Take a Winchelsea subterranean mystery tour
There is an ancient mystery lurking under the floorboards in Winchelsea.
Beneath no fewer than 56 houses in this ancient, hilltop town are medieval vaults: dark, dank cellars, hacked out of the sandstone at great expense and with great labour.
But for what purpose? Only Southampton and Norwich have comparable numbers of ancient vaults – and they are both great cities, while Winchelsea is now a sleepy village.
It’s a mystery that Winchelsea Archaeological Society has set out to crack, and on regular Saturday afternoon subterranean rambles they share what they have discovered, and the theories they have developed, with the curious.
Here’s what is known about the vaults.
Most date from 1290-1310, they are large and well-built, suggesting they were for commerce, not merely domestic storage.
They are virtually all in the north eastern corner of the once-fortified town, close to where the modern A259 hairpins down Tanyard hill on its way to Rye.
The vaults are within the area covered by the modern village (medieval Winchelsea was much larger) and at the point on the hill which would have looked down over Pipewell Gate onto the town’s busy port; packed with ships, and bustling with dockers, merchants and porters. Now, grassy levels span the gap between here and the escarpment on which the Udimore road runs east-west between Broad Oak and Rye.
This was the area of Winchelsea’s international trade in wine from the Gascony region of France; distinct from the area of the old market square, where trade in domestic goods for local consumption took place. That was to the south, in the parkland alongside Monk’s Walk. There, only three vaults have been found.
Almost all the medieval vaults are at the front of the plots, with their main entrances from the street rather than inside the properties they were built under – another suggestion that they were used for businesses not necessarily connected with the houses above. Some were basic constructions, which would suggest they were for storage, but others had windows onto light wells, grand sweeping stair-cased entrances with ornate balustrades, and decorative architectural detailing in their stonework, suggesting a place that was built to impress.
Excavation has shown that, at least in some cases, the vaults were constructed in the pit where the sandstone used to build the house above was quarried.
So what were they for?
Here’s what the Winchelsea Archeological Society’s booklet ,The Vaults Of Winchelsea, which you get a copy of when you part with £5 for the guided tour, has to say: “It has generally been assumed that the commercial purpose of the vaults of Winchelsea involved wine. Medieval Winchelsea was renowned as a port in the wine trade with Gascony. Wine was of immense importance in England’s medieval economy and the trade was at its height at the time of the foundation of New Winchelsea”, which replaced the old town, built on a shingle bank at the foot of the hill, and which the sea washed away.
In 1306-7 alone, 15 ships from Winchelsea carried three quarters of a million gallons of wine – four million bottles – to the town from Bordeaux. And that’s just the wine from the town’s own ships. An average of 140 foreign ships also used the port each year. It has been estimated that the wine imported into Winchelsea in 1300-01 would have needed between 63 and 70 cellars to house it.
But exactly how were these cellars used? Basic bulk storage seems unlikely – why lug all those heavy barrels uphill from the port, wrestle them down into the vaults only to haul them out and roll them back down to the port once a sale had been made?
After all, most of the wine that came to Winchelsea was transhipped on to London, or upriver to places such as Battle Abbey – where the monks had a pint of wine a day, a gallon on feast days – and which was a big market.
Obviously you’d have warehouses at the waterside for storage involved in that trade.
No, these vaults had to be connected with a different part of the wine trade. Combined sale and store rooms is one possibility, the local archeologists believe – for both wholesale and retail.
Because it was illegal to have any obstruction that prevented the purchaser of wine from seeing it drawn from the barrel, it made sense to bring the place where wine was stored, and where it was sold, together.
Some vaults may have doubled as taverns, the archeologists think. If you had a tavern, and were drawing wine from barrels, having your customers down with the barrels would have satisfied the law. Indeed, the words ‘tavern’ and ‘cellar’ were sometimes interchangeable in medieval England.
One of the vaults the Winchelsea Archaeological Society take you to is under what are now known as Salutation Cottages, on the corner of Mill Road and Castle Street. This is a vast area of three interconnected cellars spanning some 60 ft. Once, the Salutation Inn stood on this site. Or, to give the tavern its full name, the Salutation of the Angel and Our Lady of the Grey Friars. There is a connection here with another of Winchelsea’s functions as a great port. From here, pilgrims embarked on ships that took them around the cost to Spain, and the route to the shrine of Santiago de Compostella.
The Grey Friars – Franciscans – had a monastery in Winchelsea, the ruins of which are to the south, in the grounds of a house in Friars Road. The pilgrims would pass the Salutation Inn on their way from monastery to port, and no doubt felt like fortifying themselves for the dangerous sea journey that lay ahead.
Today you enter the cellars down a tight, modern wood staircase, but once wide stone steps would have lead to an impressively elegant vault, with particularly fine stone ribs and gargoyle corbels. It’s not hard to imagine you are standing in a once-rather-posh medieval wine bar.
How to book a tour
email: firstname.lastname@example.org or
Winchelsea Post Office Tel: 01797 229525 or 225333