U3A Historic Wallingford walk, Friday 29 August 2014
Met under the Town Hall at 10.30, Following is descrption of the walk
Thank you all for coming, and a warm welcome to those of you who are visitors to Wallingford. This is one of the oldest and was once one of the most important towns in England, vying with Winchester for supremacy. It was founded by King Alfred in the late 9th century as a burh or fortified town, part of a series of defences against the Danes.
There has probably been a ford here since prehistoric times, and Neolithic and Bronze Age flints can be found in the surrounding fields. There is evidence for Roman activity in the western suburbs, when the ford may have linked the two Roman roads that run each side of the Thames. Following its heyday in the 10th to 13th centuries, when Wallingford Castle was reputedly the largest in the land, the town entered a serious decline. The Black Death in 1349 carried off one-third of the population and the opening of Abingdon Bridge in 1415 diverted trade away from the town. By 1439 there were only 44 houses left. Many had decayed and fallen down, and gravel quarrying (which is not a recent phenomenon) in the town centre in the 16th to 18th centuries removed many of the earlier features. The town picked up again in the 17th century – the Town Hall was built in 1670 – and most of the older buildings you can see are 18th century, but it never recovered its former glory.
Much of Alfred’s Saxon street grid still survives. We’ll follow some of these streets to the south-east corner of the town, where we’ll pick up the line of the ramparts and follow them round to explore the Castle earthworks and return to the town along the river (c.2 miles).
Mousey Lane, Wood Street and Thames Street
We’ll go down Mousey Lane beside the Corn Exchange, built in 1856, and now used as a theatre and cinema.
This brings us to Wood Street, which was once notorious for its pubs and brothels. Wallingford had more than 40 pubs serving a population of little over 2000 in the 19th century, and drunkenness and street brawls were probably commonplace. The large car park is still called the Cattle Market which reflects its previous function.
Entering Thames Street, we see the street facades of some grand houses which back onto the river. Cromwell Lodge (Cromwell is said to have stayed there) has recently been renovated, and Riverside was once the home of the artist George Dunlop Leslie (1836-1921) who painted a well-known portrait of Queen Victoria. If you look to the north, the kink in the line of the originally straight Saxon road was caused when Judge Sir William Blackstone, another of Wallingford’s worthies, decided to increase the size of his garden at Castle Priory in 1760. Look to the south, and there is St Leonards church.
St Leonards church
We are now standing in the oldest part of Saxon Wallingford, which predates the construction of the town defences. St Leonards church preserves some 11th century Saxo-Norman herringbone work on the north wall of the nave, and the south wall of the chancel is said to show Saxon features. But this was not the earliest church on this site. The east-west town ditch is diverted to the south-east here, and the east-west Saxon Street running inside the defences, St Leonards Lane, is diverted to the north-east, enclosing the church in a little triangle. Documentary records tell us that this church was not always dedicated to St Leonard: its earliest dedication was to the Holy Trinity which is characteristic of early Saxon churches – it predates Alfred’s burh and was probably the focus of a settlement here in the 8th century. The present building has had its ups and downs. Parliamentarian forces stabled their horses in it during the Civil War and the interior was subsequently destroyed by fire. It was heavily restored in 1850, when the tower was added and also the apse, supposedly built on top of earlier foundations. [Walk up St Leonards Lane]
St Leonards Lane
The little building past the church was once the Rowbarge pub. It is 18th century in date and backs onto the town ditch. Anchor House opposite was previously the Anchor pub.
The rather splendid late Victorian Sayer Milward Terrace is named after the Revd W.C. Sayer-Milward who became Rector of St Leonards in 1873. The little cottages in the terrace beyond are not in fact that little – they were built on top of the town ramparts and extend down into the ditch behind. [Walk up to Reading Road]
There has been a mill at this site from at least the 12th century and in medieval times the predecessor of Boughtons Mill was known as ‘The mill at the south gate’. The mills were run by water flowing down the town ditch [cross the road], supplied by the appropriately named Mill Brook.
