The metamorphosis of the forgotten walls

15 February 2018

For many years the medieval walls from Bargate to Polymond Tower have been neglected and largely forgotten. They are so well hidden behind the shops on Hanover Buildings and the old Bargate Shopping Centre many people don’t even know they are there. Those that do venture along York Walk are often met with a dark, dingy, rubbish strewn journey. With the demolition of the Bargate Centre, this is about to change. There are ambitious plans to open up York Walk and make a feature out of the walls and towers there. Demolition work began a few weeks ago and today, as I was in town on business, I thought I’d see how it was going.

My original plan had been to walk to the top of East Street, get a coffee in Costa and then take the archway between the shops and walk back along York Walk. Halfway up East street though, I saw something that made me change my mind. Right opposite the East Street entrance to the old Bargate Centre was a coffee shop I’d never noticed before. Inside a giant toy gorilla seemed to be enjoying a cup of coffee. Of course I had to go inside and check it out.

This turned out to be a great idea. Nousha’s Coffee shop was just my kind of place. The coffee was good, the service was even better and the cups were so pretty they put a great big grin on my face. My drinking companion, the giant gorilla, didn’t have a lot to say for himself though.

By the time I’d finished my coffee I’d decided to revise my plans and see if I could get around the back of the Bargate Centre to York Walk. Last time I came this way the route was closed off but I wanted to see how the demolition work was progressing so the possibility of having to turn back wasn’t an issue. As it happened the route was open and I got a marvellous view of the remains of the building behind the red hoardings.

The majority of the car park seems to have gone now and, through the rubble, I could see inside the building. It was slightly eerie seeing the pillars we’d once walked past on our trips to town and remembering all the shops that used to be inside.

The Bargate Shopping Centre was opened in 1989. It was the second largest shopping mal in the city, the East Street Centre, opened in the 1970’s being the first, and was aimed at the youth market with technology shops, an Internet cafe and a Sega Park arcade. Many of the shops were fairly specialist, with alternative fashion shops, music shops, games shops and a Shakeaway. It was popular with teenagers but not so much with adults. With falling profits and lots of empty units, it finally closed in 2013.

As I rounded the corner heading towards York Walk, I had an even better view of what used to be the car park through the workmen’s entrance gate. There’s been an awful lot of progress on the demolition since I last came this way. A large chipboard structure has appeared beside Polymond Tower, presumably to protect it. The shopping centre was built so close to the medieval wall here it’s going to be painstaking work to make sure the walls don’t get damaged as the building is demolished.

A few steps further and I got my first sight of the tower itself. Thankfully, it seemed to be intact. Polymond Tower marks the eastern corner of the northern town wall. This was the first stretch of wall to be built, in around 1260, after King John ordered the townspeople to enclose the town with a wall and gave them just £100 to do so. Once the wall ran, unbroken, from Polymond Tower to Arundel Tower, with the Bargate as the main landward entrance to the town.

At the time the only town defences here were two gates, Bargate and Eastgate, and a ditch and earth bank encircling the landward perimeter of the town. Building the northern wall took over thirty years and linked the two gates. Sadly, Eastgate, the only public gate in the town’s east wall, was demolished in 1775 to help traffic flow along East Street. The gate was, by all accounts, impressive, with a heavy door and portcullis, projecting buttresses and a bridge across the town ditch. There was a chapel above the gate, dedicated to St Mary. These days all that remains is a fragment of wall just off East Street on Canal Walk.

The Northern wall is now in a narrow alleyway filled with overflowing skips belonging to the shops on Hannover Buildings. The whole area has a feeling of neglect and decay. Even in its heyday, when the wall was brand new, this would have been a fairly down at heel area. The tradesmen and women of the town, the smiths, potters, masons, carpenters, bakers, brewers, butchers, fishmongers and barbers, lived behind this wall. It was probably a noisy, smelly and fairly crowded place. When the Bargate Centre was being built, archaeologists uncovered a lot of their rubbish, shards of pottery, iron slag, leather offcuts and the like.

