The other week, I got the chance to go to a new (for me) National Trust property. Westbury College Gatehouse given to NT in 1907.
Westbury lies beside the River Trym, originally a Saxon minster church settlement, in recent centuries it has become swallowed up by the expanding city of Bristol.
It was a place I had wanted to visit but I had no excuse and city driving..and parking being difficult, it was not an easy place to get to.
Mel from English Heritage said that we needed to meet Michael there so I contacted Bill at Leigh Woods and he got the keys (loads of them) and he drove us out there. He dropped us off and went to find somewhere to put the car. I shook hands with Michael mentioning that it was my first time at Westbury College Gatehouse. Why ? He said. This place has an older history then Bristol.
Back in 1967, a fire had destoyed an 18th century mansion that lay beside the Gatehouse and before some new flats were built in their place, the site was excavated by Bristol City Museum. Michael, directed the dig and found that the archaeology was full of interest…. but it was raining and we couldn’t work out which key was which.
Bill came back and found a door that would let us in. Outside within the red brown stonework various blocked windows and doors could be seen suggesting the long development of the surviving medieval building but inside, the rooms had been converted to meeting rooms and little detail could be seen until we entered the gateway tower.
The building was constructed in the 15th century as a college of priests for Bishop Carpenter of Worcester Cathedral. It had a round turret at each corner. The north side fronted the river and in the centre of the south side was a large square tower above the main gateway. The east part of the college now lies under terraced houses, apart from the gate tower and range to the south-west turret, only the isolated north-west turret survives behind the 1970s sheltered housing.
The road outside the gate tower is now much higher than the medieval level. We had to walk down some steps to see the decorated vaulting for the 15th century passage way. The tower staircase took us up past rooms used by the Air Corps, full of uniforms, tents and equipment until we reached the roof and Michael told us the story of Westbury with the settlement spread out below us.
In 1968 and 1970, his team had found items dating back to the Mesolithic. These were stray flints indicating that people had lived in the area for at least 7000 years, there were also scraps of Roman pottery but… he pointed down to the gardens of the modern flats that now occupied the site… they had found a grave and parts of skeletons in other dug out graves alongside the Saxon river wall beside the Trym.
There is a document of the 8th century which suggests that a minster church had been founded at Westbury at this time. The great Mercian King Offa granted land at Westbury to Worcester Cathedral in 792. The present parish church on a hill south-east of the College has nothing earlier than 1200 in its architecture apart from a reused Saxon grave marker.
Michael thinks that the evidence of graves beneath the College suggests that the minster church once occupied the site and that it was moved away from the river to the hill, perhaps in the 11th century, when most of the graves were exhumed and reburied at the new church site.
There were extensive footings of a 13th-century monastic site which was replaced by the 15th century college. In the 16th century it became a private house. In the 1640s the Royalist commander Prince Rupert stayed at the house before his attempt to capture Bristol during the English Civil War. He burnt down Westbury College as the Royalist forces retreated. The site was redeveloped in the early 18th century and a roof of this date survives within the Gatehouse building.
We walked beside the river, Bill spotted in the Management Plan that the National Trust retains riparian rights over a section of the Trym. I wonder how far that dates back ..and Michael talked of the phases of river frontage wall he had excavated dating back to the 8th century from which wharfs and jetties could be constructed and fishing could be carried out. He had also found remains of ponds, perhaps fish ponds which are often associated with monastic sites.
We considered all this for a while until Mel said that there must be a dryer place to discuss it.. so Bill bought us all a welcome coffee in the local cafe and we worked out a plan for funding the writing up and publication of such an important excavation.. to help tell the early story of Westbury and therefore the origins of Bristol.