The Mill Brook was a spring-fed stream with numerous small tributaries that originally meandered around the low-lying land to the west of Wallingford and entered the Thames further south at Cholsey. Very early on this stream was diverted to enter the Thames further north where it forms Bradfords Brook, the ancient parish boundary between Wallingford and Cholsey. Then, when Wallingford’s defences were built, the water was diverted again through an artificial cut to feed the town ditch. This must have been a good reliable water supply, sufficient to feed this mill and form a water-filled moat around three sides of the town. Much of the water has now been re-diverted to Bradfords Brook and the remainder now flows under the town in a culvert.
Reading Road here marks the position of the original south gate. Just beyond, the cottages in St Johns Green mark the position of the Hospital of St John, founded in the 13th century and endowed by Simon de Montfort, no less. Opposite are the almshouses, built in 1681 and still in use. The Tudor rose motif is reputedly upside down!
The hat shop occupies an 18th century building which was the office for Wilders iron foundry which was established here in 1831. If you look up you can see the borough’s portcullis insignia carved into the window brackets (the town owned the building) and the splendid weathervane advertising that Wilders manufactured agricultural implements. They were also responsible for many of the iron railings, lamp posts and manhole covers that can still be seen around the town. [Walk up Mill Lane] Note the high level door for unloading goods and the iron protectors at street level to protect the wall from cart wheels.
In 1869 Wilders moved their foundry to new purpose-built premises behind Beansheaf Terrace – which was built as housing for their workers. The foundry building is now the centre of a housing development and has been converted into flats.
The southern ramparts
We are now walking west along the top of Alfred’s ramparts on the south side of the town – these are the best preserved Saxon ramparts in the country. On your left is the town ditch, still quite a long way down judging from the level of the roofs of the houses built against it. Archaeological investigations prior to the building of new houses found medieval pottery and freshwater mussel shells, showing that the ditch once carried a plentiful supply of running water. [Descend ramp]
We are now standing in the south-west corner of the burh as the ramparts turn a rounded corner to head north. Alfred appears to have modelled his town on a Roman fort – the ramparts with their playing-card corners form the south, west and north sides of a north-south rectangle with the river forming the east side. He established a Roman style street grid, with the main north-south and east-west roads passing through the four town gates and crossing the centre of the town to create four quadrants. It is perhaps no wonder that Wallingford was once thought to be a Roman town.
In front of you is the Kinecroft, once used as its name suggests for grazing cattle. This is one of two large empty spaces within the town defences, the other comprising the entire north-west quadrant. Most of the medieval settlement was confined to the south-east quadrant and the Castle came to occupy the north-east one. Behind you, just outside the ramparts, was an early pagan Saxon cemetery dating from the mid 5th to late 6th centuries. The location of the associated settlement is not known, but presumably it was a precursor to the later Christian settlement focused on St Leonards church. [Walk diagonally across the Kinecroft]
Excavation has revealed two early medieval timber buildings south of a roadway that extended west from the road grid in the town centre but stopped at the rampart (the present opening is recent). These are the only buildings known to have been constructed in the Kinecroft, suggesting that it provided space for the expansion of the town when it was flourishing, and space to contract out of when it went into decline. The Kinecroft is the site of the annual Michaelmas Fair which has been held in Wallingford since at least the 13th century. The slight hump marks the line of a modern sewer which now carried the remnants of the Mill Brook – it used to run behind the gardens of the houses beyond the ramparts before entering the town ditch. Residents complained of rats and so it was culverted in 1972. Note the position of the west gate.
