25 November 2017
Today there was a cold and frosty start as we crunched our way across a frozen Common to parkrun. The sparkling grass and the flaming trees under a brilliant blue sky were all very pretty but I don’t mind admitting my teeth were chattering as I waited around for the run to start. The blue sky was a definite bonus for the adventure I had planned later in the morning though.
My feet left prints on the frozen grass as I walked up and down trying to keep warm. As soon as the runners set off I marched off to the Old Cemetery. This was more about keeping moving than anything. These forays into the cemetery are short and sweet on parkrun days but I’m slowly working my way around the graves searching for stories where I can find them. Today I did take a photo or two of frosty gravestones. Perhaps I’ll share them with you another time. At the time my mind was more concerned about what was to come than the present moment.
A little while ago a lady from the Tour Guides Association contacted me to ask permission to use something I’d written. Of course I said yes and, by way of reward, she offered me a free tour. One of the ones on offer was especially interesting as it was a place I’d never been inside before, although I knew it well. CJ was invited too so, straight after parkrun, I picked him up and headed into town. In our excitement, we were a little early so we went for a wander along the Back of the Walls as a kind of prelude to the main event.
Until the 1950’s, Back of the Walls was a long street running from East Street to God’s House Tower. Excavations during the post war replanning of the town showed there were high earth banks along the length of the eastern wall. These banks were the original eastern town defences and later reinforced the stone wall. These days the old street is fractured and hard to follow and much of the medieval wall has disappeared.
Parts of the eastern wall survive but the old town ditch, that ran outside the wall and was repurposed in the nineteenth century as a canal, has disappeared under the modern apartments of Lower Canal Walk. These new buildings and a large office block on the inside of the wall seem to crowd in, creating a narrow passageway. The offices are called Friary Gate, a reminder of the Franciscan Friary of Southampton, founded in around 1233, which once stood on the spot. The Friary was dissolved in 1538 and the last remnants disappeared in the 1940’s. Until the 1990’s, when Briton Street was extended, we could have walked along the lane leading to the Friary Chapel. It was called Sugarhouse Lane after the sugar warehouse that once stood here. The warehouse was a casualty of the blitz and is now long forgotten but it seems a shame that such an evocative street name has also disappeared.
We strolled slowly along the wall admiring the mosaics along the side of Friary House. The eastern walls, beside the town ditch, were some of the poorest in the medieval town and it’s no coincidence that the Friary was built there. The Friars followed the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, tending the poor and sick, so the site they chose was in the thick of the poverty, close to God’s House Hospital and the deprived suburb of Newtown, just outside the eastern wall. Isabella de Chekehull Donated the land and Walter le Flemyng, the town bailiff, was a benefactor.
The friary grounds covered a large area, from The High Street to the eastern wall between Sugarhouse Lane and God’s House Hospital. In 1290 Nicholas de Barbeflet gave the Friars the use of the Colewell Spring in Hill Lane and, in the early 14th century, they began to build a system of water pipes to pump water to the Friary. In 1420 the water supply system was given to the town council, making it one of the earliest examples of a municipally-owned water supply in Britain. The conduit was on the east side of the High Street, close to the entrance to Gloucester Square where there is now a car park. The water had to travel over a mile from the Conduit Head on Hill Lane to the Friary. Conduit House in Commercial Road and the remains of the Concuit Head are still visible, although my hunt for the latter wasn’t successful.
When I worked nearby this narrow passageway was a favourite lunchtime walk. There is a small paved recess in the wall with a bench where I often sat with my coffee. In the days of the Friary this would not have been such a nice place to sit. It was the reredorter, a communal lavatory, jutting out as a bridge over the town ditch. This toilet block was next to the dormitory and there was no doorway at ground level. The waste simply fell into a stone lined drain and into the ditch right where the bench is today. Back then it would not have been somewhere anyone wanted to sit and it was almost certainly incredibly smelly.
Just past the reredorter we stopped to admire the violet berries of callicarpa tumbling over the edge of the car park in Gloucester Square. Opposite is Friar’s Gate once the friar’s entry to the Friary and the cloister. The gate, built by the Friars in the late fourteenth century to allow access to their orchards and the people of Newtown, still exists and we stopped for a while today to admire it.
