Category Archives: Architecture

Portsmouth Paper #1 – Portchester Castle by Barry Cunliffe

Over 80 Portsmouth Papers have been published since their inception in 1967. Although the rate of publication has slowed somewhat, they remain an amazing resource for the local historian, and make Portsmouth one of the most written-about cities for its size in Britain. I know they came in handy when I writing my dissertation. Over the coming weeks I will be bringing you a summary of some of the best numbers in the series.

One of the most ironic things about the first ever Portsmouth Paper, is that its subject is not in Portsmouth at all. Yet Portchester Castle was one of the earliest and most important factors in human activity in the Portsmouth area, so the cross-boundary activity can surely be forgiven!

In 1967 Barry Cunliffe was already one of Britain’s most foremost Archaeologists. Now, 43 years later, Sir Barry Cunliffe is retired, after a career that culminated as Professor of International Archaeology at the University of Oxford. He has also served as the President of the British Council for Archaeology, a Governor of the Museum of London, the interim chair of English Heritage, and he is currently the Chair of the Friends of the British Museum. Professor Cunliffe is even one of the references on Mick Aston’s CV!

Excavations began at Portchester Castle in 1961. The first three years were spent excavating the Roman walls. Focus then shifted to the inner bailey of the Castle, with digging beginning in the South West quarter.

The first traces of occupation at Portchester date from the First Century AD, in the form of small amounts of pottery and a few post-holes. It is known that in AD 43 the Roman Fleet was stationed in Britain, and a system of Roman forts and fleets remained on the south and east coasts for several centuries. Coins found in the walls at Portchester date their construction to some time after AD 268. The walls were a significant feature, being 10 feet thick and up to 20 feet high. 24,000 cubic yards of flint and mortar were used. Cuniffe gives us a vivid picture of how the walls were built, and includes a fascinatng picture showing the join between the work of two Roman building gangs. Outside of this main wall projected a number of D-shaped Bastions.

Gates are always bound to be a weak point in any fortification. At Portchester the two gates are found on the ‘Land’ and ‘Water’ sides. Both of these sections of the castle have been heavily modified and rebuilt over the centuries, and detailed illustrations show the various stages of rebuiding. Aside from the gates, evidence of Roman buildings has been found in the inner bailey, such as latrines. The rubbish deposits found in the Castle give us a very full picture of Garrison life in the Castle – animal bones, for instance.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the site was not occupied militarily. However, it is likely that people used the Castle as shelter. Ancient Anglo-Saxon chronicles tell us that in AD 501 a man named Port landed at Portsmouth and killed a noble man. Excavations at Portchester have found evidence of Saxon activity at the Castle, however there is no link to the mysterious Port. However Portchester is extremely significant, as so few examples of Saxon settlement remain. From the 10th Century documentary sources relating to Portchester are much more common, and it is clear that parts of the Watergate in particular are of late-Saxon origin.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066 the Castle found a new lease of life. The Domesday Book tells us that the Castle had a hall, and excavations in 1965 and 1966 uncovered its location. It seems that the 11th Century Castle contained a manorial hall, and other associated buildings, possibly of pre-Norman origin. By the early part of the twelfth century the Castle was in Royal hands. A programme of military and domestic works took place, including the rebuilding of both gates. An inner bailey was constructed, as a residential area and an inner stronghold. According to Cunliffe, the Norman builders even robbed several feet from the thickness of the outer Roman walls. The large keep remains the most impressive building in the Castle complex.

The mid twelfth to mid thirteenth centuries saw numerous modifications. the Keep was increased in height, and a number of smaller buildings were built inside the inner bailey – halls, kitchens and living rooms. Kings frequently used the Castle while hunting game in the Forest of Bere, or as a stopping point before sailing to France. Although the Royal retinue would have inhabited the inner bailey, the outer bailey would have been occupied by many people. Shortly after 1133 an Augustinian Priory was built in the south-east quarter, however twenty years later the monks left for Southwick! The Priory buildings continued to be used as St Mary’s Church.

The importance of Portchester gradually receded, due to the growing importance of Portsmouth. However Richard II continued to use the Castle as a residential retreat, and the subsequent buildings can adequately be described as a Palace.

This is a masterful Paper indeed. Eloquently written by THE authority on archaeology, it is informative, well illustrated with graphics and photographs – including some great archaeological drawings. Perhaps it is not as well referenced as other Papers, but it is after all an archaeological report, and not a pure work of history. Over 40 years old, the first Portsmouth Paper also remains one of the best.

