In 1697 Celia Fiennes described Sandwich as `a sad old town, all

The Sandwich Project: A New Look at an Old Town
Helen Clarke
South-east England has a proud heritage of historic towns, from Roman Canterbury to
the mid-20th-century new town of Crawley. The Cinque Ports of Kent (Sandwich,
Dover, Hythe and New Romney) and Sussex (originally Hastings, then also Rye and
New Winchelsea) fit neatly between these two extremes. They have had almost a
thousand years of turbulent history, which is still partly reflected in their physical
remains. Some have suffered more than others over the years. At Dover World War II
shelling and 20th-century development have taken their toll. The great 12th- and 13thcentury churches Hythe and New Romney are virtually all that remain to reflect the
past prosperity of those two ports, and a few timber-framed buildings in Hastings Old
Town are tantalising pointers to earlier days.
The three other ports are the best preserved. The grid-pattern street system laid out
when Edward I re-founded New Winchelsea in 1283 still survives intact and is
flanked by about 30 subterranean 14th- and 15th-century cellars, but their associated
above-ground buildings are rarely of medieval date. In contrast, although Rye’s street
pattern was established in the middle ages, it is largely a 16th-century town, with
almost 150 domestic buildings surviving from before 1750. It remains for Sandwich
to be the sole representative of a truly medieval Cinque Port. Its historic core is
defined by its medieval walls surrounding an area c. 1km by 0.5km with over 150
houses dating from before 1600 and still occupied, three parish churches, and a
medieval guildhall.
Sandwich was at its most prosperous before c. 1500, after which time the Wantsum
Channel silted up and Sandwich Haven gradually became too shallow to serve the
deep-draught merchantmen which had previously visited it from abroad. Local
coasters continued to use Sandwich until the early 20th century, but today its haven is
home only to pleasure craft. Sandwich’s late medieval decline led to its being
described in 1697 as ‘a sad old town, all timber buildings … so run to decay that
except one or two good houses, it’s just like to drop down’, and in 1823 it was ‘as
villainous a hole as you would wish to see’. The perceptions of earlier centuries,
however, are not ours, and today Sandwich can proudly boast that it is ‘the completest
medieval town in England’, with well-kept houses picturesquely lining its narrow
The Sandwich Project began in October 2004 when English Heritage agreed to
support a multidisciplinary study of the medieval town, in which a building historian
(Sarah Pearson), archaeologists (Keith Parfitt, Barry Corke, Helen Clarke)
documentary historians (Mavis Mate, Sheila Sweetinburgh) are co-operating to
investigate the town from its origins to 1600. This approach to urban studies is novel
in that all the specialists have been involved right from the start of the project,
together devising the research questions and composing the research design, and all
will be involved in the final publications (a specialist report for English Heritage and
a new history of the port for the general reader).
The surviving pre-1600 buildings form the backbone to the study, for Sarah Pearson
began to survey the medieval houses before the start of Sandwich project and has now
completed work on more than a hundred buildings. Eleven of those incorporate stonebuilt ranges which date from c. 1300. The later houses are timber-framed, with
significant numbers dating from the second half of the 15th century. The
preponderance of buildings from these years is rather surprising, for this was the time
when Sandwich’s harbour and foreign trade were in decline. It is hoped that
explanations for this will emerge from study of the town yearbooks (minutes of
council meetings, known as the Black Book, White Book, Red Book etc.), which have
survived from 1432 to the end of the 16th century, and which have never been
published. They contain a wealth of information on urban buildings, the development
and decline of the harbour, port installations and so on, which the documentary
historians are extracting and entering in a database.
The positioning of the medieval houses within the historic core of the town has also
proved to be of great interest, when set against the results of a close-contour map of
the town within the walls, surveyed by Keith Parfitt and Barry Corke. The map shows
that although Sandwich is very low-lying, it is by no means flat, with some land as
high as 8m OD. While land above 3.5m OD was dry and habitable from the preConquest period, that below 3.5m OD was probably waterlogged until the late 13th
century when the Carmelite friary (Whitefriars) was founded on land only 2m OD
which must have been drained to make it habitable. Significantly, the earliest
surviving buildings in the town stand on the dry land which may even have been
occupied in the Saxon period, for the parish church of St Clement was a large church
by c. 1050 and may have originated much earlier.
This leads to one further aspect of the project where its multidisciplinary approach has
already borne fruit: the possible site of Middle Saxon Sandwich. The absence of preConquest archaeological evidence from the present town has always puzzled scholars,
for there are sufficient references to Sandwich (Sondwic, Sanduuic etc. – the wic
(settlement) on the sand) in Old English documents to suggest that there was a
settlement there at least from the 8th century. When the close-contour survey was
extended to the environs of the town and combined with geological evidence, it
indicated that earliest Sandwich could have stood on an inlet with a gently shelving
beach, some 1.5km east of the medieval walled town and on what was then the
Channel coast. It seems more likely that this was a haven for shipping than an urban
centre, and it was probably succeeded by several harbours before the final site of
Sandwich was occupied in the place we know today (for more details see KAS
Newsletter 65, summer 2005).
The Sandwich Project will cover many more aspects of the history of the town, but it
is not only concerned with Sandwich past, it is also significant for Sandwich present
and Sandwich future. For example, the proposed expansion of house building in
south-east England over the next decade and current concerns about loss of greenbelt
and destruction of rural environments, suggest that Sandwich is unlikely to escape
pressure for new housing. Changes may be inevitable, but their effects can be
mitigated by ensuring that those responsible for planning and development are aware
of the historic town’s character and urban environment. By increasing and
disseminating knowledge of how the town has developed, and its unique character
past and present, the project hopes to increase that awareness and make a positive
contribution to the future of Sandwich.
1. Sandwich Haven today
2. Sandwich past and present
3. Stone-built house from c. 1300
4. Close-contour survey with land below 3.5m OD shaded