Walled Towns Summaries




[This is an extension of the Grobius Shortling Web Page "Castles, Stone Circles, and Ancient Monuments." All the places listed here have been personally visited, and any factual errors or wrong-headed opinions are my own fault. --Grobius Shortling, Jan 1998]

Most towns and cities of any significance were fortified with gatehouses and a surrounding wall, some dating back to Roman times. Such remains have fared very badly in Britain compared to the Continent. Most were removed in the 18th and 19th centuries (when there was no longer any need for them, but before there was much of a conservation movement) because they hindered traffic and blocked access to the expanding suburbs. Every place that had town walls has at least a fragment or two left, often a gatehouse standing all alone in a traffic island -- such were convenient for converting into jails, records offices, and the like, and tended to be fairly elaborate, hence objects of local pride. Towers and walls fared less well, because there was no use for them -- and they required maintenance nobody was willing to pay for. Portions of town walls that still exist tend to surround cathedral precincts, where some sort of isolation was still required.

There are, however, enough remains to justify a separate web page for the subject. There is something 'snug' about a town wall that is attractive if you have a certain personality, and what remains is an interesting study in itself as a sidelight to castles in general -- castles based in towns always had a town wall associated, so to see the castle without the rest can be misleading as to its purpose.


  1. BATH (Roman Aquae Sulis) -- Yes, elegant, Georgian Bath, the elegant Roman spa of Aquae Sulis, actually had a town wall in the middle ages. There is one remnant, and that's it. It never even had one in Roman times -- didn't need it, because any civilized person would never attack it. Fallacious reasoning, so it actually got a wall at some point in time. The city is, in fact, very strategically located as far as roads, rivers, and other aspects of its siting are concerned, but it started as a spa and basically has remained one throughout its history -- and spas do not get major castles or significant town-wall protection. Harrogate, Buxton, and Cheltenham never had any fortifications at all to speak of, and never needed them. Bath, however, behind its wonderful Georgian facade is one of the most historic places in Britain, so it is pleasing to know that a wall was part of the heritage.
  2. BERWICK-UPON-TWEED -- There are some medieval bits remaining, because this was always a strategic city in Scots/English history, but the glory of the place is its Elizabethan town walls and bulwarks, built for artillery, with 20-foot thick earthen embankments faced with stone and arrow-shaped flanking bastions. No town similar to this exists in Britain -- you have to go to the Netherlands for something similar. If you like 16th-17th Century fortifications based on the principles of the master Vauban, this is the place to go. (St. Augustine's Castle in Florida is built on similar lines; there are also Fort George in Scotland and Tilbury Fort on the Thames. But none of these are 'walled towns' even if they are big enough to hold a town.)
  3. CAERNARFON (Wales) (Roman Segontium) -- A massive castle, built as the administrative center of Edward I's conquered province of North Wales, with a tidy little walled town attached to it (to house the English bureaucrats, probably). Beautifully situated, well kept-up, not ruined by development -- although the area where the castle/town abutted on a tidal estuary has been paved over to make a gigantic parking lot for tour buses, which kind of spoils things from that point of view -- but left the town itself pretty much traffic free. Although they are intact, the town walls are not very impressive, in fact serving mainly as the precinct wall of a very large outer bailey to the castle.
  4. CANTERBURY (Roman Durovernum) -- Half of the circuit still exists, wrapping from the Castle up around to the Cathedral precincts, with wall towers, but no gatehouses any more (torn down to make wider roads). There is a ring road where the moat used to be, and the walls make convenient backsides to large parking lots. Pity. On the other side of town, which is less developed in the way of suburbs, where one could have expected the wall to survive, it didn't, except for the very fine West Gate (which was used as a prison and survived only for that reason).
  5. CHESTER (Roman Deva)-- Almost totally intact, and hence a great tourist attraction. Very nice, but not especially remarkable except for the King Charles Tower (where Chas. I watched his army being defeated at Rowton Moor) and the really neat-looking East Gate, built in 1769 in place of the original gatehouse. The north side, along the canal which looks like a moat, is the most interesting part. (Click here for a portmanteau shot of that.)
