Date: April 22 2022
Location: Chantry Woods, Guildford/Shalford
Without a doubt one of my favourite times of the year in the UK is late April and early May when the nearby forests come alive with bluebells. I remember the first time that I visited the bluebell forest in Chantry Woods in 2015 and I was absolutely mesmerized. I had never seen such a vibrant carpet of wildflowers and almost every year since, I’ve made it back to wander through the ancient woodlands and take in the beautiful colours and scents of the flowers.
I started my walk officially from where Nick parked his car for work, but for the sake of the photos, we’ll start near the River Wey at the base of Guildford’s High Street. A stones throw away from Guildford Castle and also from where Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland of course, lived and died. There are nods to Carroll and Alice throughout the town, including this one, near the river of Alice and her sister watching a rabbit dive into it’s hole.
The walk to the bluebells from Guildford town center is an easy one, I followed the river’s edge and then along the busy roadway until I got to the aptly named “Pilgrim’s Way” likely named after the pilgrimage route taken by pilgrims between Winchester and Canterbury, the route passes through the chantry woods.
The Chantry Woods is 200 acres of ancient woodlands nestled in the Surrey Hills’ Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It stretches from the edge of Guildford and reaches towards the neighboring villages of Shalford and Chilworth and is popular for walking, running, and of course the bluebells.
I love the Chantries as they have so many different layers of woodland and trees. There are thick fir trees with bases almost as wide as redwoods and then there are the curled branches of chestnuts winding themselves around the forest like a dancer caught in the music. It’s an incredibly peaceful place to walk at any time of year.
The bluebells are at their peak around the last week and a half of April, though this year with a lack of rain they needed a bit of a drink to perk themselves up. Nevertheless I enjoyed the long walks through all the meandering pathways that link the bluebell woods together. There is a ‘wilder’ section of the woods, where the flowers seem to be more free to pop up in any available space, and then a more open section that feels more like a bright blue meadow.
My walk through the bluebells could have lasted hours to be honest, I enjoyed just walking for a while and then sitting on a bench or log and just taking in the birdsong, the colours, the smells, and talking to the people walking past. Everyone was in a good mood, just admiring the beauty of this colourful masterpiece.
After I’d spent enough time in the Chantries it was time to make my way back to the train station, instead of following the way I’d come in, I thought I’d take the scenic route and loop back through the neighboring village of Shalford, cutting across a few farmer’s fields along the way.
Shalford is a small village, at least 1000 years old, that borders the edge of Guildford. The surrounding area is dotted with mills and farms and many of the buildings along the main road through the town are several hundred years old, including the 300 year old Shalford Mill, the last remaining watermill in the town. It was saved and donated to the National Trust by a group of women called Ferguson’s Gang. They were a group of young women who, using alias’, raised funds for the National Trust to protect historical locations.
On the edge of Shalford sits St. Mary’s church, it’s the most modern (at about 150 years) church that sits on this spot, with others dating back about 1000 years. The church itself is a small building tucked into large trees that make the graveyard and pathways feel quite calming.
Outside the churchyard sits a relic of a more medeival and sinister type, a whipping post and set of leg stocks. In medieval times, people caught breaking the law would have their feet locked in the stocks and villagers would punish them by spitting, shouting, and throwing food at the offenders. A rather stark reminder of how cruel humans can be to one another.
After leaving Shalford I wandered back through the park behind the church toward the River Wey, crossing a bridge at the base of St. Catherine’s hill. The bridge, built in the 1970’s replaces a ferry that was in operation for 300 years, carrying passengers across the small river. Near the opposite side of the bridge is a small stone seat and archway with a spring pouring out. The spring is apparently a holy well or sacred spring, located where the Pilgrim’s Way would have crossed the river, apparently the water helped to cure sore eyes (I didn’t check for myself).
Climbing up the small road from the river, I visited the nearby ruined St. Catherine’s Chapel. which was built in the 1300’s but fell into disrepair by the 1500’s. The hill, has long been a sacred site, and the original name was apparently the Hill of Dragons. A recent landslide on the backside of the hill revealed a medieval cave that was likely used a shrine. The chapel sits overlooking the river and nearby hills and legend says that it was built, along with the nearby St. Martha’s Church, by a pair giant twin sisters, who shared a hammer and threw it back and forth while constructing the chapels.
After visiting the chapel, I made my way back down to the river and followed the towpath back to my starting point, grabbing some lunch before hopping on the train and taking a nice break after 18km of walking.