15 February 2015
Typically, once I left the river on Sunday, the sky began to brighten a little. Isn’t it always the way? After a quick stop to replenish my tissue supplies I made my way up towards the centre of town and, on a whim, decided to cut through the back of the abandoned Bargate Centre to see what, if anything, was happening to the hidden stretch of medieval wall there.
It has always seemed a pity to me that this piece of wall is so tucked away behind the shops of Hanover Buildings that hardly anyone ever sees it. Worse still, the big skips at the back of the businesses are allowed to spill over leaving litter to tumble down the narrow alleyway adding to the general air of decay permeating this place. It hasn’t always been this way. When King John ordered the defensive walls to be built in 1202, the North Wall was the first to be built. At the time work began, in around 1260, the only defences were the Bargate, Eastgate and an earthen rampart beside a ditch. Over a period of thirty years the wall, Polymond Tower and the two D shaped interval towers were built, linking the two gates. There was a high walkway where guards could patrol, similar to the one running from Arundel Tower to the Arcades. It must have made an impressive entrance to the town.
Behind the wall here lived the tradesmen and women of the town. This would have been a busy, area, probably as rubbish filled as it is today, at least behind the wall, although it would have been a very different kind of rubbish. When the Bargate Centre was being built, archeologists uncovered iron slag, off cuts of leather, badly fired and broken pots, the detritus from these industries. This was where the smiths, potters, masons and carpenters lived. Along with the bakers, brewers, butchers, fishmongers and barbers this would have made it a smelly, noisy place.
Polymond Tower marks the north east corner of the walls but the original was far taller and grander than the tower that remains today. At one time it was called St Deny’s tower after the St Denys Priory, which was charged with maintaining the building. In the late fourteenth century, during the reign of Richard II, the tower was remodleled and named after John Polymond, the burgess and merchant who was in charge of the improvements to the town defences at the time. A 1794 painting by Edward Dayes gives an idea of just how grand it was, three stories high with glazed windows and a parapet.
Sadly, it didn’t remain this way. It fell into disrepair and, in the early 1800’s the top stories were demolished. It was then rebuilt to two stories, a conical roof was added and it was used as a house. If you look closely at the brickwork you can see where the old meets the new. The window openings and the arched doorway were part of the rebuild as was the fireplace opposite the door, which covered an existing doorway into the tower. Unfortunately, the iron gate is firmly padlocked so there was no chance to go inside.
A little further along the wall there’s another, much older, gate. Possibly this is part of the original build or the fourteenth century remodelling. This too is locked but there are tempting views of a grassy garden within and I wish I knew who has the key. There is another low opening in the wall further along that has been bricked up, quite what this was I’m not sure, maybe there were cellars here and this was a window to them. About a third of the way along there is an opening. Once this led into the back of the Bargate Centre but the big glass doors where teenagers always seemed to hang out are now boarded up.
Long before the Bargate Centre was built this was another arched gate to the city. Cut into the wall in 1769, it was supposed to link Hannover Buildings with the newly built York Buildings behind the wall and East Street beyond that. Not content with cutting an arch in the medieval walls, in 1961, the top of the gate was removed, supposedly to aid traffic flow. York Buildings became a grade II listed building in 1981 but, despite this, it was demolished to make way for the Bargate Centre which is now, in turn, soon to be demolished. Confused? Me too.
There is another decorative iron gate to the side of this opening but this too is locked. In the eighteenth century this was a pretty garden but the small strip of grass that remains seemed to be accessible only to people working in the Bargate centre, at least until recently. On my Silver Helm lunch time walks I often came this way and peeked inside to see a chained up pushbike or, occasionally, someone having a crafty cigarette at the back of the shops. On Sunday, when I poked my phone through to take a picture it all seemed sad and abandoned with just a very weathered bench and a pigeon poking it’s head from a hole beside the gate. Whatever they build in place of the short lived Bargate Centre, I’d like to think they will make this area accessible to the people of the city again. Of course, I won’t be holding my breath.
Past the gate and the two interval towers there are steps leading up towards the Bargate through a gap in the shops. Once upon a time the wall continued through this gap and joined up to the Bargate itself. Back in 1836, when the only way from Above Bar to the High Street was through the Bargate Arch, the powers that be wanted to demolish the Bargate itself to accommodate increasing traffic. Thankfully, despite the proposal rearing its head again in 1914 and 1923, someone somewhere saw sense and the beautiful symbol of the city was reprieved. In the end, in 1930, the walls on either side were demolished instead. The lesser of two evils, this cut the monument off from the walls. Ironically, with the advent of the Above Bar precinct, traffic no longer passes through these gaps so the walls could have been left exactly as they were. Personally, I wish they had been.
For a while I stood at the top of the steps looking at the Bargate and the ragged scar where the walls once were. It occurred to me that the people who were supposed to be protecting our heritage were the very ones who have done the most to destroy it. We are lucky to have these historic medieval walls, some of the best preserved in England, but we would have so much more of them if it wasn’t for the powners that be over the years tearing them down in the name of progress.
Thinking about it made me cross so I picked up a takeaway coffee and went up to the enchanted park to drink it and calm down. As always the park did the trick, everything seemed to be on the brink of bursting with life. In fact the hamamelis has already burst, beautiful fluttering yellow strap like petals that remind me of party streamers, smotherIng the whole tree. There really is nothing like a little sit in the park with a coffee to make everything feel better.