Each year a team of volunteers run guided tours of the town’s medieval cellars. All proceeds received (£5 per person) are used by the charity “Friends of the Ancient Monuments and Museum of Winchelsea (FOAM)” to help maintain and repair the Ancient Monuments of the town.
The town’s largest cellar, under Blackfriars Barn and owned by the National Trust, is open to the public on two occasions each year.
Please book our tours via email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07596 182874. Private tours for groups of 15 or more can be arranged.
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.