We have now reached the main east-west street through the town. The rather splendid Flint House on the other side of the road now houses Wallingford Museum. The flint facade hides a 15th century oak-framed hall-house, and it is one of the earliest surviving buildings in Wallingford. Wallingford House opposite was the home of Edward Wells who owned the Wallingford Brewery (est. 1720). [Cross the road and walk to the entrance of the Bullcroft]
We are about to enter the Bullcroft, another large intramural space which occupies the north-west quadrant of the town and appears never to have been built on. At one time it formed the precinct of the Benedictine Priory of the Holy Trinity which was founded in 1077 by Robert d’Oyley, one of William’s barons who also built the Norman castle. The priory was dissolved in 1524. On the other side of the road, Goldsmiths Lane was the site of a Royal Mint that operated in Wallingford from the 10th to 13th centuries. Many of the existing buildings were once part of Edwards Wells’ brewery.
Just up the road is our wonderful new Waitrose building, otherwise known as ‘Cell Block W’, which occupies a prime site on the south-west corner of Alfred’s central crossroads. Archaeological investigation prior to redevelopment led to the excavation of the churchyard (210 burials, late 10th to 14th century) of St Martins church that formerly stood on this spot. The church itself is thought to have been demolished as early as the 16th century and all traces had been quarried away by gravel extraction in the early 18th century.
By the 14th century Wallingford was divided into 11 parishes, each with its own church. In addition, the Hospital of St John, the castle and two of the gate houses provided chapels, giving a total of 15 places of worship overall. Of these, only two remain: St Leonards and the now mostly Victorian St Mary le More behind the Town Hall. A third remains as a redundant church now used for concerts: St Peters was rebuilt in the 18th century and has a splendid spire modelled on that of St Brides in Fleet Street, London.
Geophysics has revealed evidence for fishponds in the south part of the priory precinct and traces of ridge-and-furrow cultivation in the north. You can see the ramparts continuing along the west side of the town and there is another rounded corner in the north-west where the footpath gives access to the most spectacular surviving stretch of bank and ditch. [Walk through the Bullcroft to the NW corner] Not many people come to look at the ramparts here at Black Ditch. From the bottom of the ditch to the top of the rampart is a full 7 m and this is thought to represent only two-thirds of its original height. This earthwork is over 1000 years old and represents a huge amount of labour.
From this point the town ditch carries on the other side of the road to later become the middle of Wallingford Castle’s three moats. The noticeable bend in the road here is the result of the expansion of the castle by the construction of its outer defences in the 13th century. These covered the original north gate, which was shifted to the west to accommodate them. [Walk up Cemetery Lane to the entrance to Castle Meadows]
The castle, of which only the denuded ramparts and two fragments of masonry survive, was dismantled in 1652 and the site was sold off by the Crown in 1817. It was bought by the Hedges family (who still act as solicitors in town) who built a large Victorian mansion on what had been the middle bailey, in the part of the site now owned by the Town Council and run as a municipal garden. The mansion was demolished in 1972 but traces of Victorian landscaping still survive here and there. The two Wellingtonias were planted in 1860 and are thought to be among the earliest to be planted in this country. One of the Hedges then magnanimously bequeathed the castle site to the Town Council, who then sold it to the tenant farmer, retaining only the bit that became the Castle Gardens. The tenant farmer sold it to a developer who built the pseudo-Georgian block of flats overlooking the river in 1999. The developer couldn’t build on the rest since it is a scheduled ancient monument, and so he sold it to South Oxfordshire District Council who opened it as a public amenity in 2001. Hooray! The site is now managed for wildlife by the Earth Trust, based at Little Wittenham. [Walk across ramparts to terrace below inner bailey wall fragment]
Wallingford Castle was one of the greatest medieval castles in the whole of England and the only one to have triple ramparts. These probably encircled the castle except on the river side. We don’t know what originally stood in this north-east quadrant of the town but we do know that several Saxon houses had to be demolished to make way for the castle, construction of which was begun in 1067 by Robert d’Oyley. The Normans did well out of Wallingford. William brought his army here in order to ford the river and was welcomed by the local Saxon lord Wigod, whose daughter was subsequently married to one of William’s knights. You can see the massive tree-covered motte over there.
