Having made sense of my notes and with the reviving benefit of double shot espresso, let’s cross the High Street and head for Guildford Castle. The Great Tower looms over the landscape, affording great views of the town from the top. Restored in 2003/4 visitors can see a model of the castle as it would have been in the 1300’s and buy souvenirs from the modest gift shop.
Although there is no documentary evidence, it’s almost certain that the castle was built soon after the Norman Conquest of 1066. At that time Guildford was one of only two towns in Surrey (the other was Southwark – long since swallowed up by the sprawl of South London). Holding a strategic place on the route between the capital and the south coast, and being on a hill, Guildford was an obvious place to build a castle. Built from local Bargate stone, the walls retain the honeyed tone that graces many of our local buildings.
By the thirteenth century, the castle had been taken over by Henry III, from whence it was referred to as a palace. He made alterations and improvements which included a set of rooms for his son, Edward I and new daughter-in-law Eleanor of Castile, as well as more accommodation for his own queen’s knights.
You can read more about the history of the castle here.
Opposite the castle grounds, high up on the wall of the small modern shopping mall known as Tunsgate, is this sundial by local artist, the late Ann Garland, showing Edward and Eleanor. As I have a bit of a penchant for sundials I’m pleased to be able to include this one here.
Before we move on I think the castle grounds deserve a special mention – they are maintained by the Borough Council and are kept in immaculate condition, supplying an ever changing variety of flowers through the seasons. This picture shows parts of the old wall, near Castle Arch.
Being so close to the busy town centre it’s a good place to come for some peace and quiet, with a good book and a picnic lunch but we don’t have time for that now – come on, I’ve a riddle for you.
I wasn’t going to single out any of Guildford’s many quirky little shops – I wouldn’t know where to start – however this one might give you a clue to the identity of a famous author with connections to the town.
Is the name on the tip of your tongue? Perhaps this little statue will help. Created by local sculptor Edwin Russell and cast in bronze, this sculpture of Alice and the White Rabbit was unveiled in 1984. It is situated on the banks of the river Wey, between the theatre and the auction house.
Although Lewis Carroll never lived in Guildford, as head of the family after his father died, he was made liable for the wellbeing of his six unmarried sisters so he purchased a house here and made frequent visits.
(I wonder if this weight of responsibility was the reason for his alleged dabbling with opium? Just a thought … ).
Right – that just about wraps up the town centre for now but there’s somewhere else I want to show you. We’ll have to jump in the car – it’s not far, it’s not old but it’s on the way home. Can you guess where we are going?
Guildford Cathedral is some way out of the centre. Sitting majestically on top of Stag Hill next to the main London to Portsmouth road link it can be seen on the skyline from miles around and the closer we get, the more formidable the building becomes.
If you are a fan of horror films it may even look familiar because, against better judgement at the time, it was used as the location in The Omen where the possessed Damian throws a tantrum and refuses to go to church. You can watch the original clip here. Unsurprisingly, this connection has had a negative backlash over the years, which is a shame as Guildford Cathedral is actually a beautiful place with some interesting recent history.
The diocese of Guildford was created in 1927 when it split from the auspices of Winchester. A competition for the design of a new cathedral was announced and won by one Edward Maufe (who would later be knighted and become a Royal Academician). The Stag Hill site was donated by the Earl of Onslow and building began in 1936. With the outbreak of war in 1939, work on the cathedral had to stop. The structure, only partly roofed, was boarded up.
After the war, building permits were only given for housing needs: work on the cathedral would not be resumed until 1952. However, the original budget of £250,000 was by then completely inadequate so a massive fund raising drive was put into action. People were invited to ‘buy a brick’ to help finish their cathedral. Over 200,000 members of the public purchased a brick for half a crown (12½p), work continued and Guildford Cathedral was finally consecrated in 1961 by the Bishop of Guildford, in the presence of the Queen.
Inside, the cathedral is light and uncluttered. On the day I visited, it couldn’t really be called peaceful as there were builders in repairing damage to the roof on the southern side, sustained in the recent storms, but as in all places of worship, there was that unerring air of calm.
As I walked down the Nave towards the altar I was struck by the assortment of kneelers and discovered later that there are 1400 of them, all different. This one caught my eye – rather appropriate, considering.
The Cathedral plays host to ever changing art exhibitions. On the wall here below the organ pipes are two paintings by the artist Chris Gollon, from his series ‘Incarnation, Mary and Women from the Bible.’
Through those three arch ways is the Chapel of the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment (I love how the light is flooding in here), while behind me is the Children’s Chapel – one of very few in the country and where this little cross hangs, as if floating in mid air, in a small lighted alcove.
So there’s a glimpse of Guildford Cathedral for you. At this point, I’m sorry to say that I have some technical problems with my camera. (I shall call it Damian from now on). There’s still the Lady Chapel (used for every day worship), the Baptistry and the High Altar to see, so if you’d like to have a look, click here to go to their website where a virtual tour is available.
As I drive home, there’s one thing bothering me about my Guildford visit. (Apart from Damian). Guildford is the county town of Surrey; it has a cathedral, Surrey University and the new Surrey Sport’s Park where some of our athletes trained for London 2012. It has culture, history and a diverse business centre.
Why then, is Guildford not a city? Once home, after a bit of rummaging I find out that to be a city a royal charter must be granted and for some reason, despite its historical royal connections, Guildford has never had this honour bestowed. Apparently the Borough Council have applied several times without success and the current thinking is – do we really need the label anyway?
Probably not – the town seems to rub along quite nicely without it thank you very much – and how much difference would it actually make? While we all ponder that one, I’m off to make that very British of institutions – a cup of tea.
Where shall we go to next?