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The History of Winchelsea

A town planned: the cellars of Winchelsea

One of the most notable features of Winchelsea is the number of well-built vaulted stone cellars (properly called undercrofts). The number is matched or exceeded only in Southampton, Norwich and Chester (but Chester’s cellars are built on a slope and are not truly subterranean, and many are not vaulted). Some 33 of Winchelsea’s cellars are still accessible and the existence of another 18 medieval vaulted cellars are known. From the amount of wine imported into New Winchelsea in 1300/01, it has been estimated that Winchelsea could have had as many as 70 cellars.

A medieval vaulted cellar under WinchelseaThe cellars vary in size from 25 to 125 square metres, although the majority are in the range 30-50 square metres. The average cellar would hold over 120 hogsheads (6,300 gallons) of wine. All are well built and some are quite elaborate, with decorative features such as chamfered ribs and corbelling, probably in Caen stone. Each cellar is entered by a wide flight of stairs from the street, and some also have a rear entrance. Some cellars have windows, opening into stone-lined light wells leading up to street level.

The design of Winchelsea’s cellars and the quality of their construction suggests commercial rather than domestic use. The principal commodity stored in the cellars is thought to be wine from Gascony. The current theory is that the cellars, at least those with windows providing natural light and with decorative features, were used as part retail wine shop and part wholesale wine sales area. Wine bought in bulk was probably kept in warehouses down on the harbourside. The link between the cellars and the wine trade appears to be confirmed by the concentration of known cellars in the northeast corner of the town, close to the port. Only a few unvaulted cellars have been found around the Monday Market, reinforcing the view that the market square was for trading with Winchelsea’s hinterland.

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