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© Marcus Roberts (1995 and 2005)

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Guildford Castle and its chapel - Quarry Street
The Remains of the Synagogue - High Street

1. Guildford Castle and its chapel - Quarry Street

On leaving Dillons and turning left down the High Street, the end of Quarry Street, to the left, is soon reached. On walking down the street, the rear entrance doors to the synagogue site is reached on the left. These mark one end of the L shaped site on which the synagogue was built.

Further down the street, past the local museum, is the entrance to the castle grounds. The keep of the castle can be seen clearly on entering the gardens on top of a steep mound.

The interior of the keep can be visited, and the chapel chamber on which the speculated synagogue is based, is in the corner of the keep to the right of the entrance. This chamber is gated and may be locked. However, the interior can be seen through the gate.

Access to the castle and further information about the synagogue site can be obtained from the museum.

2. The Remains of the Synagogue - High Street

Dillons is situated at 50-54 High Street, at the lower end of the street opposite Marks and Spencer.

The chamber is under no.50 and is clearly marked in the right-hand side of the store, back from the frontage, with an imaginative, near full size, panoramic floor photograph which shows the chamber as if you were looking down into it through a glass floor. No.54 is the left-hand side of the store. If this sounds confusing, no.52 used to be the living quarters and later the offices that spanned the upper floors of 52-4.

During the excavations, it was discovered that no.54 was concealing the remains of Guildford's "House of Correction" or prison.

On the stairs to the first floor there is a large colour panoramic photograph giving a rolling view of the interior walls of the chamber, showing all the interior details. The shop has full displays of finds and the interpretation of the site both upstairs and downstairs. There are a number of 12th-13th century finds of 'high status' pottery, as well as some more humble ware, that may have been used by any Jews if they had lived there. This is all well worth visiting in its own right.

For those undertaking a more detailed look at the remains or photographs, the following can be observed. The building is a small, almost exactly square, stone built chamber (approx. 2.58m x 2.60m), whose original floor level is at medieval basement level. The chamber has remains of two doorway entries and exits. The doorway in the south wall - no longer extant but represented by the surviving flight of stone steps leading down into the chamber - almost certainly represents the original entry to the chamber from ground level. The second very substantial doorway, which survives in the north wall, led via steps (which are no longer extant) to a lower cellar level. This adjacent lower level was probably contemporary and used in conjunction with the original chamber.

The doorways are asymmetrically opposed to each other. The north doorway is located in the north west corner of the building. However, the south doorway is located to the east of the centerline of the north-south axis of the building, though the extreme corners of the doors are opposite each other.

The main entrance and stairs in the south wall of the building may well predate the rest of the chamber as the rest of the room is clearly constructed around and to accommodate the stair blocks of the entry. It may be observed that the stone bench on the east side is suddenly angled slightly upwards to meet the bottom step of the entry flight of stairs. This angle is initiated underneath the south column on the east side, the discontinuity being betrayed by a mortar wedge between the base of the column and the top of the bench which it rests on. Full excavation suggests it followed a sloping medieval ground level.

Inside the chamber itself, the most striking features are a series of stone benches sited in niches let into the thickness of the wall (sedilia). The most striking of these are in the east and west walls, the niches being defined and divided by the remnants of four decorated columns, shaped from outer surfaces of the masonry blocks dividing the niches. Each of the columns are different in their design and decoration. Sedilias, in the Christian context, provided high-status seating and denoted a meeting room of some sort, such as a chapter house. The sedilia seats, with the columns, would also have been places of honour.

The niches in the north and south walls are without this ornamentation, and the bench in the eastern half of the south wall comprises of the lower step of the stairs which has been extended into the corner. Here, there is no recess as such, though the wall has been sloped back a little to give more space.

The room has been constructed of chalk masonry blocks with rubble infill. The infill was originally covered with plaster. The room was also richly decorated with abstract and geometrical wall designs. The five pigments used include indigo, a very rare and valuable colouring agent in the period. The designs appear to terminate around a square of colour in the north west corner, an area of blue-green background, framed by a black lined surround which suggested it may be unfinished as compared to the rest of the chamber. It is interesting to note that, from the 4th century, draped curtain always represented the Aron Kodesh, in both Jewish and Christian iconography.

There is evidence that the floor was tiled and there was perhaps a wooden surface too. Also, the soil analysis showed that the floor was probably covered with rush material.

In reconstruction, the building is thought to have been carried above a single chamber to well above the original ground level, terminating in a rough stone and mortar barrel vault. The whole would have been lofty when seen from the interior, but would probably have been a relatively small and inconspicuous building when seen from the outside. The upper walls and vault would have been partly supported on Romanesque arches springing from the capitals on the internal columns and from points on the corner members. It is thought that there would have been small windows perhaps set into the upper section of the walls between the top of the niches and the bottom of the barrel vaulting. The original doors, both external and internal, were evidently very substantial and lockable. This would have been a very secure building.

The lower doorway in the west wall would have led down to a lower level. What it lead down to has yet to be determined but the ashlar work surviving from the exterior suggests a small adjoining chamber. Pottery observed under the present concrete floor indicates the adjoining room was contemporary and therefore was part of the function of the main chamber.

On the top surviving ashlar block of the lower doorway is a cluster of four deeply drilled holes, forming part of the eastern side around the doorway to the lower level of the building. This could have been for a permanent lighting fixture. The synagogue at Rouen has a series of similarly dimensioned holes at the same level on one of the interior walls. This was interpreted as fixtures for a series of lights making up a wall-mounted chanukiah. Medieval manuscript drawings of German synagogues generally show them with long trays or troughs fixed to the walls at about shoulder height for supporting and containing large numbers of candles. Another source from medieval Spain relates that the synagogues there were habitually lit with hundreds of candles. On the eastern, mid-recess, there are remnants of scorch marks from a lamp, which has been suggested as the ner tamid (eternal light) by the ark, which could have filled the middle recess.

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