One of the saddest-looking pieces of archaeology in the county sits next to the river in Winchester, just to the south of the City Bridge. I’m not suggesting it’s at all neglected, or badly treated; in fact it receives a good number of visits daily from people keen to explore the city’s history. It’s just that the ‘only visible section’ of Venta Belgarum’s Roman town wall is incarcerated in a small gated cell, giving every impression of a very long-term prisoner, waiting and hoping, one day, to hear the key turn in the lock.
The flinty survivor is part of a circuit that once encompassed 144 acres. Its finest hour was in the 3rd century AD, when civic pride (or more likely apprehension) made sure that the wealth and well-being of the community were guarded against the forces of evil that might be roaming the countryside looking for rich pickings.
The outline of the Roman (and medieval) defensive circuit was examined in detail by a young Barry Cunliffe, in 1960. His paper in the Hampshire Field Club journal looked at a number of investigations from the previous ten years, and included an impressive ‘trial trench’ of his own in the grounds of Wolvesey Castle (Pilgrim’s School playing fields). There have, of course, been opportunities to add further detail over the years, most recently in Southgate Street, where the surprisingly light touch of the early 20th century car dealer’s premises had left parts of the subterranean Roman defences intact.
For much of the city the medieval enceinte adopted and adapted the line of its Roman predecessor and impressive stretches remain, notably the southernmost length of the east wall and the easternmost run of the south wall. It’s clear that the structure here owes much to Roman engineering, so perhaps the isolated fragment near the river is not so alone. Most of the facing now visible is modern, but Barry Cunliffe was able to identify patches of ‘bright yellow late 14th century mortar, the cream 13th century mortar and the pinky-buff Roman mortar’.
The medieval circuit was pierced by six gates, two of which still stand. Kingsgate, a simple arch on the southern side, was apparently burnt down (along with the Southgate) during the de Montfort uprising in 1264, and rebuilt two years later; Westgate, at the top of the High Street, is the great survivor. It’s interesting to reflect that when Barry Cunliffe was putting pen to paper to record his discoveries, vehicles were still just about using the central arch to trundle in and out of the city. Today the Westgate is a museum, housing items of civic interest and traces of its own varied past. The building also affords great views down the High Street, always a bustling scene of recreation and commerce!
But what of the other gates? Durngate, at the north eastern corner of the city was apparently of little significance – a postern gate; Eastgate, which stood near the City Bridge, was demolished in 1768, and the order to demolish both Southgate and Northgate was made in 1771. This was because the arches were so low that they couldn’t accommodate a loaded hay wagon ‘without a great diminution thereof’ and so narrow that pedestrians were often in danger of being crushed. It was not before there had been a terrible catastrophe at the Northgate, however.
This building stood at the junction of City Road, Jewry Street, Hyde Street and North Walls and by the mid-18th century was in a ruinous condition. The room over the passageway had once been a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, but by this time was let as lodgings ‘to humble people’. In 1756, wishing to celebrate a christening, the occupants invited all their friends and relations round when suddenly, and without warning ‘…the floor of the room in which they had been dancing…gave way, by which accident the whole company, to the number of twenty six persons, were crushed in a most terrible manner, some to death, others more lamentably, the little infant being the only one uninjured.’
Cunliffe, B, (1962) The Winchester City Wall, Proc Hants Field Club Vol 22, p 51-81
Jacob, W, (1898) The West Gate of Winchester, Proc Hants Field Club Vol 4, p 51-59
Series by – Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone