History & Heritage in Guildford

History and heritage line the streets and passageways of Guildford town with numerous buildings dating back through the ages. 

Guildford’s history as an urban settlement, dates from Saxon times when the first pagans settled around 500AD. The settlement was called Guilden (golden) Ford possibly because of the golden sands on the banks of the river or the golden flowers that grew at the riverside. 

Guildford sits on the ancient drove road and pilgrim route running from Winchester to Canterbury and the ‘gap’ is also the gateway to London on the equally historic route from Portsmouth to the capital. The High Street was laid out around 900AD

There are a number of famous country houses set within landscaped grounds and parklands, such as Loseley HouseWest Horsley Place and Hatchlands Park as well as some historic churches and, of course, Guildford Cathedral.

Guildford’s Norman Castle on a chalk mound overlooking the river crossing is Guildford’s best known historical landmark after the iconic 17th century Guildhall Clock which gives the High Street its focal point.

The Castle was built soon after the Conquest in 1066 and was the only royal castle in Surrey. It was used as a base for the Sheriff, complete with county court, who governed in the King’s name. The Castle was expanded in the 13th century to become one of the most sumptuous and modern royal palaces in the country, providing hospitality to Henry III, Queen Eleanor and King John. 

In 1257, Henry III awarded the charter confirming Guildford as the county town of Surrey, the 700th anniversary of which was celebrated by a visit by HM The Queen in 1957. Henry’s widow, Queen Eleanor, founded a Dominican Friary in the town in 1275. Some 400 years after its dissolution under Henry VIII, its name survives in the Friary Shopping Centre built on the site. 

The importance of Guildford’s River Wey and its navigations can be found at the National Trust’s Dapdune Wharf. Boat trips are also available here.

Built in the first half of the 17th century by the East India Company, Chilworth Gunpowder Mills are one of the earliest examples of their kind. The Mills were the sole legal producer of gunpowder to the King. Today, more than 100 buildings and structures remain, but they are now enjoyed as a wonderful place for walking amongst the wildlife.

Visit the Guildford Museum to discover the town’s rich history from Saxon times to the present day and then walk along to the mediaeval Guildhall, formerly a courthouse and now used for local ceremonies and events. At the front of the building, you will also find one of Guildford’s most iconic landmarks, the golden 17th century Guildhall clock.

Further up the High Street, Guildford House Gallery, another 17th century building, has a changing programme of exhibitions, a craft shop and the Visitor Information Centre. Here the friendly staff can give you all the information you need for an enjoyable visit, both in Guildford and further afield. 

Just outside of the town centre, a very different example of bygone times is on view at The Spike. This former workhouse offers an unsettling glimpse into the lives of the down and outs in the Victorian era. 

In addition to its notable landmarks and listed buildings, there are several installations of public art which serve to reinforce Guildford’s relationship with former residents and mark both past and recent events. The striking ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’sculpture is sited in the Castle Grounds near the house of author Lewis Carroll. Further tributes to ‘Alice’can be seen along the riverside in Millmead.   Alan Turing,considered to be the father of theoretical computer science was brought up in Guildford. His family home is marked by a blue plaque and he is memorialised by the ‘Turing Statue’on the University campus and by the ‘Enigma’artwork outside G Live. Also at G Live is a sculpture of an Olympic Torch Bearermarking the town’s role in the 2012 Olympics.  The ‘SurreyScholar’at the foot of the High Street reflects the strong town and gown relationship while ‘The Bargeman’on Town Wharf pays tribute to the River Wey’s industrial past. One of the most recent and poignant additions was the installation of a new war memorial in the Castle Grounds to commemorate Guildford residents killed in military action since the end of WWII.

Our knowledgeable town guides can take you on tours to explore Guildford, walking along the High Street and through the old town centre with its quirky alleyways, old churches and famous coaching inns. 

More to explore in Guildford

Spotlight On....

Guildford House is open: 10am to 4.30pm - Tuesday to Saturday Guildford House is a local box of delights situated on the beautiful, historic High Street. Dating from the 17th century, this Grade 1 listed town house is host to a variety of things to brighten your day. Begin with a chat to one of…

Heritage events taking place around Guildford

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This project is part-funded by the UK government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

The UK Shared Prosperity Fund is a central pillar of the UK government’s Levelling Up agenda and provides £2.6 billion of funding for local investment by March 2025. The Fund aims to improve pride in place and increase life chances across the UK investing in communities and place, supporting local business, and people and skills. For more information, visit UK Shared Prosperity Fund Prospectus.