Beside the gate is a round tower, built in the late 1200’s. It was originally used as a dovecote and the nesting holes are still visible today. The doves were an important source of food in medieval times so this would have been a useful asset to the Friary. Originally it was a completely circular tower but, when the town walls were built, the inner walls were demolished and the tower made higher to incorporate it into the wall.
At the far end of the passageway is God’s House Tower. This was where we were heading but, despite several stops and our dawdling walk, we were still a little early. The tower stands on the south eastern corner of the medieval town wall. It began life, in the thirteenth century, as a gatehouse called as Saltmarsh Gate because it led onto the marshland outside the town. Inside the gate was God’s House Hospital, founded in 1168 by Gervaise le Riche, a burgess and reeve of the town. Much like St Cross Hospital in Winchester, God’s House was a refuge for poor travellers and the gate soon became known as God’s House Gate.
The hospital filled the land between Winkle Street, the High Street and Gloucester Square, with a refectory, kitchen, warden’s house and infirmary buildings separated from the Friary by a mound of earth. The majority of the hospital buildings, including the graveyard have long gone but the chapel remains as St Julien’s Church along with two large red brick buildings surrounding a small lawn. These were the almshouses, homes of the ‘sisters’ and ‘brothers’ of God’s House. Four brothers and four sisters, lived in the almshouses free of rent and taxes, much as the brothers of St Cross today. They each had a sitting-room, bedroom, and a small kitchen and were given an allowance for shoes and clothing in return for working in the fields outside the town walls.
The original almshouses, which I imagine would have been built of stone, were replaced in 1861. The new brick buildings are probably not as attractive but were certainly far more comfortable. At the same time the church was heavily renovated. The narrow street leading to the gate would once have been a bustling thoroughfare but today it was empty.
With a little time still to spare we walked through the gate and out of the old town. In the late thirteenth century, when it was built, this was a simple single story gatehouse. Early in the next century a guardroom was built above the gate and, in the fifteenth century, the tower and gun platform were built. The tower included a tidal mill using the water from the town ditch and was originally called Mill Tower or Lambcote Tower. Once the gate would have had guards and a double portcullis protecting the town, the grooves are still visible today and, walking through, I couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like to be trapped between the portcullises by the guards if they’d thought me undesirable?
Outside the gate the wind was fierce and bitter, despite the beautifully bright sun. We were just about to go back inside the old town for a little shelter when our guide appeared. Our tour was about to start and it would begin with a chilly walk around the outside of God’s House Tower. We may have been cold but at least we were in the right place.
Although I already knew much of the history of the building there is always something new to learn. For instance, I’d always thought the strange arches above some of the doors were remnants of earlier buildings or doorways, much as you can see the blocked off doors and windows along Western Esplanade. They are, in fact, supporting arches and were part of the original design.
We walked around to the north of the tower into the small passageway between it and the Oldest Bowling Green in the World. Here we could see the barred windows of the debtors prison. At ground level there was another arch. This is a remnant of the short lived Salisbury and Southampton Canal. The idea of a canal had been on the table since 1768 and was popular, but finances were hard to come by. Work didn’t start until 1795 and a lack of funds meant it was badly done. With difficulty more funds were raised and the canal opened in 1803 between Redbridge and the Andover Canal. In Southampton it ran through a tunnel under God’s House, through a lock just north of the tower, then along the outside of the town walls to Palmerston Park. Here a tunnel ran off towards the Itchen at Northam where it connected with the Itchen Navigation. The main canal then followed the modern railway line towards Redbridge
Despite money coming in from tolls the venture continued to struggle financially. Lack of maintenance and some wilful damage finally saw the canal close in 1806. The section in Southampton became a stagnant ditch and, after a woman drowned in it in 1841, the council filled it in. Even then money was an issue and it wasn’t completely covered over until 1851.
There is a rumour that some of the old canal tunnels still exist under Central Station and other small remnants of the canal remain hidden away. Perhaps looking for them is a quest for another day but now it was time to go back inside the old town and finally go inside God’s House Tower, something I’ve wished I could do for as long as I can remember.
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