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Portchester Castle #1 – the outer bailey

Portchester Castle lies at the top of Portsmouth Harbour. And, luckily, just over a mile from my house! Originally built by the Romans, and subsequently inhabited by the Saxons and Medieval Kings, today the Castle is open to visitors.

It’s unknown exactly when the first work on the site was carried out. The Romans called the area Portus Adurni, are thought to have built the first fort at Portchester in the 3rd Century AD. Goodall suggests a date of between 285 and 290 AD, while Cunliffe has written about evidence of a small settlement prior to this date. The outer Bailey is the main remaining part of the Roman Castle. It is easily recognisable, constructed from flint and mortar, and remarkably well preserved. There is ample evidence of the different occupiers of the Castle in its stonework. Roman flint, Norman and Medieval stone blocks, and later Georgian and Victorian repairs carried out in red brick. The Roman works in particular were an incredible achievement, with none of the machinery modern builders would rely on. That they are still standing now is testament to their skill.

The Flint Wall of Portchester Castle

The Flint Wall of Portchester Castle

The original walls were some five feet thick and twenty feet high, and include features such as crenellations and fire steps.

Crenellations

Crenellations

There are also large circular bastions in each corner. The Castle also has substantial outer defences – one two sides it faces the sea, and a system of moats on the landward sides. There is an excellent plan of the Castle here.

The Castle’s location is extremely important. Located in the middle of the South Coast, opposite France, and at the top of a well defended harbour, it was an ideal base for travelling to the continent, for defending the local coastine, and assembling armies. The English Armies that sailed to Crecy and Agincourt were assembled at Portchester. As time passed by the top of Portsmouth Harbour silted up, and Portchester was eclipsed by Portsmouth. But in the middle ages, Portchester was a crucial settlement. And naturally, a village soon grew up near the Castle, along the approach road.

After the fall of the Roman Empire the castle was probably taken over by the indigenous english. The area received its current name around the 6th Century AD. Ancient chronicles describe how a Saxon Warrior landed and captured the fort. For the next 4 centuries the Castle was in Saxon hands, and the current Watergate is largely of Saxon origin.

Watergate

Watergate

Over time extra bastions have been added, as well as latrine chutes and several gates. In particular, latrine chutes can be seen on the south wall, where the old Priory once stood.

Latrines

Latrines

On the north side we can also see a nasty looking archway, where the defenders would have been able to pour boiling hot oil onto any attackers attempting to scale the walls.

Arch

Arch

After the Norman Conquest the Castle was handed over to one one of William’s trusted Lieutenants. The Domesday Book shows William Mauduit as being the owner of the Castle. This was part of William’s policy of handing Castle and manors to trusted Frenchmen, in order to control the english population.

The large Keep was constructed in the early 12th Century. It now stands at over 100 feet high, after various phases of construction. The Keep was the main stronghold of the castle, surrounded by the inner bailey and then the outer bailey (more on the inner bailey at a later date).

The Keep

The Keep

Located close to the Forest of Bere, a prime hunting area, the Castle was also used by many English Kings as a hunting lodge. Nowadays the Castle is surrounded by trees and other buildings. But for many years it would have been by far the biggest building for miles around, a powerful status symbol of the local lord, and by definition the King. The building of the Round and Square Towers at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour in the 15th Century, and later Southsea Castle in 1544, largely made Portchester obsolete. Redundant as a fortress, it served as a storehouse and a Prison over the following centuries.

My next post will look in detail at the inside of the Castle – in particular the Church, the Inner Bailey, and the Keep.

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Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, Local History, Medieval history, out and about, Uncategorized

Nimbyism

People who don’t come from Britain won’t be familiar with this one. Nimbyism is a phenomenon that seems to affect England more than any other country. But why the stupid name, I hear you ask? Well, its simple…

‘Not In My Back Yard!’

Its the phenomenon of people thinking that nothing should happen anywhere near their home of where they live that they don’t like. Football Stadium? Not near my house? Where should it go? Oh I don’t mind, just not here! somewhere else!

Its a pretty unconstructive way to think. OK, it would be lovely if we all lived in nice bungalows, in the country, with rolling fields all around and birds singing in the morning. But we don’t, we live in a city, one of the most cramped in the world, and some things just have to go somewhere. Even if you argue against something, come up with a constructive alternative rather than just ‘not here!’

