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The history of Winchelsea

A town planned

New Winchelsea was not the first planned town in medieval England (these date from the 9th century). Nor was the grid pattern of its streets unusual. However, Winchelsea was unique in terms of the scale of the new town, the spaciousness of its streets, and the fact that it is still laid out as planned (and that there are extant records of the foundation, allowing the original plan to be reconstructed in detail). It was also unusual in having the streets numbered rather than named, something perpetuated in North American cities (which seems to have given rise to the extraordinary local myth that the plan of New Winchelsea was the inspiration for the layout of New York).

In some respects, New Winchelsea is reminiscent of the bastide towns that were being planted in the late 13th century in English and French Gascony. Despite some unsightly encroachment around the periphery allowed during the 20th century, the medieval landscape setting and the visual impression of a bastide town are largely preserved in the contrast between Iham Hill and the level expanse of marshland around it.

Iham Hill, on which New Winchelsea was built, resembles in plan an inverted triangle with its base to the north and its apex in the direction south by southwest. The River Brede runs below the northern edge of the hill, coming close to the hill at its northeastern corner (the area called the Strand). On the northwestern corner of the hill, there is a squarish projection on which the settlement of Iham was located. The northern, eastern and southern sides of the hill are quite steep, but the western side slopes more gently. The hill is fairly flat but slopes from about 130 feet above sea level in the north to about 30 feet in the south, where it joins the main upland ridge from which it projects.

The King’s commissioners divided the hill top into 39 quarters laid out in a grid pattern. However, the grid is not precisely north-south and east-west. The ‘vertical’ streets follow the axis of the hill, which runs from NNE to SSW. Two of the nine ‘horizontal’ streets --- those that run to the north and south of the main market square --- run east-west. Other horizontal streets, however, especially those to the south of the main market square, run from NWW to SEE. The quarters bounded by the streets are not therefore squares or rectangles, nor are they of equal size, especially in the southern part of the town and on the periphery. The horizontal streets are numbered from the north. North Street was First Street. Mill Road was Second Street, the High Street was Third Street and Back Lane was Fourth Street. No names are recorded for the vertical streets.

The quarters were numbered. Quarter 1 was in the northeast corner of the town. The numbers then ran ‘horizontally’ along the top row of quarters to west as far as Quarter 5. The second row of quarters was similarly numbered from the east starting with Quarter 6, and so on. The quarters containing the two churches, the main market square and the monastery of the Grey Friars were not numbered, nor were the open spaces around the periphery of the town. They were all referred to by name. Quarter 6 contains the Court Hall. The New Gate, in the extreme south of the town, is in Quarter 39. The quarters were sub-divided into 723 plots.

Ground rents were charged by the Crown from 1295. They were based upon the expected commercial value of plots. The most expensive plots were the 50 around the main market square which cost 60d per acre. The cheapest plots were in the southern quarters and cost 36d. The original rental list of 1292 shows 690 freeholders, some of whom owned more than one plot (often a town and a harbourside plot). The plots were tiny by modern standards, but not in medieval terms. The smallest were just 16ft 6ins by 49ft 6ins (expressed as three virgae, equivalent to one perch). The most common size was 10 virgae (equivalent to one-sixteenth of an acre). However, from early in the history of the new town, plots were merged and subdivided, although it is still possible to trace the original plot boundaries.

In the original plans for New Winchelsea, 12 acres were reserved for the King. It was long thought that this was in the northwest corner of the town near the settlement of Iham and that a castle was built on that site. Indeed, the historical name for the site was Castle Field. However, extensive archaeological investigations have revealed nothing and it is now believed that what was referred to historically as Kings Green was in fact located in the extreme south of the original town adjacent to Quarter 39.

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The quarters of the new town (WAS)