Medieval Undercroft in Guildford High Street

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Not so much art this time, but architecture. I do say in my profile too, that I am a history freak.

Together with other volunteers, my wife and I take turns to open this gem to the public on certain hours throughout the season. It is one of those local treasures that even local people are largely unaware of. I use the words gem and treasures without wishing to sound melodramatic as English Heritage tell us that this undercroft is one of the best preserved in the country

It is in fact a c13 shop, probably selling wine. That is an assumption but a safe one. We have records of wine merchants in the High Street during the c13 but we cannot make a direct link to this building . But that is what informed opinion believes.

The wine would have come from Gascony in SW France, which was English then, hence the trade connection. Wine would have come through Southampton and then by bullock cart overland to towns like Guildford

Guildford was wealthy in the c13. Wealth was derived from the wool trade and especially the trade in woollen cloth, the Guildford Blue for which the town was well known. The population of Guildford was probably less than 1000 in those days, and most would have been employed either directly or indirectly from the wool trade. Guildford controlled every aspect of manufacture. Sheep were raised on the Downs by the monks at Waverley. Weaving, fulling, dyeing, spinning, carding all were done locally

The processes are remembered in local place names. Racks Close was where the cloth was hung out to dry on “tenterhooks” after dyeing. Unscrupulous traders would stretch the damp cloth and make another metre or two. There are records in the Guildhall of such merchants being brought to book and fined. Finally a lead seal of approval was to be affixed to every roll of cloth that left the town to ensure that standards had been met.

Most went to export, especially to Antwerp which was the staple market, and from there across the then world, Europe and the Near East. The word staple is interesting. From the French word “etaple” meaning “main”. The main market or one of them. That is clear. So that buyers could see what they were buying, a small sample of wool was fixed to the label with a metal pin. The metal pin came to be known as a staple.

To come back to the undercroft, the reason that we are so proud of ours is that it was never restored in any way. What we look at is pure c13. The building is of chalk blocks or clunch which is the hard chalk dug deep from the earth. Guildford is on chalk. It was the only building material at the time. The stones are cut with a precision only possible from a master mason. Expensive to employ so the owner was indubitably a wealthy man. Another pointer to the merchant being a dealer in expensive goods.

To this day the c13 vaults take the weight of buildings above

On Saturday from 12 until 2 we had nearly 40 visitors, mostly shoppers who were passing and had never seen us before. Always their jaw drops as they come in, and they are fascinated with the story. Considering we were competing with the tennis, we didn’t think that was bad

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3 thoughts on “Medieval Undercroft in Guildford High Street

  1. I liked the part about how wools were made, starting from the dying to drying and stretching. It’s not Antwerp in Belgium? Then I guess the local wool was an international product at that time. Also I am curious about the chalk building and the Mason who presumably cut all those blocks. How long can a chalk building survive? Are they more durable than stones? Pardon me if the question sounds a bit childish.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, all good questions. Yes, Antwerp in Belgium or Flanders as it was then, and an important international market.. We sent raw wool and finished cloth to market there, where it was distributed across Europe and the Near East.
      Sorry I have to break oof

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      • Sorry back again
        To answer the second part of your question, chalk or clunch which is the hard chalk found deeper under the surface, was used widely as building material in the c13. Masons were restricted to local geology for their building stone, and in our local area the geology is chalk. Brickmaking technology disappeared with the Romans when they left Britain in 410 AD (or should I say CE nowadays), and did not reappear until the c15, so a gap of about 1000 years.
        Chalk buildings have lasted until now. Chalk is soft so doesn’t weather all that well, but for interior work such as the undercroft it is fine. generally used in churches and castles so for it to be used in a shop, this is quite unusual, which makes our undercroft such a showpiece
        I hope that helps you

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