GUILDFORD, SURREY, UK
Guildford is a pretty little town located on the river Wey to the southwest of London; the train journey from London Waterloo Station takes about forty minutes. It was probably founded in the 5th century A.D., after the Romans left Britain for good. The Royal Mint was located there in the tenth century. Its lovely main street, with lots of historic buildings, is a charming example of untouched old England. The statue of a merry scholar in its center is a constant reminder that the town has been a seat of learning since probably the Middle Ages. Today, it is home to the University of Surrey, whose campus occupies a huge territory somewhat above the town center: Guildford is built on the hills, so one constantly has to walk uphill or downhill to reach any destination. There is an old castle on a hill; the cathedral is one of several modern Anglican churches built in the UK in the 20th century. Streams of students and teachers, briskly walking or riding bicycles, and the snatches of rather learned conversations one hears everywhere, also demonstrate that a great part of the population are either studying or teaching, or doing research. Lots of quaint bicycle stands all over campus, as well as many pretty nooks and corners on the lawns and along the river or around various sleepy ponds, are used by young people to relax on, or to get together during lunch breaks and have lively discussions on their field of study or research. One can go down to the river Wey from campus, and enjoy a quiet walk along its picturesque banks to the town center. There are lots of fast-food or simply cheap food places scattered everywhere, in or near the main railway station, and along the town’s streets. If you wish to have a good meal in the middle of the day, however, you are well advised to walk all the way down the main street, past the statue of bishop Abbott, to the American Diner, where they serve traditional British food, like soups and very good tasty shepherd’s pies with various fillings. A shepherd’s pie is actually a hot open dish prepared in a sort of thick earthenware bowl, with the crust lining its bottom and sides, and the steaming filling on top. The main street has a great number of shops, from fashionable boutiques to the usual chain-stores, as well as a number of very good bookstores. YMCA has a good restaurant inside which is open to the general public. When I tried the posh-looking White House restaurant, however, something must have disagreed with me, and I became rather sick soon afterwards. We stayed at Asperion, which is advertised as a four-star hotel near the town center. It is very expensive, so we expected all the usual amenities, including a large breakfast which is quite essential when you travel on business and have a long day ahead of you. We did not have much choice of hotels, since many others were full during the week that we needed. And we were attracted by the hotel’s manifesto, their being “passionate” about ecology, organic food etc. First of all, it was rather farther away from the train station than we expected, and it was all uphill. The farther we walked, the more we realized that there was nothing but small houses, a mental hospital and a school nearby. The hotel itself turned out to be a motel kind of building, a guesthouse, certainly not a four-star establishment. Inside our room, we found the hotel brochure which began with the phrase, “You don’t change your towels and bedclothes at home every day, so why should we?” Well, for one thing, because one rather expects fresh towels, a new daily supply of toiletries, and a high level of cleanliness from a four-star hotel. Certainly we did not expect to find our wet towels folded up and piled on top of one another, so that we did not know which was whose. When we came to breakfast, we saw a small bowl with fruit salad, tiny yogurts and nothing else on the sideboard. No breads, no customary plates of cheese and ham. “Organic” coffee, I suspect, was brewed from acorns. One could order some dishes from the breakfast menu, like a very greasy plate of two rashers of bacon and one egg. They also brought out a tiny stand with a slice of toast per person. Not being much of a toast and egg person, I was stuck with yogurt and fruit salad. The men’s faces were a study in consternation. Naturally, one could go to a store and buy some buns, ham and cheese, which I did. This caused all men next morning to look hungrily at my plate. But for the sort of money they charge, we rather expected to get something better for breakfast. It is a nice quiet place and the staff are friendly; if you are traveling by car and need to spend a night somewhere, this is the place for you. When you are with children, especially with teenagers, this sparse sort of meals is definitely not enough. If we had known what sort of guesthouse it was, we would have tried to find somewhere else to stay.
It took us a couple of days to realize that the vague discomfort we felt was not just the sparse breakfast, but something more fundamental. It seems that both the tap water and the local bottled water on sale in all the shops are highly mineralized, and it violently disagreed with our stomachs. Tea, coffee, soup, all these are water-based drinks. We became so ill that we had to visit the Royal Hospital of Surrey ER. They were extremely nice to us, the doctors and nurses acting very professional, very attentive and compassionate. After all the analyses, ECG, IV drips were done, we were informed that nothing was basically wrong with us. We got a prescription for a simple painkiller and discharged. All the service we received was free. In case of surgery or anything drastic, we would have had to use our insurance. ER is financed by the National Health Service.
Having finished our work, we left this pretty town. Once back in London, the first thing I did was buy a bottle of Evian. Once we started drinking that, we felt immeasurably better.
It was a good trip, and we are very glad that we have been to this charming town. The negative experiences have taught us to be more attentive to all the information we find on the web about the places we visit, the hotels we choose. We also realized that we should be careful about foods and drinks, even when they look and taste all right. When one travels, one is bound to have some good and some bad experiences. But there are nice helpful people everywhere, and we are grateful to all of them.