The first time I ever heard the name Guildford was in the 1993 film In the Name of the Father, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson, which I watched in Buenos Aires. The movie is about the Guildford Four, a group of people wrongly convicted of the 1974 IRA’s bombing of two pubs in Guildford, England.
In a surprising turn of events, I first visited Guildford a decade later with my now husband, who grew up in the area. I’ve been back many times in the intervening years, whether for sightseeing or shopping. Only recently did I become interested in local history, which spans from Anglo Saxon times to today. After a little digging, I came across the Guildford Town Guides, a group of voluntary guides that take visitors on themed walks around the city, free of charge. They encourage visitors to donate money, which each guide gives to the charity of their choice.
On my recent visit to my in-laws, I chose to do the Historic Guildford walking tour. The meeting point was under the Tunsgate Arch on the High Street. The arch was built in 1818 on the site of the demolished Tun Inn to protect sacks of corn from the rain, as the corn market took place on the High Street outside the Guildhall directly across the street. Guildford had been a market town since Saxon times and a market is what distinguishes a town from a village.
Our guide, Jennifer, met us there. The tour started at 2.30 on the dot. We started with a little history of the High Street. This is one of my favorite spots and I never tire of admiring its gentle towards the River Wey.
The village of Guildeforde, such was its Anglo Saxon name, ran along one street, the present day High St. At the time, they used ditches as boundaries between town and country. The present-day North Street was known then as Lower Backside (cue giggles) and Sydenham Street was known as Upper Backside. There are still passages between houses that run from north to south to the countryside. One such passage is known as Jeffries’ Passage, named after a chemist. Our guide said, rather cheekily, that it was an unfortunate name. Would any British reader kindly enlighten me as to why?
Jennifer told us a little about some of the buildings there. For example, the site of the local branch of Lloyd’s Bank was Guildford’s first bank. The original shop sold silk and other expensive goods. It was so secure that other merchants started to leave valuables there for safekeeping. The silk merchant then came up with the idea of starting the town’s first bank. A couple of doors down from the bank is Russell House, home of portraitist John Russell (1745-1806.)
In the early 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, Guildford was the centre of the stagecoach era thanks to its strategic position between London and the south coast and the west of England. There were many turnpike inns along the street, such as the Angel Hotel, a posting house and livery. The oldest part of the building dates back to the 13th century. The black and white front is beautiful.
Another historic building on the High Street is the Guildhall, where a medieval guild used to convene. Two charters, one from 1259 granted by Edward III and one from 1488 granted by Henry VII, allowed the town to be governed by a mayor and “men of good repute” (merchants.) Thus, 13 men and a mayor ran Guildford until elections became mandatory in the 1830s.
The bottom part of the building dates from 1588 (the year of the Armada) and was used for committee meetings and trials. The original coats of arms on the windows are those of Elizabeth I, Anne of Denmark and Guildford. In the right hand corner is a set of original Elizabethan official measures. The other extant set is in Winchester.
The top part of the Guildhall was built in 1683 and housed the council chambers. It has the only source of heat in the building, a 1633 fireplace salvaged from a demolished house. The insert (metal bit) is Regency. The floor is askew because of old age.
The landing was added in the 1900s and was –I believe it still is- used as changing area for councilors and judges. This is where the robes are kept: red for aldermen, black for councilors and blue for honorary freemen. Each robe has a tag with the name of its wearer.
At the top of the High Street is Abbott’s Hospital (1619-1622.) George Abbott, a Guildford native, attended the Royal Grammar School and went on to become an Oxford don, bishop of London and Coventry and archbishop of Canterbury. He was grateful to his hometown for the education he received and founded this hospice for the poor. It was modelled after Oxford colleges with a quadrangle (yard) in the centre, a warden and a porter.
Although men and women slept separately, there were common rooms for meals and a chapel. The place was financed by rents coming in from farms owned by the hospice. The building still functions as a hospice; an extension was built on the original garden in the 1980s. Prospective residents have to meet one or more of these conditions nowadays: having lived 20 years in Guildford, having served the country or have nowhere else to go.
We ended the visit in the Undercroft. This one dates from the 1290s and is located under a croft (Scots for house) near the bottom of the High Street. In the Middle Ages, undercrofts were used for storage: dairy in the north end because it was cooler and animals at the opposite end. This undercroft was thought to have been used as a shop, possibly selling wine from France. The borough rents the undercroft from the shop above and is open to visitors on Wednesday and Saturday afternoon from May to September.
There were people from all walks of life and ages in my group: locals who were interested in the town’s history, as were a couple of pensioners, tourists and university students (I was the only non-European, though.) I thoroughly enjoyed the walk and I sincerely recommend it.