Visitors can easily identify the tops of cellar entrances at ground level.

Cellar entrance beneath Stone Cottage, Barrack Square

The Cellars

The merchants of the New Winchelsea needed storage space for the goods they imported and exported. Sheds were built above ground but cellars were also built underground for greater security.

The cellars are of barrel vault construction with rounded arches and roofs. A number have pointed barrel vaulting, a variant believed to have originated in France at Cluny in Burgundy. The Romans brought barrel vaulting to western Europe, but it probably originated in the Middle East – in the area of Mesopotamia that is today’s Iraq. The Romans adopted the technique. An early sewer in Rome (Cloaca Maxima, 600 BC, probably built by Etruscan engineers) can still be seen. From Italy, its use spread and was widely adopted in medieval France, especially in Burgundy. Builders in Malta and Gozo today still use the barrel vault as a building method, albeit with some modern techniques. Following the Norman Conquest, its popularity in England over the following two centuries resulted in most churches and castles featuring them.

The barrel vault creates a strong structure provided the external walls are robustly built and properly strengthened to prevent the downward roof forces pushing them out. This would obviously not have been a problem with an underground cellar.

The Winchelsea Cellars pre-date the first houses constructed above them. It would have been impossible to create such a void and to carry out large construction work after a house had been built above. Hence the cellars must have been among the very first structures in Winchelsea, from about 1290.

The barrel vault creates a strong structure.

Stairs leading into one of the best-preserved cellars

The building of a cellar may have been as follows. Initially, the void would have been dug out and all the spoil removed by spade, windlass and bucket. Then the initial side walls would have been constructed, probably of local stone like Kentish ragstone, up to about a metre and a half in height on either side. The arches to span the cellar would then have been “sprung” across the width of the cellar using scaffolding or centring of timber underneath to support them. Striking or removing the centring was a dangerous task since it could only be achieved from underneath and had to be done slowly and precisely. Sometimes the scaffolding poles stood in boxes of sand which could be emptied slowly to avoid vibration.

It would have taken months to build each cellar, in part because lime mortar would have been used. Lime mortar sets properly only over time, and that time depends on the precise mix used and the local climatic conditions. Portland quick-drying cement that we use today was manufactured only from the 1840s. Lime mortar is flexible but not as strong as the materials it binds together. It continues to be used in the restoration of ancient buildings. Whether the slow setting time of medieval lime mortar lengthened the building time for the cellars is disputed by one local restoration expert and stone mason. He believes that a well-built arch can be de-centred almost immediately. Nineteenth century sources in France suggest that weeks, and in some cases months, needed to elapse before the centring was removed. Were the French more cautious?

It was at that moment that failures in arch building often occurred, either because the lime mortar was insufficiently set or there were constructions faults. There were several well-recorded, spectacular failures of arches in English churches during the medieval period.

The stone for the arches probably came from the famous Caen quarries in Normandy rather than from Kent or Sussex. Trade with France was active in the 1200s/1300s and Caen stone was prized for its colour, quality and ability to be carved. The uniform shape and size of the finished stones suggest they were cut at the quarry itself. It was a common practice since transport costs were high and stone masons few.

The roof itself was added following construction of the arches by placing planks longitudinally from arch to arch. Pieces of Kentish ragstone were mortared into place, edge down, in a gradual curving structure working from above. Perhaps the planking was left in place to decay; the marks of timbers can still be seen in some cellar roofs. A development was a rolling semi-circular scaffolding assembled from below to fit between each pair of arches. The arches, or ribs of stone, that are such a feature of the cellars were fundamental to their design structure and not merely decorative – though they are that too.

Following a significant investment by a merchant, the cellar was finally ready for use.

Some cellars are clearly of a grander scale than others.

Using the cellars

A house was then built on top. It is clear from early Winchelsea records, though, that not all cellars were owned by the householder above. Certainly some were rented separately. There is a record that Edward I paid five pence for a new lock on a cellar he rented for his goods stored in Winchelsea prior to the siege of Calais in 1297.

All the cellars have an entrance from the road for delivery of goods and some, but not all, from the house above. None appears to rise above the natural level of the surrounding ground (ie, jutting above ground level), suggesting that whoever built the cellar was able to gauge accurately the expected final scale of the structure. Most, but not all, were built at right-angles to the street from which they had their principal entrance.

Some cellars are clearly of a grander scale than others, with natural light and quadripartite vaulting or gothic arches. One even has its own constructed chimney. These probably were used as showrooms as well as storage places for incoming goods; a place where merchants could meet prospective customers, display and maybe sample goods such as wine. We know that Gascon merchants were permitted by the Crown to visit England for up to three months each year to sell their wine and they sometimes lived and entertained in the cellars.