Later the castle was greatly expanded and probably reached its heyday in the 14th century. The wall fragment here stands on the edge of the inner bailey and excavation here has revealed a mass of wall foundations and rubbish pits. The castle saw its fair share of royalty, including King John and Edward the Black Prince. But following the town’s decline, the castle became ruinous and it is recorded that timber and lead were shipped downstream to help construct Windsor Castle in 1555.
The castle had a second brief lease of life during the Civil War when Wallingford became a royalist stronghold. The castle was refortified and an outwork added to the outer rampart on the north side. Excavation here revealed contemporary pottery and lots of bits of clay pipes. After a 12-week siege honourable surrender terms were agreed and the garrison was allowed to march out of the castle with full honours before returning to their homes. Seeing it as a possible future threat, Cromwell ordered the total destruction of the castle in 1652. [Walk up to look at the inner moat and then on to the interpretation board]
The wall fragment here formed part of the riverside wall of the castle. [Walk to the gateway into King’s Meadow] The land between the castle and the river was probably marsh, later drained to form grazing meadows. There is a whole complex of ditches (which are now being managed for water voles). The pond was created as part of the Victorian landscaping but in the past there were probably sluices in this area to control the water in the castle moats, which may have drained into a leat to feed a mill. [Walk along towpath]
The Walling ford was probably just upstream of Wallingford Bridge. The bridge is some 250 m long and has 19 arches. 100 m of its length appears to be over dry land on the Crowmarsh side but when the river floods water flows through all of the arches. It was first recorded in 1141 but may be considerably older. Four arches were removed during the Civil War in 1643 and replaced with a wooden drawbridge; the bridge was not restored until 1751. The three central arches over the river were rebuilt after being damaged in the great flood of 1809 and the bridge was widened at the same time. Essentially it is a hotchpotch of repairs and includes stone taken from the priory after its demolition in 1528. A charter issued in 1571 allowed tolls to be collected from transport both over and under the bridge. A tollhouse was built in 1819 on the little platform on the side of the bridge and was demolished in the 1930s.
Entrance into the town from the bridge would have been through an impressive gatehouse, raising the question as to whether the town was defended on the river side. A local tradition claims that, despite Alfred’s precautions, the Danes sailed up the Thames and sacked the town in 1006. Excavation in the gardens south of the bridge in 2005 revealed traces of a massive riverside wall, but this was post-Saxon although pre-15th century in date.
On the other side of the river there is a triangular-shaped piece of land enclosing the bridgehead. This was defined by ditches, still visible on the south side, which were honoured by the old county boundary and the bridgehead remains part of Wallingford town.
Steven and Matilda
During the civil war between Steven and Matilda, Steven took Oxford in 1142 and Matilda managed to escape from there to Wallingford just before Christmas. The story goes that she and four of her knights were clad in white to escape detection against the snow. She was welcomed at Wallingford Castle and Steven subsequently besieged Wallingford three times but to no avail. The war eventually fizzled out in 1153, and in 1155 Matilda’s son, now King Henry II, granted Wallingford its charter and its right to hold a market as a reward for keeping his mother safe in the castle.
The Boat House pub sits on the site of the town’s first gasworks, opened in 1835 and supplied with coal by river barges. Some of the buildings collapsed following a severe flood in 1874 and the lights went out for several months before a new gasworks could be opened next to the railway station that had been built on the western side of the town.
High Street, the eastern arm of the main east-west street, leads to the Saxon crossroads in the town centre and most of its buildings have been pubs or shops at various times. The imposing 18th century Calleva House, now an antique shop, was once a school. The three jettied cottages on the left were originally built in the 14th century and the vaulted cellar survives beneath the central one. The George Hotel opposite was built in 1517.
Turn left along St Mary’s Street to return to the Town Hall.