Bearing in mind that I grew up in south-west London and have now lived in Portsmouth for years, I feel slightly ashamed about how little I know about the attractions on my doorstep.
Okay, a lot of the capital’s attractions are just for tourists – shoot me if I’m ever caught in the Hard Rock Cafe or any similar nonsense – but if you’d told me I could spend a pleasant weekend feeling enjoyably distanced from city life in Surrey, then I wouldn’t have believed you. But I’d have been wrong, because I did.
The Surrey Hills aren’t exactly a mystery: I mean, most people know they are there. But too often I’ve just seen them as a stage to getting home – you go round them on the M25 and the A3 by Guildford, and occasionally cut through them if avoiding major-road snarl-ups.
However, a weekend spent exploring was an eye-opener, and in a good way. We stayed at the Hurtwood Inn Hotel, a welcoming 1920s establishment in the middle of the village of Peaslake.
Not having joined the sat nav revolution yet, admittedly we did get lost in the final stages after Guildford, but this was no bad thing.
It revealed that the area is a criss-crossed network of country lanes, with picture-postcard villages – wooden sign with flowers growing at its base, cricket pitch, pub that no doubt serves proper ale, that kind of thing - that would not look out of place in Midsomer Murders, although I stress we saw no bloodshed the weekend we were there. If you’re a fan of English countryside, you’re in luck.
Partly because of its secluded feel, partly because of the aforementioned lanes, and partly because of the hilly terrain, it’s a big area for cyclists and walkers.
Nearby Dorking declares itself the capital of Surrey’s cycling. I don’t know how you go about applying for that crown, but on the evidence of our weekend per capita Peaslake must run it close.
The Hurtwood Inn sits on a road with the endearing name of Walking Bottom, but Cyclist’s Bottom would be more appropriate, as there are dozens of enthusiasts making the village their start point and also making the inn the place for a refuelling burger and pint after their exertions.
This is great – because at a time when pubs and hotels continue to find it harder to make ends meet, here’s a flourishing establishment that has the all-important feel of popularity and busy-ness.
There are bikes to hire in the village, but our exercise efforts were frankly less impressive - we settled on a four-mile ramble around the paths in the hills, punctuated by ogling some of the frankly amazing houses scattered here and there, followed by lunch and a pint with the Sunday papers.
The Hurtwood itself was also a revelation. It’s an independently-run hotel, so while there’s everything you’d expect from a hotel – clean, tidy, good breakfast – there are also some bonuses like genuinely friendly and knowledgeable staff, proper-sized rooms and an aura of pride and happiness that doesn’t always reside in a chain organisation.
For example, at the end of dinner, the chef will pop out from the kitchen and have a chat with the diners. He was neither fishing for compliments nor defusing criticism – he was just a friendly chap, who had just produced several cracking meals.
So yes, the area is a revelation.
Who knew that you could find peace and tranquillity by heading towards London?