Wine from Bordeaux

Wine had been imported from France from the early days of the Norman Conquest and even before. Initially it came mainly from the Ile de France and the Loire via Rouen, with some from Bordeaux. Following the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry of Anjou in 1152, he became Henry II of England two years later. Gascony then became part of the English Crown’s possessions and trade began to follow royal ownership. Bordeaux increasingly became the source of wine imported into England by the 1200s. At its peak in the early 1300s, coinciding with the height of New Winchelsea’s importance, over 100,000 tons of wine was exported from Bordeaux in a single season. Winchelsea was one of the ports to which it was shipped. The journey, though, was hazardous even in times of peace. Hugging the coast of southern England, ships would leave Winchelsea in late October, heading down the English Channel until they got as far as Devon or Cornwall. From there, they made the crossing to Brittany. Ships appear to have carried very limited supplies of food and drink because there are many reports of such vessels stopping two, three or even four times en route to replenish supplies. They also had to avoid pirates (French, Spanish or Scottish), as well as navigating ships that sailed very poorly into wind, around the tip of Brittany at the most difficult times of the year – October/November and again in February/March.

The Hundred Years War between England and France from 1337 caused much upheaval. Not only were many of the vineyards in and around Bordeaux devastated in the fighting but ships carrying wine were open to attack at many points in the sea voyage to and from Bordeaux. Wine exports fluctuated sharply as a result, dropping to as low as about 6,000 tons in 1348/49. And the retail price of wine in England doubled at times during the war. The practice of forming ships into convoys also began during the war in order to protect the valuable cargos, which often comprised wool and wheat en route to Bordeaux and wine on their return. Convoys were compulsory and backed by the authority of the English Crown on pain of forfeiture of the ship.

The wine came not only from the immediate area around Bordeaux, but from a much wider area that included the Haut Pays (comprising areas known today as Entre deux Mers), Cote de Duras, Cahors and Gaillac. Though considered inferior to the finer wines produced around Bordeaux, the wines of the Haut Pays were much liked by the English.

Wine was taxed on leaving Gascony and on arrival in England. The King’s Prise was the greatest, exacting one ton from ships laded with 10 to 19 tons and two tons from ships laded with 20 or more tons. Once landed, wine was also taxed by the levy of the royal penny gauge paid on each ton of wine. The wine was then assessed as to its quality and the retail price laid down by the local assizes.

Though wine was measured in tons, and a ton of wine comprised 252 gallons, this size would have been too great to take on board ships. A smaller barrel, the hogshead containing about 63 gallons, may have been used since this was (and still is) manageable by sailors and wine producers. There appears to have been no precise standard size of barrel used during that period. There are many accounts of different barrel size according to the region.

Winchelsea was in decline by the end of the 1300.

Section of endwall in Salutation Inn cellar

Storage in the cellars

William MacLean Homan, the Winchelsea resident who did so much to map and catalogue the history of Winchelsea in the 1930s and ’40s, was in no doubt that wine was the most important item stored in the cellars. Certainly the Bordeaux wine records show that Winchelsea was one of the chief wine importing ports of England in the early 1300s. Taking one example, during the wine importing “season” 1306/07 between October and the following April, over 736,000 gallons of wine are recorded as having been shipped from Bordeaux to Winchelsea. Homan believed the barrels of wine were stored in the cellars. Other historians have challenged this. They argue that their relative remoteness from the quayside and high above it would have made it more likely that wine was stored by the quayside itself. However, the value of such wine cargos and susceptibility to theft and adverse weather makes it more likely that it was stored in the cellars for the limited time it was kept in the town – until it was sold and re-shipped.

Certainly the very stable temperature in the cellars would have made them better for storing wine when compared with above-ground structures, which would have been much more exposed to the temperature variations of winter and summer. As an example, the maximum/minimum daily temperature of the cellar below Five Chimneys varied by only four degrees centigrade between September 2002 and the following March, from 16C to 12C, and by less than half a degree in any 24 hour period. This temperature range provides a very benign environment for wine.

The Winchelsea cellars were also used for other goods. Iron products from the Weald, dairy products, salt, wool and dried fish, all were exported through Winchelsea. The range of imported goods was considerable. Import duty was payable on over 60 items varying from squirrel skins, to honey, garlic and monkeys.

The decline

Winchelsea was in decline by the end of the 1300s, in part due to the devastation wrought by the attacks on the town during the Hundred Years War and in part through the gradual silting up of harbour. The Black Death (1348-50), which killed an unimaginable number of people across Europe, contributed to the town’s decline. However, Winchelsea continued to trade and its port was used, for example, to take pilgrims to and from France en route to Santiago de Compostella. A licence granted to Robert Porter included the stipulation that each pilgrim would swear “to reveal no secrets of the realm to any foreigner”. The cellars, though, were never used again to the extent they were during Winchelsea’s first 100 years.

Many people have suggested that the cellars were used for storing smuggled goods. Certainly there was smuggling around the Romney Marsh, especially during the Napoleonic Wars. But surely the cellars were far too obvious a storage place? And Winchelsea housed the local headquarters of the riding officer and his preventative men.

Like so much of the history of Winchelsea, there are many unanswered questions. No record has been found of any builder of the cellars; no record found of how they were constructed, how long it took or whether any failed and collapsed during construction; no stone masons’ marks have been found on the carved stones. The cellars remain silent monuments to those skilful but unrecorded, unassuming men who helped to build this new town during the sometimes prosperous, but often precarious years, of medieval England.