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Welcome to the History Tour of Old Christchurch. I am Michael Hodges your tour guide. This excursion around Christchurch will give you an insight into the past life and times of the town.
We are standing where the Saxons had defensive ditches, outside the town. Look across the bypass towards Waitrose car park where the pagan Saxons had their cemetery. Discovered in 1977, this was a significant site with Neolithic pits, Bronze Age Barrows, and pagan Saxon graves. The graves contained the remains of women with brooches and men with spears, shields and Saxes - knives – and were dated around the 6th century.
Look across to the big traffic island here, the Fountain Roundabout. Houses used to stand here, a three storey tall Antelope Inn, and the Cross Keys Inn, and a road called Spicer Street behind them. Spicer Street had, like much of the town in the eighteenth century, thatched houses. They were burnt in a great fire which left many homeless.
We are now where a drinking fountain and horse trough, once stood. It is now outside the Assembly Rooms in Bargates. The original pub here at the Fountain was the Waggon and Horses, the name changed in 1870.
Directly across from the Fountain Roundabout is a car park which was the Pit Site, a former gravel pit. The town gaol stood here with a pair of stocks. The gaol was called the Blind House and we will hear why later. At one time, the Fire Station was also here.
Look across the road opposite and you will see the New Zealand Gardens, a memory of our twinning with Christchurch, New Zealand. Beyond these gardens is Stour Cottage, the home of the female photographer, Harriet Cobb who lived there in the 1870s, and which is now a Youth Club. It stands in Barrack Road, named after the barracks sited north of the railway, 1794- 1994.
These gardens were given to the town by a local benefactor whose family was prominent here in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Opposite us is the Recreation Ground, a remnant of the Portfield, the town's common field. The ancient name of Portfield has nothing to do with the Harbour, it is the Saxon name for the field belonging to the port, that is a market town.
The wall was built on orders of King Alfred to keep the Vikings out, sometime after 876. The Vikings are the cause of local folklore about dragons, probably from their ships figureheads. Christchurch was defended by 470 warriors. They manned a palisaded fighting platform on top of the ten foot high wall. In front were ditches, the wide wall was of turf laced with timber and made use of a conveniently located sandbank. At some time, perhaps that of King Canute, the wall was faced with iron stone - as we see here. The stones originally mortared with oyster shells from the Harbour and the iron stone was perhaps taken from Double Dykes at Hengistbury Head. The wall ran from a large ironstone boulder by the Mill Stream to this point and then turned 90 degrees to run through Druitt Gardens to where there is another large boulder, built into the corner of a house at the junction of Silver Street with Church Lane.
Parallel with the route of the wall in Druitt Gardens, is the Creedy footpath. This path may have been used by monks from Christchurch Priory to walk outside the town to the St. Mary Magdalen Leper Hospital which was situated on the other side of the Portfield. Creedy can mean winding, but it has been suggested that the path was called Creedy because of monks chanting ‘the Creed’ to protect them from infection en route to and from the Hospital. The Hospital was near where Shortwood House now stands, which accommodated General (later Field Marshall) Montgomery after Dunkirk.
We are now walking over the site of the cellars of Aldridge's Brewery. Christchurch once had three breweries and 30 pubs or beer houses. This was not because the locals were all drunks. They drank ‘weak’ that is a small beer, because local well water was unfit to drink. The wells of individual houses could be next to latrines and the churchyard of the Priory was on the highest ground on the gravel on which the town stands.
This building, Bow House, was the property of Edward Hart, a local taxidermist, who opened Hart's Natural History Museum here in 1886. The Museum ran until 1924. Information on Hart can be found at The Red House Museum which we will pass later on.
Opposite Bow House once stood the Bar Gate, which was the main entrance to Christchurch. The Normans called the taxation area, like the Saxons, a Hundred. They called Christchurch, Edgegate Hundred in the Doomsday Book, because it was the gate to the edge of the New Forest.
As you walk down notice how wide the High Street is. This is because of the market. There is a market held here every Monday. The market dates from Saxon times and is first mentioned in a Charter from the Earl of Devon in 1149. Up until 1871 there were also the Borough's two annual Fairs. The Priory or Trinity Fair (the Priory Church is dedicated to the Holy Trinity) held on Trinity Thursdays in early summer and the three day St. Faith's Eve Fair on 6th to 8th October after Michaelmass. These fairs involved buying and selling animals and also involved Fairfield at the end of Bargates and beyond into Fairmile. They were also hiring fairs where employment could be sought and offered. There was also entertainment such as Cudgel Fighting - no rounds, fighting was supposed to stop when claret (blood) was spilt. Fairs were essential in medieval times for the supply of technology and long distance goods like tools and spices, before the railway.
