ my credit card. In a state of abject panic I phoned the provider and cancelled it straight away only to find the wretched thing a day later. So while I wait for the replacement to arrive I’m without funds. It’s half term – I’ve got a week off – what to do?

Be a tourist in my own town, that’s what. Come and join me for a wander around as I take notice of places we normally rush past.

Guildford is my home town and it just happens to be the county town of Surrey. With a plethora of high street and individual shops, cafés and bars it is usually the ideal place for a spot of retail therapy but there’s more, much more here than just shopping.


From the car park I favour near the Castle, let’s take this path through the churchyard of the Holy Trinity Church. I love this little square of houses. Through the trees you can just see one of Guildford’s many old pubs – The Royal Oak. The path brings us out at the top of Guildford High Street which is a good place to start. We’ll work our way down the cobbled street towards the river Wey.

First though, I want to show you the Royal Grammar School in the Upper High Street. Dating back to 1509, when one Robert Beckingham, a wealthy local grocer left provision in his will to provide a free school in the town of Guildford, the RGS is now a selective independent (fee paying) school for boys.


There has been a school on this site since the 1600’s, its status and fortunes changing over the centuries. During the 19th century this beautiful building fell into disrepair whereupon a local committee was established and raised funds to rescue it. In 1962 a fire swept through the building causing widespread damage which took over two years to restore. During this time lessons were continued in the newly built extension, on the site of old Allen House situated behind me on the Upper High Street.

Several years ago now, having applied for a place at RGS, the eleven year old son of a friend of mine was duly called for interview. When asked what luxury item he would take with him to a desert island he replied that he’d like a solar powered games console. He didn’t get in which I always thought was rather short sighted. They obviously thought they were dealing with a lazy little toad and not one of life’s natural problem solvers.

From the grammar school we’ll retrace our steps back to the Holy Trinity Church and gaze from its steps at the building across the cobbled High Street.


The Hospital of the Blessed Trinity or Abbot’s Hospital as it is better known today was founded in 1619 by George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury. It was never intended as a hospital as such, but as a place of shelter for needy folk in the town. A Jacobean Grade 1  listed building, Abbot’s Hospital continues to provide homes for local elderly people who are able to live independently within a supported environment.


The twenty flats are situated overlooking this courtyard – a stone’s throw from the lively centre of town. There is a waiting list for those over sixties who can prove they are of limited means.

Continuing our stroll westwards down the High Street, we pass Guildford House Gallery.


This is now home to the local tourist board where you can pick up lots of brightly coloured leaflets which, if you’re anything like me, get left in the car and forgotten about. However, if you carry on through past the information desk, there is a basement café, a gift shop selling jewellery and ceramics as well as the best range of unusual greetings cards in town while upstairs there is usually an exhibition (either art or local crafts) to have a browse around.


The High Street is linked to parallel North Street by a series of narrow pathways, like this one. North Street houses Guildford’s public library, more shops and is also the site of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings.


 The name of this particular alleyway has elicited many a schoolboy snigger over the years.

Here’s a view down the High Street, looking towards the Surrey hills. The old clock, projecting out over the road is 17th century and is fixed to the front of the Guildhall.


The Guildhall is Elizabethan but stands on a site thought to date back to the 1300’s. Used as a court of law it was where the Mayor would regulate the borough’s commerce. In honour of a visit by Elizabeth I, a stained glass window bearing her coat of arms was inserted above the judge’s bench.


Both the courtroom and council chamber are open to the public and available to hire for meetings and receptions.


Well, the clock says it’s time for coffee, so I’m heading down to the Angel Hotel. This old building also dates back to the 1300’s: the stone vaulted under croft and part of a spiral staircase can still be seen today. It’s thought that there were originally two buildings which were amalgamated in the 15th century. Apparently it has always been some sort of hostelry – the Posting House was added in the 19th century to indicate that fresh horses were available for hire.


The restaurant is on the first floor but I’m slipping down through Angel Gate under the archway to Bill’s coffee shop in the courtyard. I’ll sit here a while with an Americano and try to make sense of my scribbled notes. Let’s take a break here – call this Part One. Once I’m caffeined up we can commence Part Two where we’ll have a look at the oldest building yet as well as one of the newest. See you soon.

* From Disobedience by A A Milne


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