I remember well the debate about Pompey’s new football stadium, back in the 1990′s. The locals in Farlington didnt want it. In the end a public inquiry ruled it out due to Farlington being a breeding ground for Geese. I’m sure the people of Farlington were pretty pleased, but it just meant that someone else would eventually have to live next to it.

The plans for a dedicated bus route from Fareham to Gosport spring to mind too. The road from Fareham to Gosport is so congested, it risks turning Gosport into an unlivable town unless something drastic is done. All kinds of things have been proposed – trams, tunnels under the harbour… but for various reasons nothing gets done. Even when the Council propose to apply for Government funding to build a dedicated bus lane on an old disused train line. Perfect idea, surely? Not to the small handful of people who don’t want it. Apparently there are rare insects in the area. Now, I’m not advocating bulldozing over endangered animals, but… its something that would make a big difference to Gosport.

Remember when Status Quo were going to play Portchester Castle? Until the locals decided they didnt want hundreds of ‘denim and leather clad rockers’ turning up! It eventually got switched to Stansted House. But somehow no-one complained about the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra playing there… so its obviously not about the event itself, or the amount of people or the parking, its a class thing.

Architecture is another one. There are plenty of people out there who will oppose planning permission on a new building just becase they don’t like it. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make sure that new buildings look good, but is it right for a very small part of the population to have such influence over the environment? And especially when often it holds up and delays important projects. There is something rather elitist about pushing your views on something, because you think they are more important than other people’s. Even when it affects them too.

There have been plenty of debates around Britain about whether wind farms look ugly. Unless I’m very much mistaken, we’re facing so many problems with fossil fuels running out and power stations creating greenhouse gases, that we can’t really afford to worry about whether they spoil Mrs. Davis-Jones’s views from her nice little bungalow! There are plenty of wind turbines in Europe, and they don’t look that bad.

In other countries – I think principally of Germany – things just get done. No one complains or moans, the greater good takes priority. I guess there is a greater heritage there of obeying authority, whereas here we are all entitled to have a good moan, no matter how crazy our grounds might be. I guess its a price we pay for democracy, it takes forever for anything to get done.

Look at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics – whoever was in charge would have called the shots, and no complaining. Whereas for the 2012 opening ceremony, I bet we already have a plethora of committees, focus panels, advisory groups, hundreds of special advisers, consultants, all sorts. Who knows how it will end up…

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Matt Frei’s ‘Berlin’

Matt Frei

Matt Frei

Regular readers will know that I have a bit of a soft spot for Berlin, where historical cities are concerned. Therefore I was excited to see Matt Frei’s recent series on the German Capital, which was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As his name suggests, Frei is is of German ancestry. Born in 1963 in Essen, West Germany, he left Germany at the age of 10, studied at Oxford and became the BBC’s Washington correspondent. As such he is ideally placed to commentate on the complex and unique story of Berlin. This isnt somebody commenting on Berlin from the outside, but from the inside.

Rather than taking a purely chronological approach – as Andrew Marr has done recently in his ‘Making of Modern Britain’ – Frei quite wisely avoids this easy but confusing option. Berlin has such a twisted and complex history that it makes much more sense explained thematically. That is, to take a theme, and follow it through the ages. As such, the three programmes in the series are each themed on Politics, Architecture and Society. And it makes for quite a balanced and well structured approach.

Frei makes use of some very interesting eyewitness accounts, and some moving interviews. Overall it is very watchable indeed. I hope this isnt his last attempt at history-making. Although a political correspondent, he doesnt dwell too much on high politics. The statesmen and ordinary people do not compete for air time, their experiences complement each other – as seen in JFK’s famous speech in Berlin in 1963.

Like perhaps no other city on earth, Berlin WAS the 20th Century in case study. It is incredible how much change, tension, bloodshed, division, but also creativity and freedom can fill one city in such a short space of time. Its quite a unique place with a character all of its own, and this is something that Matt Frei puts across very well.

The series is still available to view on BBC iplayer, and you can also obtain a free acompanying guide to Berlin from the Open University.

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Filed under Architecture, News, On TV, politics, social history, World War One, World War Two

Fort Nelson revamp goes off with a bang

A £2 million revamp of Fort Nelson, near Portsmouth, got off to an explosive start yesterday.

The Fort, home of the Royal Armouries collection of Artilley and Cannons, is a nineteenth century Palmerston fort, on the crest of Portsdown Hill.

