The stories and mysteries lying behind Washington’s ancient 'Anglo-Saxon' doorway

Just beside the picturesque Washington village green, next to the Washington Arms pub, is a doorway to the past.

By Tony Gillan
Sunday, 24th January 2021, 6:00 am

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Set in a stone wall, no one is entirely sure what purpose it originally served, or its age.

However, one woman has carried out some tremendous research – and thinks it is Anglo-Saxon, which would make it at least a thousand years old.

The Anglo-Saxon era began in 410 AD and was ended by William the Conqueror in 1066. Some disagree that the doorway is quite so old. Experts in the mid-20th century, enlisted by local historian Fred Hill, thought it might have been a 12th century construction.

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Clearly the matter needs further investigation, but all agree that whenever it was built, it’s been there for a while. Yet rarely does anyone give the doorway a second glance or glimpse.

One person who has is historian Audrey Fletcher, originally from Washington but now living in Australia. She has taken great interest and produced some fascinating results, which we have politely pillaged for the purposes of this article.

What does it look like?

It sits behind weeds and branches in the middle of the wall, which Audrey thinks must be as old as the doorway. It looks like a typical Anglo-Saxon arch, complete with a keystone at the top.

The ancient doorway was crudely bricked up in the late 1940s.

From the outside it is around four feet from where the ground now lies to its peak. Old photographs from the inside, when such a thing was possible, show that it had previously been about six feet. Our ancestors were considerably shorter than we are.

The vaulted ceiling, sadly no longer visible, gives a cellar-like appearance inside. Behind the building these days is housing, although a farm previously stood there.

When the doorway still surrounded an actual door, it would have offered very pleasant views of the green where the war memorial now stands. Also in view would be the Holy Trinity Church; the “church on the hill”.

This picture, taken not long before the doorway was bricked up, shows the magnificent vault which has not been seen in over 70 years. Photograph courtesy of Joan Nichols.

Why was it built?

Being so close to a farm it may have been used for storage, but it seems unlikely that it was originally built for that reason. The workmanship is good.

Its original function is a matter of long speculation. Working backwards we know it was used as an air raid shelter during the Second World War, which was almost the last time anyone looked inside.

Fred Hill, 1885-1955, was a local headmaster, historian and a big noise in Washington; pivotal to the restoration of Washington Old Hall. He took an interest in the nearby mysterious doorway too.

The ancient doorway is in the background of this picture, taken beside the Washington Arms.

There is nothing new under the sun, including ne’er-do-wells and anti-social acts. Mr Hill, who knew a thing or two, said the vault was used to keep riff-raff of the day in custody.

In about 1800 the village was served by a formidable sounding gentleman called Job Atkinson, who was Washington’s beadle; a sort of sheriff who locked up troublemakers.

There were stocks for such reprobates, between the smithy (now the Forge restaurant) and Holy Trinity Church. The vault behind the doorway would have been ideal for locking up wrong-uns before they were put into stocks. The walls were very thick and there were no windows.

Fred Hill said in 1947: “In the early part of the last (19th) century, the vault was used as a temporary ‘lock-up’ where drunks and poachers were incarcerated to await convenience of Gateshead constables and magistrates.”

But Mr Hill believed that wrongdoers were locked up behind the doorway long before that. Between 1296 and 1346 there were innumerable skirmishes between Scotland and England on either side of the border. This was halted, for a while, when Edward III’s B team scored a convincing victory at the 1346 Battle of Neville’s Cross.

Before that, Mr Hill said the Scots would regularly try to appropriate Washington’s cattle; what he described as “In search of English beef – unrationed!” (a topical gag when he made it in 1947).

The ancient doorway barely attracts a second glance in the 21st century.

But it’s impossible to know what happened behind the doorway before the 13th century.

How old is it?

The doorway’s age has never been confirmed and can only be narrowed down. Even then we are talking centuries either way. But there is circumstantial evidence to support Audrey Fletcher’s belief that it is Anglo-Saxon (pre-1066).

Washington was a settlement that long ago. Indeed its very name is Anglo-Saxon, having undergone a number of spelling changes. Holy Trinity Church over the road is of Anglo Saxon origin too.

The doorway is Anglo-Saxon in style, although that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t just made that way in later medieval times.

The experts invited by Fred Hill suggested: “The brick-lined barrel-arched vault was of 12th century workmanship, whilst the stone doorway is of Saxon character.”

In other words, they hedged their bets.

Audrey Fletcher says: “My considered opinion is that it is of Anglo-Saxon origin, because if it was a 12th century doorway it would be of Norman architecture.”

And now…

Fred Hill pointed out to Washington Urban Council in 1947 that the stonework above the door was in dangerous disrepair. Their response?

To Mr Hill’s presumed horror, the doorway has been bricked up ever since. Looking at old photographs from before then, only a congenitally argumentative person would claim that it looks better today.

In theory, ancient kings of England could have slept there. Or it might have been a shrine, or tomb for some Anglo-Saxon bigwig. Whatever, it could be a modest little tourist attraction today.

It isn’t too late to do something about it and reveal the magnificent vault behind the mysterious doorway once again.

* Many thanks to Audrey Fletcher, whose video about the doorway can be seen on YouTube

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