There are few more quintessentially English towns than Surrey’s Godalming that are also within easy striking distance of London, and so perfect for a day trip or weekend break
History, quirky individual shops and restaurants, traditional pubs, glorious surrounding countryside, and a recently restored Pepperpot...what are you waiting for?
Godalming is ideally located for easy access to London (a direct 40 minute train ride to Waterloo station), Heathrow and Gatwick Airports (both about 45 minutes by car), the south coast (zip straight down to Portsmouth on the A3 in around 40 minutes) and jaw-droppingly beautiful countryside in the Surrey Hills, an Area of Outstanding Beauty, right on the doorstep.
The town’s location has always played an important part in its history, first being settled in during Saxon times and also earning it a mention in the will of good old King Alfred of Wessex when he died in 899.
The Doomsday Book of 1086 refers to a thriving community, and throughout ensuing centuries Godalming became a centre for agriculture, textiles, leatherworking and paper production. The town’s nearby Bargate stone quarries helped to build the famous Charterhouse school when it relocated to Godalming from central London in 1872…..and also our own slightly less well known cottage in 1873.
But Godalming is probably best known for being the first town in the world to have a public electricity supply, when the lights were switched on in 1881. Illuminating, this history stuff. And they’re still working.
The distinctive and recently restored Pepperpot building dominates the ancient High Street. It was used for official Borough Council meetings until 1908, but has been an important site for public gatherings, markets and trials since at least the 15th century. More recently, the local GoLo lottery is drawn here and it’s used as a focal point for community events and entertainment.
What to do
Jump on a horse-drawn narrow boat from Godalming (near Sainsbury's), step back in time and meander down the calming River Wey towards Guildford.
Godalming Packetboat Company http://www.horseboat.org.uk/ 01483 414938 – public trips from Easter to the end of September (£7.50 adults, £6.50 children for a 2 hour trip), or £299 to hire the whole boat for up to 46 people for 2 hours throughout the year.
Browse in the antique and gift shops in picturesque Church Street, curving gracefully away from the Pepperpot to the photogenic turn-of-the-century cottages and Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. This stretch of town successfully passed a Hollywood audition a few years ago, starring in The Holiday with Cameron Diaz and Jude Law. The shopkeepers happily trousered fistfuls of dollars to go on holiday while the production team transformed their properties to fit the cheesy story of transatlantic romance.
Wander through the churchyard and down to the enchanting Lammas lands, flood plains for the River Wey. On any Sunday in summer (from May through to September) take a picnic and chill out for a couple of hours listening to Music in the Park by the newly built, but traditional, bandstand. There is a wide range of music on offer and even if it doesn’t float your melodic boat, you can’t beat the accompaniment of wind rustling the weeping willows, the click of bowls on the adjoining green, and the crack of ice cubes chilling a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.
You’ll also find the Phillips Memorial Cloister by the river. Considering it’s such a small town (with a present day population of around 21,000), Godalming has a surprising number of claims to fame. One of its sons, Jack Phillips, was the wireless operator on the Titanic in 1912 when it rammed that rather large iceberg. Jack selflessly tapped out the ship’s location until 3 minutes before the ship officially went down, and without his sacrifice the Carpathia would not have been there to pick up the survivors the morning after that historic sinking.
Where to eat
Godalming is blessed with some interestingly individual eateries, in addition to the usual national restaurant chains (Pizza Express in the High Street, Prezzo in Queen Street).
Grills & Greens lies in the perfect people-watching spot on the High Street by the Pepperpot. Serving classics all day, it’s informal, fun and ideal for a family feast. Examples are spinach & goat’s cheese risotto (£7.95), chicken Caesar salad (£8.95) and sirloin steak with red wine, thyme sauce and mash (£12.95).
http://www.grillsandgreens.co.uk/ 116-118 High Street, 01483-426262
The Forum Court is a well-established and excellent Chinese, at the far end of the High Street and in an elegant townhouse. Choose from a wide-ranging a la carte menu, including lobster and crab, or fill your Oriental boots from the tried-and-tested full set menu options at £17 to £24 per person.
http://www.forumcourtchinese.co.uk/ 135 High Street, 01483-421966
I love Bel and the Dragon, all the way down the High Street, into Bridge Street and just by the ring road. The building is an imaginatively converted church, its dramatically Gothic interior enhanced by a stack of purpose-drawn cartoons from a well-known local artist, Tim Bulmer. He even makes going to the toilet a fun experience.
There are some inventive dishes, including a starter of tiger prawns and chorizo in garlic chilli oil with bread (£5.49) and a main course of baked blackberry breast of duck with sweet potato puree and bok choi, finished with the ubiquitous red wine jus.
http://www.belandthedragon-godalming.co.uk/home.htm Bridge Street, 01483-527333
If you’re feeling romantically extravagant, splash out on a stylish Italian. La Luna in Wharf Street presents contemporary cooking, with proud Sicilian roots. Seasonal and beautifully presented food is served up at around £40 to £45 per head, including a decent bottle of vino rosso. Your feast of the senses might include arancini (risotto balls), panelle (chick pea pancakes) and marinated olives (£5.75) from the antipasti; gnocchetti con melanzane e ricotta (potato gnocchi, Sicilian aubergines, plum tomato sauce, basil & ricotta cheese) (£6.95) from the primi piatti; and trota di mare con aspirigi marini e salsa all aneto (roasted sea trout and steamed samphire, with a lemon & dill dressing) (£15.95) from the secondi. Signora Morris and I had a wonderfully relaxing and romantic Valentine's Day lunch here a few years ago, and at far less than £45 each for an amorous set menu.
http://www.lalunarestaurant.co.uk/ 10-14 Wharf Street, 01483-414155
Where to stay
For a historic place to rest your head, check out the King's Arms and Royal Hotel in the High Street. Originally built in the 17th century, but recently refurbished to provide 15 boutique style rooms, you could stay in the same place that entertained Henry VIII and Peter the Great. My wife’s Uncle Peter also stayed there more recently.
About a 10 minute walk from the station and the High Street is the Inn on the Lake. This is an attractive country inn with contemporary bedrooms, relaxing indoor and al fresco bars and a good restaurant. There’s a large patio and an even larger garden overlooking the eponymous lake, the perfect spot to slurp down a cold pint of cider on a hot summer’s day.
Part of the Innkeeper’s Lodge group, room rates at the Inn on the Lake are currently from £99 Sunday to Thursday, and from £75 on Friday & Saturday…but check for special deals.