The medieval Undercroft on Guildford High Street is one of the finest examples of this type of building in the country.
Dating from the end of the 13th century, this stone vaulted semi-basement is thought to have been a merchant's shop,selling wine or expensive cloths or silk.
Undercrofts like this are a feature of towns engaged in the import and export trade, and the merchant who built this Undercroft must have expected to deal with prosperous clients who sought luxury goods.
There are traces of perhaps half a dozen Undercrofts in Guildford at the time that this one was built. They were very expensive and only a rich merchant could afford the masonry work, indicating that Guildford was very wealthy throughout the middle ages.
The Undercroft can be found on the High Street opposite The Angel Hotel at semi-basement level.
- May to September - 2pm to 4pm
- October to April - Closed
- May to September - 12pm to 4pm
- October to April - Closed
Access to the Undercroft is down a narrow flight of stone steps to the entrance, then further steps down within the historic interior.
Please do contact Guildford Museum staff in advance of your visit so we can assist you. An induction loop is available at the information desks.
The Undercroft is cared for by Guildford Museum. For more information please contact Guildford Museum using the details on the right of the page.
History of the Undercroft
Measuring some thirty feet by nineteen, the Undercroft has a rib-vaulted ceiling supported by two central columns. The corbels - the brackets where the arches spring from the walls - are carved in the shape of grotesque faces. By the stair, for example, is one carved in the shape of the head of a woman wearing the folded headcloth, or wimple, in the style fashionable in the late 1200s.
The ceiling is above street level giving room for a doorway and steps down from the street. The doorway is on the downhill side to gain the maximum headroom. On the uphill side was a low window which afforded a little daylight. Near the far corner in the uphill wall is a narrow doorway which once led to a spiral stair to the house above. The house would have been timber framed and nothing of this has survived.
Undercrofts like these were mostly built in the 1200s and the early 1300s. They were used as shops: the extensive stonework and the carvings were intended for display and not merely as an embellishment to a cellar or storeroom. The undercroft arrangement meant that a short flight of steps up from the street could lead to another shop thus effectively doubling the street frontage.
The merchant who lived in the house above, might have used the undercroft himself or possibly sublet it as a separate shop, as is known to have happened in London and elsewhere.
There is another very similar undercroft beneath the Angel Hotel across the High Street in Guildford. This is rather misleadingly called 'The Crypt', for true crypts are only found under churches. There is no truth in the popular tale that a secret tunnel links the two undercrofts. In fact, there are traces of perhaps as many as half a dozen undercrofts that once existed along the High Street, a testimony to the great wealth of Guildford in the Middle Ages. Only a rich merchant could afford such expensive masonry work.
Throughout England, undercrofts are associated with towns that were engaged with profitable import and export trade, such as Chester, Winchester and Southampton.
In Guildford the major industry during the Middle Ages was the export of a coarse blue cloth called kersey to all parts of Europe. There is nothing which positively links the Guildford undercroft with the wool trade. On the other hand it is likely that there was some connection, either directly with cloth dealing or indirectly with the import of luxury goods, like wine, attracted by the cloth dealer's wealth.
Since the Middle Ages, the Undercroft has been used simply for storage and for much of the present century has stood empty. In 1989, work was carried out to open the long-blocked street entrance and refurbish the interior for use as an Information Centre for visitors to the town. This was achieved with very little alteration to the medieval structure.
The Tourist Information Centre has since relocated but the Undercroft continues to open to visitors two days a week between May to September.
The Undercroft is cared for by Guildford Museum. For more information about the Undercroft please contact Guildford Museum using the details on the right of the page.
We will be celebrating Heritage Open Days at sites around the borough on 13, 14, 15 September.
For more information, see our Heritage Open Days page.