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Guildford, Town of Gold on the Banks of the Wey

Updated on May 20, 2018
The Angel Hotel
The Angel Hotel

The Town of Gold

The town of Guildford on the River Wey, in the county of Surrey, England, is a glorious labyrinth of cobbled and winding streets lined with old buildings, a fine place to get lost in while imagining oneself back in ancient times. Although Guildford is listed in the Norman Domesday Book of 1086, it was initially a Saxon settlement and became a town in the 900’s. The origin of the name is uncertain but scholars believe it to be derived from geld, the Old English word for gold or money. Today, the exposed sands that form the banks of the River Wey are indeed golden. So, the name Guildford literally means the ford of gold. The High Street was laid out as the central thoroughfare, and it is still there. Eventually, the town became the location of a magnificent and significant castle.

A Norman Legacy

When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they immediately recognised the value of the site and erected a “motte and bailey” on Pewley Hill that overlooked the site of what is now the town. The motte became the site of the castle keep and the bailey or fence was placed around the area that eventually became the castle courtyard. The Normans placed these pre-constructed wooden baileys all over England and Wales, many of them marking sites that were to become major castles, like Windsor Castle and the Tower of London.

Roman Tile Recycled
Roman Tile Recycled

The Castle Keep

I found Pewley Hill wearying to negotiate on the very hot afternoon of my visit. But the effort paid off, with the view from the top making my climb worthwhile. Down below, the River Wey, a narrow waterway that meanders lazily through the shires south of Greater London, shimmered in the sunlight as it threaded through Guildford.

Today, only the Keep remains of the castle, but it is a magnificent structure, built of Bargate stone. Such was Guildford Castle’s importance in the 1300’s, that it was worth the expense in replacing the earlier Keep, built of local chalk. And the chalk Keep had replaced the motte and bailey structure on the site, placed there by the conquering Normans. The structure is mesmerizing, with tiles woven into the brickwork. Several of these tiles have been identified as Roman in origin and in fact, a Roman villa was found on Broad Street Common, just west of the town. So, the builders of the fourteenth-century Keep had enacted a form of ancient recycling.

The Keep Interior

I entered the keep through a very low doorway; had the lintel one half-inch above my head been part of the defence system, I wondered? Possibly so, because the walls of the Keep are at least one and a half metres thick. Inside, it was deliciously cool on that blazing hot day. Visitors pay a very small fee to the man behind the desk, and are free to wander around. Charts on the wall tell the history of the castle, and a scale model of the castle in its heyday is on view in the centre of the area. One chart informs visitors that a mysterious hollowing-out of the Keep wall in one of its corners may have served as a bread oven for inmates. Another information chart explains how the monarch, Edward III, (reign 1327-1377) spent the Christmas of 1347 at the Castle. This would have been a glorious, medieval spectacle, with feasting and music, masques and mummers. Yet, by the end of the 1370’s, Guildford Castle and other minor defence castles around the country, were in ruins. Why?

The Ravaged Population

In exploring why many handsome castles fell into ruins around this time, Guildford included, I took a closer look at history. One theory is that, during the peaceful reign of Edward III, fewer inland defence buildings were required. This makes sense; when Guildford Castle ceased to serve as a garrison, the Keep dungeon became the county gaol and stayed that way until the 1500’s. However, there may be another reason. Between 1347 and 1348, the Black Death ravaged Europe, reducing the known-world population by one and two thirds. This devastating reduction in the number of people vanquished the feudal system forever. No longer could a monarch or minor noble surround himself with lackeys and courtiers that he paid little more than bed and board to carry out trivial and superficial tasks. The devastated population needed to recover and this meant growing crops. The wages of farm labourers soared, and they could now command multiples of what they had formerly earned. Only town life offered nobles the comforts they had previously enjoyed and they left many "country" castles to fall into ruin. The nobles moving to the towns meant increased urban wealth, which gave rise to the new merchant class. Craftsmen, gold and silversmiths, tanners, hosiers and clothiers, formed into Guilds, which were statutory bodies that protected the interests of their members. These Guilds, in turn, raised the status and wealth of the craftsmen.

The Birth of Urban Prosperity

It was ironic that as the importance of the castle diminished, Guildford town grew in size and prosperity. In the 1300’s, the town prospered from the wool trade, and the Guildhall was built where it still stands, on the historic High Street. Eventually, the Angel Hotel, also on the High Street, became a coaching stop on the London to Portsmouth stagecoach route. In 2004, the castle grounds became public gardens, and today, are laid out in beds of gloriously colourful blossoms, around which the public can stroll or just sit alongside and enjoy. Alas, on this hot, bright afternoon, I did not see the ghost of the woman in Victorian dress reputed to appear there occasionally - definitely a place that I would choose to haunt! Nor did I see the ghost reputed to stare out one of the windows of the Angel Hotel. I will return another, darker time – but I did enjoy seeing inside the ancient Keep of Guildford Castle.

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