Potted history

The LIons House allotments were given Gold in the recent “Northumbria in Bloom” awards.  As an allotment holder there, I may be a little biased but they are a charming corner of Berwick.  During the summer, visitors can often be seen leaning over the wall admiring the pastoral scene.  

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The soil itself was pronounced as being some of the best in the country when analysed by an expert in such matters.  And why wouldn’t it be?  It is basically one giant compost heap, a midden pile of all the town’s rubbish accumulated over hundreds of years.  I have found all sorts of pottery, including mediaeval “green glaze”, shells, animal bones, glass and metalware, including my “star exhibit” – part of a shattered 18th centry cannonball!  But there’s so much more beneath the soil.

The idea of allotments in the “modern” sense can be traced back to the industrial revolution of the 18th century.  Workers in towns and cities throughout the country, might be given a smallholding as part of their wages to grow their own food.  

Early maps suggest the allotments site is divided into strips of land. 

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Strips of land at the site in 1750. The Gunpowder Magazine is marked “R”

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Map from Dr Fuller’s History of Berwick (1799).  Back Way is an early name for Ravensdowne.  The Gunpowder Magazine is marked “H”

In 1822 however, John Wood’s map of Berwick shows the site as having a bowling green, probably used by the town’s Governor.  This explains the flat central area that exists now.  It was. To the south of this flat area is a long raised grass path that is marked on the map as “Berwick Ropework”.  In the mid-18th century, an increase in trade and shipping saw an increase in the use of long unhindered stretches of land around Berwick as places of rope manufacture.

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Detail from Wood’s map of Berwick (1822) showing the bowling green (note the spelling!), the icehouses and ropework.  The alignment of the south part of the New Fort has been added.

At the west end of the ropework is a carefully mown area of grass with two windows poking out of it!  I often joke with people that its where the Berwick Hobbits live.  In reality these are the top entrances to two ice houses that had belonged to the Berwick Salmon Fishing Company.  Built in the late 18th century onwards, there are several of these around town – most famously the Bank Hill ice house.  They stored ice all year round for the new Chinese method of keeping fish fresh by packing them in ice.

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One of the upper entrances to the icehouses.

By 1844, it would appear that the site had reverted, at least in part, to use as gardens and in 1870 was providing produce for a greengrocer called Payne who had a shop on Marygate near the entrance to Crawford’s Alley.  After the shop burnt down in the 1880s, parcels of land were sold off and this may be the origins of the allotments as we know them.

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Detail from map (1844) showing the allotments (far right).  The site appears to have been divided into parcels of land and now shows the section to the south of the ropework which appears much the same as in 1822.

Perhaps the most hidden secrets are the two 16th century fortifications on the site.  To the north is a path that winds its way from Ravensdowne, around the Lions House, to the Gunpowder Magazine on the Elizabethan walls.  Visitors and locals alike are likely unaware that their vantage point overlooking the bucolic tranquility of the gardens is actually the south wall of the Edward VI Citadel, a “New Fort” started in the early 1550s to replace the then ruined and redundant castle.  This was a rectangular structure with arrow shaped bastions in each corner.  The path turns its way around the south-west bastion – hence the curves. 

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16th century later defences at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight showing with similar bastions to those at the New Fort.

Building the fort was abandoned after a lot of work and money had been expended on it.  It was decided to completely revise the defence of the town and the Elizabethan walls were started in 1558.  These were not so much finished in 1570 so much as work was simply stopped.  A south wall completing the circuit from Kings Mount near the allotments in the south-east and Megs Mount in the north-west, cutting off the lower part of Hide Hill and Bridge Street, was never built.  Or was it?  

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Detail from topographic map of 1570 showing Kings Mount and what appears to be a ridge of land that is surely the raised ropework.

Kings Mount was shifted south a bit from the orginally intended site and joined on to the older mediaval walls which run around the riverside to Megs.  But I believe, the foundations for this south wall were built.  Why else is the ropework raised like it is?  Its not a natural feature and doesn’t have to be raised for that purpose so must be related to the Elizabethan walls.

One of the comments made by the Northumbria In Bloom judges was their appreciation of the site’s heritage.  How right they were!

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