The High Street could also be a site for public punishment. Thieves were whipped for 100 yards through the market. Other punishments included the Ducking Stool and the Whirly Gig. These two instruments were kept in the North Porch of the Priory when not in use. The Ducking Stool was used at the once much deeper Mill Stream, off Millhams Street, at Cucking Stool Lane (now labelled Ducking Stool Lane due to the Council's fear of graffiti).
The Hall was built here in Blanchard's Yard in 1859. However, this was not its first site. It once stood at the Market Square, the junction of High, Castle and Church Streets. Such halls developed from a Market Cross, which were later given a roof to house fire fighting equipment, such as thatch rakes, brooms and buckets. Eventually a room was incorporated to become a civic meeting room and to give weather protection to some stalls. That is what we have here.
The part of the ground floor of the Market Hall which is enclosed contains the stairs to what is now the Mayor's Parlour on the first floor. The area under the stairs was once the town gaol, known as 'The Blind House', since it had no windows. This small lock up would have been used to accommodate noisy drunks. The name stuck when a proper small gaol was built on the Pit Site which is now a car park.
The space to the left of the Hall was once occupied by a medieval wooden frame cruck building, called Hookey's House, which was demolished in 1973. Samuel Hookey was known as the Wicked Man of Wick. In the 18th century he became a successful smuggler and owned three luggers which he kept in the Harbour. Like many successful smugglers Hookey became a pillar of society and was Mayor twice in 1727 & 1743.
On the opposite side of the road your will see the old Hengist Masonic Lodge built in 1836, now a solicitors' office. Next to it is a route into the Druitt Gardens, and where the library entrance building is, there was once a school (1829-67).The library was the house of the Druitt family from the 1840's to the 1940's. It has been a part of the County Library Service since 1952, in Hampshire to 1974 and now part of Dorset. The Christchurch Local History Society operates the Local History Room on the first floor.
The crossroads here, like the street plan of the town, dates from Saxon, and perhaps even Roman times. It enabled men to go down to where the Druitt Gardens are now to man the town wall. Millhams Lane passes the Non-Conformist church. The Non-Conformist Minister, installed after Parliament captured the town in 1644, was ejected from the Priory at the Restoration in 1660. The Congregational Church (built 1867) has two graveyards either side of the lane.
At the corner of Millhams Lane and the High Street, there was a building here that in 1572 was called the Old Tolsey, meaning the old toll house for the market. It was next to The Ship Inn which has the oldest current licence in Christchurch. There was a rooftop connection between the Old Tolsey and The Ship Inn which enabled smuggled goods to be moved. Behind The Ship Inn facing onto Millhams Lane was Cox's, one of the town's three fusee chain factories in 1789. The building has been demolished. These factories employed women and children whose small fingers could make the tiny chains for watches. They were often paupers from the Poor House.
On the opposite side of the road, we have our local book shop. This was once the home of Clingan whose 1736 Charity still exists, providing funds to help equip young people with tools or technical books, to aid them in finding work. It was also once the mercers shop of the Ferrey family who were also tailors, milliners and undertakers 1760 to 1936.
We are now at Market Square. The road's angles from Castle Street into Church Street have been curved from the original straight line Saxon Street plan by the ditch of Christchurch's Norman Castle. This was built about 1074 by William the Conqueror to enforce his New Forest laws.
The Market Hall was built in the Market Square in 1745 but was later moved to Blanchard's Yard in the High Street in 1859. This was largely because of the increase in traffic which resulted from the railway. The railway arrived at Holmsley in 1848 and was called Christchurch Road Station. The Market Hall at the Square only gave eleven feet clearance which caused traffic jams for horse drawn coaches and wagons going to the station.
The ‘George' was originally The St. George and Dragon, a coaching inn which existed in 1652. Here the Coach from Winchester via Lymington to Poole would change horses. Next door to the George is Lloyds TSB Bank which has a brick skin concealing what were once three wooden medieval structures. In 1685, the building was the White Hart Inn. Between it and The George is the narrow Drum Alley which links the Market Place to Ducking Stool Lane.
