Compared with the main part of the Downs to the east of it, it is a narrow elongated ridge, hence its name.
This shows that it was known as the Hog's Back by Jane Austen's time. However, the medieval name for the ridge was Guildown (recorded first in 1035 where it was the site of the abduction of Prince Alfred of Wessex by Earl Godwin and then in the Pipe Rolls for 1190 and onwards) but this name is no longer in use. However, the name Guildown is evoked by Guildown Road, a residential road which climbs the southern side of the ridge on the southwestern fringes of Guildford.
The Guild- element of Guildown is the same as that found in Guildford, meaning "gold". Various explanations have been suggested for the relationship between the names of Guildown and Guildford. Guildown may be an abbreviation of Guildford Down ("the Down by Guildford"). Guildford is the point where the River Wey cuts through the Hog's Back. Alternatively, both Guildown and Guildford may derive independently from a gold-coloured feature; either the yellow flowers of the marsh marigold or the gold-coloured (sandy) soil of the hillside, Guildford translates literally as gold ford after the river golden coloured sandy soil at the Ford in the River Wey. .
The Hog's Back is raised quite dramatically over the surrounding countryside, reaching a height of 154 metres (505 feet) above sea level, and therefore offers exceptional views, although they are difficult to see from the busy road which runs along the Hog's Back (the A31). The view to the north includes many towns and villages, including Ash and Aldershot, but on a clear day the north facing views extend to London, as far as Canary Wharf, Tower 42, The Gherkin, Wembley Arch and Heathrow Airport. The view to the south is unspoilt and has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty as well as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. These views extend to Hindhead and the Devil's Punchbowl.
The road along the Hog's Back is ancient, since its raised position offered travellers a vantage point and also kept them above the thick ancient woodland of the valleys on either side. It was part of the ancient ridgeway which runs from Wiltshire down to the east coast of Kent.
It was also part of the road from London to Winchester (as it still is). Although there is no archaeological evidence in support, it has been suggested that a Roman road ran from London to Winchester and that, at this point, it passed, either over the Hog's Back or perhaps a little to the north (e.g. Roman Surrey, David Bird, 2004).
What is now designated the A31 along the Hog's Back originally formed part of a road leading directly from Winchester into Guildford High Street and from there into London. However, the reorganisation of central Guildford into a roundabout road system centred on the Friary Centre (named after the medieval Dominican Friary there) has broken up this direct road at the point that it reaches Guildford.
When the idea of the Pilgrims' Way to Canterbury was popularised in the nineteenth century, a route over the southern slopes of the Hog's back, parallel with the ridgeway and running through Seale and Puttenham, was incorporated in its course. In order to avoid the A31, however, the Pilgrims' Way does not run along the top of the Hog's Back.
The Hog's Back stretch of the A31 is now a dual carriageway, but the two directions of the road are separated by a central area of trees, some of them very old. The original road ran along the stretch now occupied by the lanes running from Guildford to Farnham, i.e. from east to west. The other two lanes, running from west to east, which are a little below the high point occupied by the original carriageways, were added in the early 1970s.
On the south side of the Hog's Back, a little to the east of Poyle Hill, another large mansion was built in 1873 called Great Down, attributed to Robert Kerr. This was demolished in about 1950, but the parkland and other associated buildings, such as a lodge and stables, remain.
The Hog's Back Cafe is in a layby on the Guildford to Farnham (west travelling) carriageway of the A31 along the Hog's Back, between the turn offs to Puttenham and Seale. It is popular with lorry drivers, who use the cafe and toilets during the day, and with others who enjoy the woods behind the layby after dark.