Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”
“But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
“Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!”
“No hurry!” said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.
From “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” by Lewis Carroll
I was on my way to Guilford’s High Street to shop when I decided to walk along the River Wey. It was a balmy summer afternoon. The weeping willows swayed in the breeze, their tips caressing the green water. A barge puttered past. Pub patrons sipped pints outdoors, enjoying a spot of lunch.
On the grassy bank, I glimpsed a bronze rabbit jumping down a hole while Alice watched and her sister read a book. This statue (made by local artist Edwin Russell in 1984) was my first inkling of the relationship between Guildford and Lewis Carroll. Never did I dream that I would have a literary and family association with this English city.
As a child growing up in Argentina, I knew about Alice in Wonderland through Disney. As an adult, my British boyfriend (now husband) Sean introduced me to the poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” He would quote it often until it became our poem. Other couples have a song; we have a poem—and ours came from Through the Looking Glass—And What Alice Found There (the sequel to Alice in Wonderland).
Where Guildford and Lewis Carroll Meet
Charles L. Dodgson, universally known as Lewis Carroll, became the head of his large family when their father passed away in 1868. Dodgson lived and taught mathematics in Oxford at the time. However, it is not clear why he decided to lease a big house, The Chestnuts, in the city of Guildford, in the southeast of England. This house became the home of his unmarried sisters and the place where he breathed his last.
The Chestnuts is conveniently located close to the High Street and a 10-minute walk to the train station. Incidentally, I use this train line, South West Trains, when I’m visiting my in-laws. Although equipped with modern technology, the station building remains essentially Victorian in design and looks. This railway line connects London with Portsmouth on the south coast. Guildford, a medieval market town, lies roughly half way between the two.
The Chestnuts was built in 1861 overlooking Castle Cliffe Gardens, land which once formed part of Guildford Castle. Built by the Norman invaders to subjugate the Anglo-Saxons in the 11th century, the castle was later used as a royal dwelling. It went to wrack and ruin through the centuries. In the 1880’s, the remaining tower and bits of walls were repaired, and the grounds opened as a public park. The castle and castle grounds are a short walk from the High Street down Quarry Street.
Today, The Chestnuts is a private residence, not open to visitors. I loitered without intent in the Castle Cliffe Gardens, a public park outside the house, peering over the fence. I wanted to see the house.
I snapped a couple of photos from a distance, but I felt as if I were trespassing into somebody’s private life. One of the owners had added an extension and a garage on one side. Although the house is an elegant Victorian, the claws of modern life mar any illusion that the presence of Lewis Carroll and his sisters may still linger.
Behind The Chestnuts, in the Alice Garden, Alice perpetually passes through the looking glass. This statue, donated in 1990, captures the exact moment when Alice prods the mirror above the fireplace and discovers she can go through to an alternative world. If you stand behind it, you’ll see that Alice is looking towards the ruins of Guildford Castle.
On the Lookout for Snarks
It is easy to imagine the Red Queen darting to and fro, the Red King snoring under a tree, and Humpty Dumpty trying to keep his balance on the remaining bits of castle walls. The flowers in the Alice Garden do not talk, though. Carroll would probably enjoy the garden and the statue enormously. By all accounts, he liked to take leisurely walks in the area, as any proper English gentleman should. It is said that it was during these walks that the inspiration for The Hunting of the Snark came to him. Lewis Carroll finished Through the Looking Glass during a visit to Guildford in 1871.
According to Oxford’s medieval rules still prevalent at the time, dons had to be in holy orders, so Charles Dodgson dutifully became a deacon in 1861. He lived at Christ Church College, Oxford, for 47 years. However, he spent every Christmas and Easter holidays in Guildford, as well as longer visits during his summer holidays. Dodgson’s stammer kept him from regularly leading services, but the rector at St. Mary’s church in Guildford persuaded the don to preach in 1887. He continued to do so once or twice a year until his death.
St. Mary’s is a Grade I listed building on Quarry Street, which means it’s a historic building of exceptional interest. The Anglo-Saxon church tower was built around 1040. The Normans added transepts and nave arcades in the 12th century. The church tower is the most important pre-Norman conquest structure in Surrey, according to English Heritage. Its outside walls are flint and chalk rubble and it sits amidst a quiet, leafy churchyard, not devoid of beauty. The churchyard is open every day but the church only opens on Thursdays and Sundays. I like to take a stroll there and admire the church’s serene black and white beauty whenever I’m in the area.
Dodgson caught the flu while spending Christmas in Guildford in 1897, and died that January. His funeral was held at St. Mary’s. Buried in The Mount cemetery, across the river valley from The Chestnuts, the author’s siblings joined him here in due time.
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
“Do you admire the view?
The Mount cemetery sits atop a hill overlooking the town. The cemetery rests within walking distance of the High Street. However, it’s an uphill hike along a winding street with narrow sidewalks. I like to think I’m fit; however, I huffed and puffed my way up.
I was the only visitor. A few maintenance workers rested under trees on their lunch break. I searched for Dodgson’s grave, which I knew was to the left of the chapel. There it was, under a pine tree. It consists of a simple white marble cross with the inscription “Thy will be done” and verse 12:26 from the Gospel of John: “If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour.” Dogdson’s pen name, Lewis Carroll, is between brackets after his real name. It is a loving tribute to a brother by his siblings, to the unassuming author of stories and poems that have entertained entire generations around the world.
Out of the corner of my eye I think I saw the Snark hiding behind now a headstone, now a tree, trying to escape from the Butcher. Unlike the Butcher, I found my Snark. It wasn’t scary and dangerous like a Boojum, but a gentle, imaginative spirit who led me around a beautiful English town.
If You Go: First visit the Guildford Bureau’s website offering other Lewis Carroll sights as well as options for touring the Surrey countryside.