Dating back at least a thousand years, Guildford is an unusually attractive old town with a rich architectural heritage. The Saxons named it Gyldeford — the ford of the golden flowers — after its strategic position on the River Wey. A Norman castle was built here, which remained a favorite royal residence for centuries. During medieval times Guildford became the county town of Surrey, a status it still holds. Throughout the Middle Ages the peaceful and prosperous town boasted a thriving woolen industry that died out in the 17th century, only to be replaced by another source of wealth, the shipping of goods by barge along its newly navigable river.
Guildford today is a remarkable blend of past and present. While it has done a good job of preserving the old, it also has some first-rate modern structures. The town is particularly rich in parks, gardens, and open spaces.
Trains to Guildford leave London's Waterloo Station at least every half-hour, with a journey time of well under an hour. Return service operates until late evening.
By Car, Guildford is 33 miles southwest of London via the A3 road.
Guildford may be visited at any time, but note that the museums are closed on Sundays, and the castle is closed from October through March. The local Tourist Information Centre, T: (01483) 444-333, W: Guildford.gov.uk, is at 14 Tunsgate, between the castle and the Guildhall. Guildford is the county seat of Surrey, and has a population of about 66,000.
FOOD AND DRINK:
Some of the better restaurants and pubs are:
Café de Paris (35 Castle St., near the castle) Exceptional French cuisine in a combined bistro and restaurant. T: (01483) 534-896. X: Sun. £££
The Gate (3 Milkhouse Gate, a block south of Guildford House) Contemporary Mediterranean cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere. T: (01483) 576-300. X: Sun. ££ and £££
Rumwong (16 London Rd., 2 blocks northeast of the Royal Grammar School) The tasty cuisine of Thailand in a colorful restaurant. T: (01483) 536-092. ££ and £££
The Weyside (Millbrook, near the boathouse) A riverside pub with garden seating and homemade pub food. T: (01483) 568-024. £ and ££
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
Leaving the train station(1), follow Park Street and Millmead to the River Wey, which was converted into a navigable waterway as early as 1653. Through a series of canals and locks it is joined with the Thames to the north, and a one time was open all the way to the south coast. Now owned by the National Trust, the Wey Navigation is very popular with pleasure boaters, who have replaced the commercial barges of old.
Cross the footbridge to Millmead Lock. From here you can stroll along the water past the Guildford Boathouse (2), which offers river cruises, boat rentals, and a cruising restaurant. To reach it, use the footbridge and return via Millbrook. Cruises Easter through Oct., narrow boats all year. Daily, 9-5. Evening cruises to 10. Rates vary from ££ to ££££ for adults, less for children, depending on length of cruise and food service. Row boat rentals.T: (01483) 504-494, W:guildfordboats.co.uk.
The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre(3), delightfully located by Millmead Lock, is a modern circular structure that often previews productions before they open in London's West End. Its restaurant and café overlook the river. T:(01483) 440-000, W: Yvonne-arnaud.co.uk. Just beyond is the town mill, built over a millrace and now used as a scenery workshop for the theater.
Cross Millbrook and follow Mill Lane to St. Mary's Church (4), the oldest building in Guildford. Its Saxon tower dates from about 1050, with the rest being completed by the 13th century.
Continuing along Quarry Street, take a look down Rosemary Alley, a steep medieval path to the river. Just beyond it is the Guildford Museum (5), which has exhibits of local archaeology and history as well as items connected with Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, who spent a great deal of his time in Guildford.T:(01483) 444-750, W: guildford.gov.uk. Open Mon.-Sat. 11-5. Free.
Pass through the adjacent Castle Arch, dating from 1265. To the right, on Castle Hill, is a private house called The Chestnuts that was leased by Lewis Carroll as a home for his six spinster sisters. This is where he died in 1898.