Polymond Tower was originally a three story tower with glazed windows and a parapet. At one time St Denys Priory were responsible for maintaining the tower and it was called St Denys Tower. In the fourteenth century it was remodelled and named after John Polymond, a merchant and burgess of the town at the time. By the 1800’s though, it had fallen into disrepair. The top floors were pulled down and a conical roof added so that it could be used as a house. Peering through the locked gate it’s possible to see the fireplace that was added and the difference in the brickwork and stone between the original and the slightly more modern. It will be interesting to get a closer look once all the building work is finished and the area has been regenerated.

Polymond Tower painted by Edward Dayes

In 1769 a further gate was cut into the wall to link Hannover Buildings with York Buildings, where the Bargate Centre was built. Originally this was an archway but, in 1961, the top was removed to let more traffic through. Despite being a grade II listed building the gate was pulled down when the Bargate Centre was built. So much has been lost over the years in the name of progress and that ‘progress’ is all too often short lived.

York Gate

Today, all that remains of the old gate is a gap in the wall that once led to the back entrance of the Bargate Centre. Now even that is closed off behind big steel gates. Behind them I know there were once the remains of a garden, although it was sadly neglected and mainly seemed to be used by Bargate Centre staff on their breaks. Today I poked my phone through a gap and took a photograph as best I could.

Much of the medieval wall here is currently covered with scaffolding and protective netting so there isn’t much to see apart from the two interval towers between Polymond Tower and Bargate. Today I poked my phone through an arrow slit in one to get an intriguing glimpse inside. Hopefully, once all the work is completed, it will be possible to get a much closer look.

When I came to the end of the wall I discovered the tunnel between the shops to Bargate had been blocked off by more red hoardings. Of course, once upon a time there were no shops and the wall was joined to Bargate. The only way in or out of the town via the High Street was through the Bargate Arch. As motor traffic increased this was seen as a problem and, in 1836, there was even talk of pulling down Bargate. Discussions rumbled on for years but, finally, in 1930, it was decided the Bargate could stay but the walls on either side of it would be demolished instead. It wasn’t ideal but it was the lesser of the two evils. The irony is that, today, the road through Bargate is completely closed so the walls needn’t have been pulled down at all.

The blocked off archway meant I had to take a diversion out onto Hannover Buildings. Even looking at the plans for the new Bargate Quarter, it’s hard to imagine exactly how things will look when the work is completed. Currently the area is in a state of flux. Some of the shops have for sale signs up and others are boarded up, soon to be demolished.

As I walked up towards Bargate, the one thing in all the mayhem that will remain untouched, I couldn’t help wondering how it would all turn out? This will certainly not be the last time I will walk this way, I plan on making regular trips to look at the progress here, but one thing is certain, things are changing fast for the Bargate Quarter.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

10 thoughts on “The metamorphosis of the forgotten walls”

  1. I think the group ‘See Southampton’ would be very interested to read this excellent article too. They run lots of the guided walks in the City, and I am sure they are also watching these developments with great interest.

  2. Thanks. Nice little review of the town we often take for granted. Will definitely try and have a walk along at some point soon.

  3. Dear Marie, So nice to read your articles once again. As I don’t go out it is nice to see how the town is shaping up, thank you.

  4. I had to look up Nousha. It means “sweet, pleasant” in Persian and it sounds like that was just what it was.
    It’s too bad they destroyed so much of the history by pulling down the walls but at least everyone will be able to see what’s left a little more clearly. I’m looking forward to seeing it!

    1. I have a Tunisian friend called Nousa, I’m guessing it means much the same thing. The new building project is very exciting. I can’t wait to see it finished,

  5. Inspirational Marie as always.
    How often we forget the beauty of our home city.
    Had to smile about the Eastgate being demolished in 1776 to allow for the flow of traffic.
    Thankfully we are much more mindful now of our wonderful heritage. Exciting times ahead

    1. Thank you Jan. So much of the medieval walls were lost in the name of traffic flow. Thank goodness we are more enlightened now. I can’t eait to see the new Bargate Quarter and get a closer look at the northern walls.

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