Guildford is first named in the Domesday Book, a late-11th century public record, as a holding of William the Conqueror, who built the Norman castle that still stands in the town centre. The town also crops up in Arthurian legend, and is mentioned in Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th-century story, Le Morte d’Arthur. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, spent much of his later life in The Chestnuts, a grade II-listed house on Castle Hill. In 1996, Guildford made international headlines when archaeologists excavating a shop basement unearthed what is thought to be a medieval synagogue, one of the oldest in western Europe.
Even though it is nestled between the North Downs and the Surrey Hills, which has been designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, Guildford is only a 35-minute commute to London Waterloo. Plenty of walking and cycling routes run directly from the town into the countryside. Loseley Park, a nearby stately home built in 1562, has beautifully maintained gardens and makes its own Loseley Dairy ice-cream.
Schools with top honours
Schools in and near the town consistently appear near the top of national league tables. Guildford High School was ranked second in the Sunday Times’ list of leading independent secondary schools in 2015. The Royal Grammar School and Tormead are also renowned secondary schools. For younger students, Guildford High Junior School was named best for academic results in The Week news magazine’s 2016 feature on the best prep schools in the UK, while Lanesborough preparatory school provides a first-class education for boys aged four to 13.
Guildford’s High Street consists of about 60,000 granite paving stones, all of which were relaid this year during a £1m restoration project. The town’s 300-year-old clock presides over an array of modern chain stores and boutiques. Enthusiasts of locally sourced products are spoilt for choice: besides the monthly farmers’ market that takes place in the High Street, North Street, which runs parallel to the High Street, features stalls selling fresh produce on Fridays and Saturdays.
Guildford has a lively community with a tradition of being active in town life. The hilltop Guildford Cathedral was built through a buy-a-brick fundraising campaign to which more than 200,000 people contributed in the 1950s. As well as holding regular services, “the people’s cathedral” has a local choir, runs a music outreach programme and has an artist in residence who runs creative workshops.
Photographs: Getty; Dreamstime; Julian Andrews (Guildford High School); Alamy