A path leads up to the Castle Keep (6). Built in 1170 on an earlier mound, it's all that remains of the great Norman castle that was once a favorite royal residence until it fell into neglect in the 15th century. Later used as a jail, the keep offers a marvelous view from the top. T:(01483) 444-718, W: guildford.gov.uk. Open April-Sept., daily 10-5, Oct. & March, Sat.-Sun. 11-4. Closed Jan.-Feb. and Nov.-Dec. Adults £2.60, seniors and children £1.30. Grounds open all year, free.
Leave the grounds and follow the map to Milk House Gate, a quaint narrow passageway just before the multi-story parking facility. This leads to High Street, across which to the left is the Guildhall (7) with its protruding clock, easily the most photographed sight in Guildford. Its dramatic façade was erected in 1683, but the main structure is Elizabethan. Ask about the free guided tours on Tuesday and Thursday at 2 and 3.T: (01483) 444-750.
Head up High Street to the Guildford House (8) at number 155. Used for art exhibitions, it was built in 1660 and is noted for its beautifully molded plaster ceilings and carved wooden staircases. T: (01483) 444-740, W: guildfordhouse.co.uk. Open Tues.-Sat. 10-4:45. Café. Shop.
Just beyond stands Abbot's Hospital (9), or Hospital of the Blessed Trinity, an old almshouse with an interesting history. It was founded in 1619 by George Abbot, a poor local boy who was given a free education by the town. He rose to become the Archbishop of Canterbury and repaid the people of Guildford by building this home for their elderly poor, which is still used for that purpose. A guided tour of its splendid interior is available at stated times or by appointment. T:(01483) 455-591, W: abbotshospital.org.
The Royal Grammar School(10) is a little farther up High Street. Its modern buildings are on the left side, but those on the right date from 1586. Enter the old courtyard and look around. Visitors are occasionally admitted to the library, which contains priceless old chained books.
Return down High Street, passing Holy Trinity Churchon the left. This Classical building was erected in 1763 on the site of the medieval church that collapsed in 1740. It was used as a cathedral from 1927 to 1961. Another classical structure, the Tunsgate Arch, directly opposite the Guildhall, fronted the former Corn Exchange when it was built in 1818. A road now passes beneath it.
Turn right on Angel Gate, a narrow lane by the side of the ancient Angel Inn. This leads to North Street, scene of a colorful farmers' market held on Fridays and Saturdays. Make a left and return by Swan Lane to High Street, which you follow to the river.
Cross that and return to the train station (1).
DAPDUNE WHARF (11), Wharf Road, off Woodbridge Rd (A322), about a mile north of Guildford. T:(01483) 561-389, W: nationaltrust.org.uk. Open mid-March through Oct.; Mon., Thurs., Fri., Sat., Sun. 11-5. River trips 11-4, weather permitting. Site admission: Adults £3.80, children £2. Boat trips: Adults £3.50, children £2. Tea room, picnic facilities. Ask at the tourist office or phone ahead for current information regarding public transportation to the site.
Operated by the National Trust, Dapdune Wharf is a part of the River Wey & Godalming Navigations, which first opened in 1653 and reached Godalming by 1764. From then until its closure to commercial traffic in 1964 it was used to transport heavy goods to London via the River Thames. Today it is a perfectly preserved recreational asset offering boat rides along with a restored stable, smithy, and barge-building shed where visitors can climb aboard the barge Reliance. Interactive displays aid in discovering the history of Surrey’s secret waterway.
GUILDFORD CATHEDRAL(12), Stag Hill, reached via Guildford Park Road and Richmount, about one mile from the station. T: (01483) 565-287, W:guildford-cathedral.org.Open daily 8:30-5:30. Donations accepted. Refectory Restaurant offers quality meals.
The first Anglican cathedral to be built on a new site in the south of England since the Reformation, it was begun in 1936 and consecrated in 1961. Although in line with the great English cathedrals, it is definitely a work on the 20th century, relying on proportion, mass, volume and line rather than elaboration and ornament. Its dramatic site atop Stag Hill overlooks Guildford and can be seen for miles around.
Text and map copyright © 2010 by Earl Steinbicker