Guildford has been shaped by its position at a cross-roads of important routes and by its proximity to London, 33 miles to the north-east. It is situated in a gap in the North Downs where the River Wey cuts through the hills. Since prehistoric times the downs have provided an easy east-west route above the wooded Weald of Surrey and Sussex. William the Conqueror used this route following his victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Guildford was one of the largest towns he discovered on his route and he established a royal castle here.
Later Kings passed through Guildford on their journey between London and Winchester. Henry III built a palace at Guildford and was a frequent visitor. Guildford became a centre of the woollen industry in the middle ages and trade increased with the creation of the Wey Navigation in the seventeenth century.
The town’s strategic position was enhanced as Portsmouth became more important from the late 1300s. Guildford became the stopping point for travellers between London and the south coast. Several major inns appeared in the High Street of which the Angel is the only survivor. Later on the railway companies and road builders would follow the same route.
The arrival of the railway transformed Guildford and turned it into a commuter town for people working in London. At the same time artists and writers settled in the surrounding villages enjoying the rural atmosphere. But the two soon came into conflict as Guildford started to grow. Fortunately, the Borough Council, generous benefactors, and the creation of the Green Belt saved large areas of countryside close to the town. At the same time groups like the Guildford Society prevented the demolition of some of the most historic parts of the town. As a result Guildford retains the feel of a small town rather than an expanding city.
Although much of the character of the town has been preserved it is hard to see how the planning decisions made since the Second World War have benefitted the town. Acting as a funnel for traffic travelling through the downs, Guildford has a major traffic problem. Attempts to remedy this have been incomplete and unsatisfactory. Plans to develop North Street have been debated for decades and fallen victim to the ebb and flow of the national economy resulting in an area that is a crumbling wasteland.
Today the challenges seem to be increasing. The unquestionable need to build housing puts pressure on the Green Belt and the town centre. Attempts to solve the traffic problems have been thwarted by a new station that will block the best route. Developers who put profit before social conscience or town planning are an added problem. And yet Guildford is still an attractive town benefitting from a vibrant university, major businesses and some inspiring hi tech firms. Heritage is a continual compromise keeping the best of the past and seizing the opportunities of the future. Guildford has managed to navigate a path between both and it is up to all of us to ensure that continues.