Do you have a favourite place to visit in the UK? Have you been inspired by a recent day out? Author Fanny Blake talks about her surprise visit to a small church in Guildford and how it had more of an effect on her than she ever imagined.
There are so many places abroad to visit that sometimes we forget that there are just as many at home. This was brought home to me when a friend took me to the small church of St Martha-on-the-Hill on the edge of Guildford in Surrey. I had never heard of it but, having visited, I found I couldn’t get it out of my mind and let it inspire a scene in my new novel.
When we parked in the large car park, shaded by ancient oak trees, there was no intimation of what lay ahead. We walked up a sandy path, flanked by trees and undergrowth rich with the bitter scent of new bracken. Glimpses through the trees towards Guildford gave no indication of where we were climbing. My friend had promised me a surprise and was saying nothing.
As the trees thinned out, we came to the side of a small church, standing alone at the crest of the hill, surrounded by a low brick wall. The Church of St Martha-on-the-Hill. A small gate in a brick wall, where two yew trees stood sentinel, led into the graveyard with graves scattered unevenly across it. Before I’d taken a step towards the double arched door of the church, my friend rushed me to the south side of the churchyard where the view towards Compton, Chilworth, Blackheath, Albury and Newlands Corner took my breath away.
I'm not a religious person, but there was a palpable sense of peace and spirituality there. My friend and I both felt it.
Wreathed in morning mist that was slowly lifting, it couldn’t have been more atmospheric. We could almost hear the centuries-old clip-clop of the hooves of the pilgrims’ horses on the Pilgrim’s Way between Canterbury and Winchester echoing down the years. Wandering through the graveyard, we hovered over the gravestones, reading the names of those who rest there, finally coming to the memorial stone of Yvonne Arnaud, the actress and musician, by the western gate.
The interior of the small church is equally arresting with its timbered vaulted ceiling, two lines of pews and an elegant carved oak rood screen. Behind the altar a stained glass window represents the Ascension with St Martha and a pilgrim. But it’s not these things themselves, nor the simply carved stone font and pulpit that made this place special for me. I’m not a religious person, but there was a palpable sense of peace and spirituality there. My friend and I both felt it.
I wanted to write about a place imbued by the religious history that’s gone before it. I wanted to introduce someone of another religion to this place so that they would feel its effect too. The original church was built on the same spot before the Norman Conquest. Since then the church has undergone a number of transformations, been neglected and restored, to be imbued with myth and legend, and to this day it remains an extraordinarily special hallowed place that has attracted pilgrims for centuries. It is well worth a visit.
I'm so glad Fanny Blake loves this place. My husband's grandparents are buried there and there is a bench commemorating Andrew Holden who I think was church warden at one time. It is such a special place to so many people.