26 October 2014
On a whim I decided to descend the Forty Steps to Western Esplande, leaving the medieval town. At street level the height of The walls and towers can be truly appreciated. Behind, the tower of WestQuay echoes them. Looking up, I see the machicolations where stones or boiling oil could be dropped on would be invaders and ivy leaved toadflax has made a home between the stones.
Behind the wall is the castle vault where the king’s wine was stored. A sturdy looking wooden door and padlock guard the entrance although there’s no wine inside these days. A little further along the door of Water Gate seems flimsy in comparison although it does have a portcullis for added protection. This entrance to the castle was used by Kings and other royal visitors by sea. Peering through gaps in the wood I could see a tantalising glimpse of stone steps and a gate.
As I child I believed there was a dungeon here and that the tide would come up throughout the low window and drown the prisoners. Actually the window was merely to let light into the wine vault. Close by modern metal steps lead up to the high level walk along the battlements and beside them is the garderobe, probably the first flushing toilet in England. Originally there was a three story tower with long narrow room lined with simple wooden seats below which a latrine channel ran. The flush was provided by the rising and falling tides. Sadly, all that remains today is the channel where the waste fell.
There’s a gap in the wall here, filled with the modern houses of Biddlegate Court and, beyond it, Simnel Street. It was decision time again. Did I stay outside the medieval town and walk along the arcades to the sea or walk up Simnel street and visit some of the remaining medieval buildings? In the end I chose the latter, passing the pretty gardens of the modern Postern Court houses as I went. It must be quite something to have a garden wall as ancient as theirs.
In the Middle Ages there was a windmill on Simnel Street and the street takes it’s name from the old French word simenel, meaning fine flour. Back then it was crowded on either side by houses so close that, in places, there was less than six feet between them. By the nineteenth century it was one of the most dilapidated streets in the town. Many of the houses were crumbling, prevented from collapsing only by wooden beams spanning the street just above head height.
Slum clearance swept the old houses away and now the most notable building is the Titanic pub at the junction with Bugle Street. The real medieval gems can be found just one block away where Bugle Street intersects with Blue Anchor Lane. As the street opens out into St Michael’s Square, if you half close your eyes, you can imagine that nothing has changed in six hundred years.
St Michael’s Church is the dominant building. Founded in around 1070 the original church has been added to over successive generations. The tall tower, used as a landmark for ships, was built in the fifteenth century. This is the oldest building in the city still in use and the only one of the five churches of the medieval town still used as a church.
Across the road is Tudor House an archetypal building of the time. The timber frame is infilled with herringbone bricks on the ground floor and white painted wattle and daub above. The original building on the site of Tudor house was a Norman house built in around 1180. After the French Raid of 1338 its walls were incorporated into the defensive city walls the doors and windows filled in. In the fifteenth century the timber framed house was built by Sir John Dawtry who helped fit out Henry VIII’s ship Mary Rose. These days it’s a museum with beautiful gardens where you can sit and drink a cup of coffee.
A little way along the street another notable timber frame building is the Duke of Wellington Pub, built upon Norman vaults in 1220. It was converted into a pub called Bere House in 1494 and the landlord, Rowland Johnson, began brewing his own beer, making this the first brewery in the city. It is, of course, haunted. The resident ghost likes to refill empty glasses. If you like beer this is probably a very good reason to visit.
Across the road Westgate Street leads me back to the old walls and the Westgate arch. This gate was built in the late 1300’s after the French raid and had a double portcullis. Edward III sailed to the Hundred Years War from this gate in 1346 and Henry V’s fleet left for the Battle of Agincourt from here. This is also the gate the Pilgrim Fathers would have passed through.
Adjoining the gate is Westgate Hall. This beautiful building once stood on St Michael’s Square and was a fish market and cloth hall. In 1634 it was moved, piece by piece, to its present location. It is now used as a function room and wedding venue. The pretty garden has the old wall as a backdrop. Modern steps lead up onto the battlements above the arcades.
Cuckoo Lane leads from the garden to Town Quay. Below the walls here is the tall obelisk of Mayflower Memorial, topped with a copper model of the ship. As I walked along I remembered all the times we stood with our boys watching the 5 November fireworks out on the water.
The Woolhouse was hidden behind barriers as it’s being refurbished inside in preparation for being reopened as a pub. I’m quite excited at the prospect of going inside. There wasn’t much to see on Sunday though so I passed by and crossed French Street to the little garden behind Canute’s Palace. It always seems odd to me that a city so shaped by fear of raids by the French should have this very Gallic area but, after the Norman Conquest, the French settled in this part of the town.
The ruins of Canute’s Palace, named for King Canute who failed to hold back the waves on the shore here, dominate the plot. Inside a Walk the Walls guide was telling the story to a group of interested tourists. Looking back towards the Wool House another huge cruise ship seemed as if it was about to set sail up the street.
On the corner of the High Street, between Porters Lane and Winkle Street a crumbling drum towers is the sole remains of the south gate of the town, Watergate. Sadly the gate was demolished in the 1840’s to give easier access to Town Quay. So much of our history is destroyed in the name of progress.
Winkle Street is another of those narrow streets that feel as if they haven’t changed for centuries. Hidden away here is St Julien’s, the French church. This was the chapel of the Hospital of St Julien, or God’s House, an almshouse and hotel for pilgrims founded in 1197. At the end of the street the gate of God’s House Tower led me out onto Town Quay again and I briefly considered leaving the walls here and making my way to the New Bridge for the walk home.
After a look at yet another cruise ship on the dock I decided to pass back through the gate and turn up towards Friary Gate. A short way up the quiet lane is another tower. This was actually a dovecote, built in the 1200’s. There was a Francescan friary here in the Middle Ages and the gate, just past the dovecote tower is the Friary Gate, built to allow the friars to visit the poor in the suburb of Newtown.
Not far from the gate there’s a quiet area with a bench where I often ate my lunch when I worked in town. This is the Reredorter, a toilet block used by the friars. Once this was a stone tower overhanging the wall above the town ditch. The waste from the friars toilet would have joined all the other waste in the ditch which ran the whole length of the eastern wall. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted to eat my lunch there back then.
The friary is long gone and now an office block stands in it’s place but, on the side of the building, tiles depict the friars going about their daily business. The walls end on the corner of Bernard Street, almost opposite the Job Centre. There are more of them further on behind East Street but, on Sunday, I decided I’d had enough of history so I set off for the Big Bridge and home. Perhaps I’ll come back another day and show you some more.