The first phase involved the demolition of a post-war cottage, in fitting fashion by a Sexton armoured vehicle.

The demolition is the first stage of a major revamp at the Royal Armouries Museum – home to the national collection of artillery and historic cannon – and will see enhanced visitor facilities, galleries and state-of-the-art education facilities.

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Time Team

(l-r) Tony Robinson, Phil Harding, Mick Aston

(l-r) Tony Robinson, Phil Harding, Mick Aston

Unless you’ve lived on a different planet for the past 15 years, you can’t fail but to have seen the hugely popular archaeology TV show, Time Team. It can be seen on Channel 4, and repeats on the Discovery Channel.

First broadcast in 1994, it showcases a team of archaeologists and associated experts as they go about investigating archaeological sites. The real crux of the programme is that they supposedly have only three days to carry out the dig. In fact much of the work is done before and after the three days. They have investigated everything from Paleolithic, Neolithic, Roman, Saxon, Medieval and Industrial Revolution through to second world war sites. They have also produced programmes on excavations in America and the Carribean.

The show is presented by Tony Robinson, of Blackadder fame. As well as an acomplished actor, he’s also got an enthusiasm for archaeology. The main expert is Professor Mick Aston, a nutty professor if ever there was one, with shocks of clown-like hair and day-glo stripey jumpers. Historian Robin Bush used to cover the research side of things, and proved to be unlike many archivists in that he actually had a personality. The show also uses some fascinating geophysical survey technology.

The real gem of the series has to be Phil Harding. Like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel and with the broad wessex accent to match, he is a dirt archaeologist and is always getting involved in the re-enactments and reconstructions. With long hair and short shorts, hes quite a character.

Time Team usually get involved with the local community. I have to admit to being a bit disappointed, however, when earlier this summer they carried out an excavation in Portsmouth and cosied up with Portsmouth Grammar School. Why not invite some less privileged young people who might not normally get that kind of opportunity?

Time Team has made a lasting impact on British archaeology. The archaeologists involved with Time Team have published more scientific papers on excavations carried out in the series than all British university archaeology departments put together over the same period.

A lot of the establishment figures have never been to happy about Time Team, reasoning that it dumbs down archaeology, and no doubt they dont like anything that interests normal people. As someone who thinks that it is the right of anyone and everyone to be interested in history, this smacks of elitism. If these authority figures really loved their subject, then they would be glad that people find an interest in it.

If you dont like people being enthusiastic about history, go and work in a factory.

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‘old’ Portsmouth

18th Century Portsmouth

18th Century Portsmouth

Stood up on Portsdown Hill looking down on Portsmouth, it is hard to imagine that up until around 200 years ago Portsmouth was a very small town, centred around what we know nowadays as Old Portsmouth.

The first settlement on Portsea Island grew up around the mouth of the harbour, apart from a few small farming settlements mentioned in the Domesday book. This protected the entrance to the Royal Dockyard and Portsmouth Harbour, and was surrounded by a fortified wall. Over the centuries these walls grew into considerable buildings. This is not suprising, given that we were constantly at war with someone or other, and Portsmouth was the nations most important Naval Base for much of its existence. You can walk round the site of most of them. The Kings Bastion and Long Curtain Moat can still be seen near Clarence Pier, and of course the Square Tower, Hot Walls and Round Tower are still there. Several of the town gates are still there, although the only one still in its present location is the Landport Gate on St Georges Road, near the United Services Recreation Ground. Walk from the Square Tower, all the way up the High Street, to the Landport Gate, and you realise just what a small area ‘old’ Portsmouth was.

This leads us onto something that often gets overlooked – given its importance, Portsmouth was for most of its history guarded by very large forces of the British Army. You might be forgiven for thinking that Portsmouth was completely dominated by the Royal Navy. In fact, at times Portsmouth would have been inhabited by more soldiers than sailors. The Governor, the military commander, was one of the most important figures in the town.

Portsmouth’s growth outside the town walls started in the 18th century, when Dockyard workers began to build a new township that came to be known as Portsea. In the early 19th Century a businessman, Thomas Croxton, started building what later came to be Southsea. Although Thomas Ellis Owen shaped modern Southsea, Croxton was the first person to build houses in the area. And of course Charles Dickens was born in Halfway Houses, in what we would nowadays call Mile End or Buckland.

Looking at the area, and thinking about how Portsmouth has grown, it makes you realise just what changes occured in such a short space of time.

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