All roads lead to Guildford
PUBLISHED: 17:35 18 May 2010 | UPDATED: 15:36 20 February 2013
As Surrey's historic county town, Guildford is a bustling shopping and tourist destination at the beating heart of the county. Recent reports have also suggested that the area is one of the most 'recession proof' in the country. MATTHEW WILLIAMS s...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2008
As Surrey's historic county town, Guildford is a bustling shopping and tourist destination at the beating heart of the county. Recent reports have also suggested that the area is one of the most 'recession proof' in the country. MATTHEW WILLIAMS sets out to discover what it is that makes it so special
While the credit crunch may be showing no signs of abating and headlines continue to scream financial ruin, one town has consistently appeared in the more positive stories that have occasionally managed to crowbar their way in among the gloom.
Surrey's historic county town of Guildford has featured prominently in articles relating to everything from quality of life to the country's most recession proof towns this year. In fact, many observers believe that the town, along with much of Surrey, has every reason to remain cautiously optimistic. But what is it that sets Guildford apart?
"With the new civic entertainment venue, the improvements to the Friary and also a new hotel all set to come in the near future, the town has a lot to look forward to," says Pauline Hedges from Surrey Chamber of Commerce. "And, with London 2012 now on the horizon, it is perfectly positioned, sandwiched as it is between two major international airports and so close to the City. There is every chance that Guildford, and indeed the rest of Surrey, can become a hub for visitors jetting in from all over the world.
"The economic system here is almost completely different from anywhere else in the country: it has an eco-system all of its own. With so many multinational headquarters based in the county, there are obviously a lot of people earning high wages. These wages continue to be spent, whether it is on hairdressers, eating out, lawyers or accountants. So the money continues to get filtered down through much of the community even in tricky times."
Another reason that Guildford is still managing to hold its head above water is that alongside the town's cobbled High Street and historic buildings lies a labyrinth of bustling side alleys packed full of independent boutiques, national brands and cafes. Attracting not just the locals, but shoppers from all across the south-east, the town's retail sector is still holding up remarkably well in the current climate. Indeed, a report earlier in the year by market information analyst CACI even claimed that Guildford's catchment area has the second highest number of 'credit crunch resistant' shoppers in the country. This report still appears to be bearing up on the shop floor.
Beating the crunch
"My big retailers in the town all say they are performing above their national averages and footfall is up on this time last year, so we think Guildford is doing well," says Chris Howard, the town centre manager. "Obviously, I have small independent retailers who are struggling but this was a problem before the economic woes of the last few months. Because Guildford has such a beautiful historic High Street, easy access and very competitive parking charges with a great variety of shops and eating establishments, we are always going to be an attractive place to come to shop."
So, while the shops are still soldiering on and the economic climate appears to have its own resilience, what is it that makes Guildford such a special place to the people who live there? Well, who better to speak to than Matthew Alexander, the curator of local history at Guildford Museum, who has been inspiring residents and tourists alike with his talks about the town's history for years?
"Well, where else do you find volunteers heading out on to the streets through rain, wind and hail, suffused with a passionate love of the town in which they live?" he says. "I'm a typical Guildfordian, really, in that I was born somewhere else. It's true, though: Guildford is a town of strangers. Whenever I give my 'history of Guildford' talks to groups, societies, the WI, residents' associations and so on, I say: 'Hands up if you were born in Guildford.'
Inevitably, if it's more than five per cent who raise their hands, I'm surprised. All the rest live in the town but have followed their careers here and that means that there is a really strong mix of skills in the community. It does make me a little sorry for the young people who are born here because when they look to move out of the family home, they find they can't afford to live in Guildford and tend to move away."
A rich heritage
Suitably inspired by Matthew Alexander's knowledge, the Guildford town guides are a collection of volunteers at the nerve centre of promoting the town's heritage. In addition to their historic walking tour - which includes visits to Abbot's Hospital, St Mary's Church and the imposing castle and its beautiful grounds - the volunteers also walk visitors through tours on various other subjects including medieval Guildford and the town's connections with Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll.
"Guildford is a wonderful town with a history dating back around a thousand years and, being so compact, visitors and locals can sample it all," explains joint town guide coordinator, Di Cobbett. "It gives me quite a shiver of excitement as I stand with a group of walkers in places that we know have been used and enjoyed for so many generations. I suppose that this is what encouraged me to become one of the town guides.
"I particularly enjoy looking out from the castle to a landscape where there once was a royal palace. Guildford has so many secrets that are just waiting to be discovered and so many stories of the town's people - perhaps my favourite one is about John Aylward, the famous Guildford clockmaker. He was a London clockmaker and wanted to set up business in Guildford but was prevented from doing so by the then town council. After asking what he could do to change their minds, he designed and built the beautiful clock that has become such an iconic image for the town today."
It's Guildford's people that seem to really make the town tick. And, while its heritage is promoted by the town's elder residents, it is also, of course, a university town, home to University of Surrey and a number of high profile colleges, including the famous Academy for Contemporary Music. This means that in among all the history, there is also a vibrant, young community driving the town forward.
From just a short visit to the area, it is clear that it's home to a pro-active community, with any number of events being promoted at any one time. From sports to theatre, exhibitions to music events, there's definitely a little something for everyone. Diana Roberts, tourism marketing officer, is often to be found at the centre of the town's goings-on and is always impressed by just how much there is to offer.
"I've lived here for 20 years but they say I've got to do another 20 before I'm a local!" says Diana. "There is a hell of a lot going on in Guildford these days. If you're bored round here, then quite frankly you've got no imagination because whatever you are into, there is always something happening. For example, the Guildford Summer Festival grows every year and we see small choirs, concerts and community theatre coming in alongside professional events like GuilFest. It means that a lot of the smaller events can reach a much wider audience. It really is a vibrant town."
With its mix of culture, history and shopping, Guildford remains something of a 'jewel in the crown' of Surrey and it certainly appears that the town's people are in no rush to relinquish their throne just yet. The Guildford Life with Style campaign, a marketing strategy promoting the area, is ongoing with its annual awards and celebration of all that is best about the town. With so much packed into one area, it seems only sensible to pop along and discover your own particular niche.