Across the road, next to the Castle entrance is the New Forest Perfumery, an excellent 14th century structure. The Court Leet met in the now demolished Castle Gate House and also used a back room at the Perfumery. The shop and home is probably Britain’s oldest Council House.
Here we morn the loss of Square House, a superb Palladian Mansion, built in 1776 with Adam's ceilings and fireplaces. Some of the ceiling was saved and for years was stored in the stables of Shortwood House in Magdalen Lane. Parts are now in the ceiling of the Mayor's Parlour.
Before the Norman Castle was built Wick Lane was the continuation of what is now Castle Street. The lane has been known as Dolphin Lane and as Pig Lane over the years. Down the Lane is a pub now called the Thomas Tripp, a fictitious smuggler. It was originally called the Plumbers Arms.
You will see a wine bar. This was formerly the site of the Castle Tavern. This, like most of the other buildings on that side of the road are built over the Castle ditch.
We are now in Church Street with some of the oldest houses in Christchurch. The church is on a prehistoric pagan site and a former Saxon Minister. See how the High Street points to the centre of the church where the Saxon Minister stood, but Church Street points to the North Porch.
Church Street was famous a century ago for its cream teas and lobster luncheons. The name of Castle Tea Rooms is still a mosaic at the entrance to Splinters Restaurant.
The shop to the left of Splinters is on the site of the original St. Mary Magdalen Hospital, circa 13th century, before it moved to a more isolated site at the far side of Portfield at Magdalen Lane.
The gift shop opposite called the Eight Bells is a reminder of the inn called the Eighth Bell. This is because the Priory had a peal of seven bells (it now has twelve). So the eighth bell was like the nineteenth hole for golfers, a pub where campanologists went for a drink after bell ringing.
The churchyard includes graves from early Christian times. Some are even under the wall of the Priory and now create problems of structural stability. The tomb of Henry Rodgers, 1641, also holds the bones of some monks who were dug up so that their lead coffins could be used for making shot during the Civil War. There are also graves from the 1786 wreck of the Halsewell. There was also a mausoleum for a woman afraid of being buried alive. She wanted to be able to call out if she recovered, so it was built in such a way that the boys going up the Stair Tower to the Grammar School in St. Michael's Loft would hear her.
At the end of the path and on your right is the Red House Museum, once the Borough's Poor House where the destitute were cared for. Inmates had to wear a uniform and were put to work on unpleasant tasks, like picking oakum, turning old rope into caulking for use between planks in ship building, or making fusee chains. Inmates, even if old married couples, were split into male and female dormitories. The building used to be owned by Herbert Druitt who had his own collections of local history material, which became a Museum in 1951.
We now pass the Porter's Lodge into the monastic precinct. Once, no females would be permitted here. Most of the monastery buildings were sold off by Henry VIII, he did however, give the church to the townspeople. There are still some of the monastic precinct walls standing and a building towards the Town Quay, inside the wall, was perhaps once a bakery or a brew house.
Here we find Barney's Corner named for Chief Petty Officer Eric Barnes, for many years President of the local branch of the Royal British Legion. The stone with the inscription at Barney's Corner is a memorial stone to celebrate victory in World War II. It was placed here in 1995. The shingle around the stone is to remember the Death Railway in the Far East, as is the bamboo growing behind it. This is to remember the 14th Army, The Forgotten Army, which kept the Japanese out of India and pushed them back out of Burma.
Here at the Mill Pool we have Place Mill, the monastic corn mill, later also used for fulling cloth for the wool trade. The Mill is mentioned in Domesday, along with Knapp and Town Mills. We are not looking at a Saxon or Norman building but a site that has been repaired and amended over ten or more centuries. Inside the building you will find the mill wheel, wooden gears and mill stones. There are also displays on smuggling and archaeology.
Here at Town Quay ships were built during medieval times for the King. Vessels of 25 tons burden could sail up the River Avon from here to Salisbury. Nowadays you can board a boat at the Quay to visit Mudeford, Sandspit and traverse the beautiful Christchurch Harbour.
More information on the fascinating history of the Christchurch can be found in the book ‘A brief History of Christchurch’ or DVD ‘Christchurch Heritage’ both by Michael Hodges, which can be found in the Museum shop. Or perhaps join one of the guided walks of Christchurch. Information can be found at the Tourist Information Centre, in the High Street. Oh, and don't forget to visit Place Mill, the Red House Museum and the Priory Church.
Michael A. Hodges – September 2009.