The original Saxon settlement was probably along Quarry Street. A planned town was laid out in the 10th century along what is now the High Street. A bank and ditch enclosed land on either side of the street and continued over the river to include the ford within the defences. The land along the street was divided into narrow strips, allowing a house or shop to be built on the street. Typically, a passage would have run from the street to the ditch, along one boundary of the plot. These passages were known locally as “gates” and those that belonged to inns or taverns became public thoroughfares. Many survive today. Angel Gate is perhaps the best preserved along with Swan lane and Tunsgate. Milkhouse Gate is an example of a domestic gate.
The Normans built the Castle, shortly after 1066. The stone Keep was started in 1130, built of Bargate stone from Godalming. By the 14th century the castle was no longer needed and fell into disrepair.
George Abbot was the most significant Guildfordian in British History. Born in 1562, son of a clothworker, he was given a free education at the Royal Grammar School, became Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford and then Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1619 he began building his Hospital at the top of the High Street. The massive gatehouse with its ogee-domed turrets is one of Britain’s finest gatehouses.
The Guildhall is Elizabethan. In 1683 it was refurbished with the insertion of a Council chamber on the first floor with a balcony over the street and a bell turret above. The clock, which projects over the High Street, is perhaps the most photographed scene in Guildford.
When Henry Peak arrived in 1851, a building boom was in full swing following the coming of the railway. This changed the character of the town centre. Many new shops were added in the High Street, North Street was developed and a new bridge built over the river. The cattle market was moved from the High Street to the North Street in 1865, and then to Woodbridge Road thirty years later.
The towns housing also began to grow, with the first mixed development of villas and artisan dwellings at Charlotteville in 1860. The Royal Grammar School was founded in 1509 as a free grammar school. It became a day school for boys in 1888 followed by the High School for Girls in 1893.
In 1896 the old Guildford Society was founded, the first conservation group.
Development, largely of housing, continued in Edwardian times. John Dennis built the Rodborough Buildings to manufacture motorcars in the town centre. In 1913 he moved to a larger factory at Woodbridge, famous for the Dennis Fire Engine. The old smithy in upper High Street survived until 1906 by which time the Inns were beginning to cater for the car. The White Lion (80 rooms and stabling for 60 horses) provided a motor garage and inspection pit by 1905 and extensive bicycle storage. Road improvements began in earnest. The old hospital was built in Farnham Road. Warwicks Bench was laid out for prestigious housing in the Arts & Crafts style. The first council housing was built in Charlotteville.
The war memorial for the First World War was put up in the Castle Grounds in 1921, beside the ancient bowling green. Returning ex-servicemen brought a new demand for housing leading to the development of Westborough by the council and Onslow Village by a housing association.
A number of new civic buildings were put up including a police station, council offices for the borough and for Hambledon RDC. The Lido was opened in 1933, The Odeon cinema in 1935 and the foundation stone for Guildford Cathedral was laid in 1936.
Road widening became a priority and the first bypass was built.
Immediately after the Second War there was again a big demand for housing. Prefabs were built in Westborough and the Stoke Hill House Estate was purchased in 1944 and developed with houses and shops into Bellfields.
A new road was cut through to bypass the narrow, largely Georgian, Quarry Street, and a third river bridge built to improve traffic circulation.
In 1958 Jellicoe designed an attractive roof garden for the Harveys (now House of Fraser) department store. Debenhams was built on the riverside site of the old iron foundry with the Yvonne Arnaud theatre (1964) on an island just upstream. In1966 the Cathedral was finally consecrated and in the same year the University of Surrey was granted its Royal Charter.
During the 1960s development of the town centre took off with civic and commercial buildings and Woodbridge Road and York Road were widened.
The cattle market moved out to Slyfield Green to make room for a new police station, law courts, offices and a multi-storey car park. In all five multi-storey car parks were built. The Friary centre was built on the large brewery site together with offices and flats. Two smaller shopping precincts were added to the High Street, Tunsgate and White Lion Walk. New housing developments sprang up in Merrow and Burpham and many blocks of flats and terraced housing appeared among the older housing nearer the centre.
Most recently, the House of Fraser has been enlarged and completely refurbished and public access to the roof garden restored. While major developments are underway at the University and associated Science Park. The Royal Surrey County Hospital, with several new departments added over the years, provides some of the professors for the new Postgraduate Medical School.
The Angel in Guildford High Street is the only surviving coaching inn, with a medieval crypt beneath. The only local brewery is now outside the town on the Hogs Back. The original layout of the town remains, with the main street and the narrow “gates”. Abbot’s Hospital and the Guildhall with its great clock, still grace the High Street.
Monthly farmers markets in the High Street and weekend market stalls in North Street are a vestige of the towns historic status. Some relics of the quays and warehouses of the old Wey navigation remain, both near the centre and down river, at Dapdune Wharf where barges used to be built. These are preserved, along with the best of the ancient buildings.
The fact that so much has been saved is largely due to the energy and enthusiasm of Guildfordians.