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

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

Within a stone wall, nobody is entirely sure of the doorway’s original purpose; or age. However, one woman has carried out some tremendous research and believes it is Anglo-and 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 enlisted in the mid-20th century thought it might have been a 12th century construction.

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Clearly the matter needs further investigation, but we can all agree that whenever it originated, it’s been there for a while.

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

Yet rarely does anyone give the doorway a second glance or glimpse.

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

What does the doorway look like?

Although still easy to find, 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.

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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.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.
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.

From the outside it is around four feet high 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, lends the space inside similarity to a cellar, although it never was one. Behind the bricked up building these days is housing, although at one time a farm stood there.

When the doorway still bore an actual door, it would have offered a very pleasant view of the green and what is now the site of Washington’s war memorial. Also in view would be the Holy Trinity Church; the “church on the hill”.

In past centuries it was also a decent vantage point for the occasional spot of witch dunking; a welcome diversion in the days before Coronation Street.

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

What was it used for?

As it was so close to a farm it may have been used at times for storage, but it seems unlikely that it was first built for that reason. The workmanship is too good for that.

Its original function is a matter of long standing speculation. Let’s work backwards. We do know that it was used as an air raid shelter during World War Two, which was almost the last time anyone saw the inside.

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

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

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

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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.

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What you might not know about the history of Washington Village - it's not as sl...

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 dragged to the stocks. The walls were very thick with 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.

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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 in 1947).

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

How old is it?

The age of the doorway 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).

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Washington was a settlement that long ago. Indeed its very name is Anglo-Saxon in origin, 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.”

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And now…

Fred Hill pointed out to Washington Urban Council in 1947 that the stonework above the door was in dangerous disrepair. The 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 behind it and it could be a modest little tourist attraction. Or it might have been a shrine, or tomb to some Anglo-Saxon bigwig.

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

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