  6. CHICHESTER (Roman Regnum) -- No castle, but old Roman town walls; they worked for 2000 years, because the place was never one that suffered invasions and sieges and rebellions and any of that; the port of Bosham nearby is where Canute defied the tides (sarcastically)-- that's where my father parked his car at low tide and came out of the pub to find it inundated up to the windows, wondering at first why people were laughing and snapping pictures until he saw what had happened; Bosham never even needed a castle, but at one time it was one of the most important ports in the British Roman Empire, certainly more interesting than the nearby Bognor-Regis (made Regis by George V's publicists to humanize him as being interested in seaside resorts--on his deathbed, he is reputed to have said 'bugger Bognor'--good for him: the place is appalling). A Roman city, the original wall still exists as a 'precinct' marker (picture), although there is very little masonry left. In effect, it is now a high embankment with a very pleasant pedestrian path on top of it. No gatehouses remain.
  7. CONWY (Wales) -- Another one of Edward I's colonial suppression towns. Compared to Caernarfon, which was built later after the province had been subdued and was designed to impress more than oppress, this is much more businesslike as a fortification. There are countless tall and threatening towers both in the castle and the town walls. One of the best medieval sites in Britain. The town itself within these impressive walls is rather grubby compared with the almost suburbanite neatness of Caernarfon -- but then this was always a garrison and trading town, with a good harbor and access to the wild interior of Snowdonia.
  8. DENBIGH (Wales) -- Now this is a real working-class Welsh town, impressively sited on a large hill, surrounded by a weak but mostly complete town wall, and commanded by a very large and grim castle built by one of the powerful Norman Dukes. The castle is very badly ruined (by Cromwell or one of his cronies), the town is a major center of unemployment and economic depression, and the surrounding countryside is rather rural and boring from a tourist and sightseeing point of view -- but it has the redeeming feature of having something like 30 pubs.
  9. LONDON (Roman Londinium)-- Obviously, London was the biggest walled city in Britain. The walls and gatehouses (except for their names, like Newgate, Bishopsgate, etc.) are long gone. There are, however, some bits remaining, like one twenty-foot high stretch near the Tower of London. The area in the northwest was heavily bombed in World War II and a lot of the old Roman/Medieval wall came to light, having been built into the backs of warehouses and office buildings. A lot of that has now been left out in a pleasant environment of duck ponds and walkways in the Barbican high-rise development (which a lot of people hated, but I kind of like).
  10. RYE -- A fine gatehouse dating from the reign of Edward III and the keep-like Ypres tower on the other side of town are all that remain, even though the town is compactly sited on its hill. It could have kept its walls for a better appearance (but they were probably never very substantial) -- in any case, this attractive town doesn't really need them; the gatehouse, tower, and fine church, as well as the wonderful houses and pubs, provide enough.
  11. SOUTHAMPTON (Roman Clausentum) -- More than half of the circuit survives, including some gatehouses and an interesting stretch of wall liberally provided with arrow slits, etc. I haven't been there in years, so I can't really describe it properly -- this will be updated if I ever get back there again.
  12. TENBY (Wales) -- I never spent any time here, except to drive through it and look at the peculiar town gate, which is a round tower with three archways. It is on this page to publicize the Walled Towns Web Site that is headquartered here.
  13. WAREHAM -- An Anglo-Saxon burgh town (one of Alfred the Great's strongholds built to protect against the Danes) surrounded by a massive earthen embankment. Included here to provide an alternative to the medieval model (because it was a communal defense and not a "ghetto" as the Norman towns were to some extent, in that they warded off the countryside as opposed to being a kernel or core part of it), and also because if you go there you can see the very fine monument to Lawrence of Arabia in a Saxon chapel attached to the 'walls'.
  14. YORK (Roman Eboracum)-- This city vies with Chester as being 'the best walled city in Britain'. Both were major Roman legionary cities. It is larger than Chester and has more wall left, but Chester's is "prettier" being built of red sandstone whereas York uses a very drab gray limestone. The gatehouses of York are particularly impressive, as is its cathedral, Roman displays, railway museum, and the incomparable Heritage museum in the castle. Walking the city walls of York is a must, but only as a sidelight to a visit to this must-see place.

Almondsey Island is noted for its walled towns

Here are three of them:
Kajudder | Nuorgk | Ffanshoe

(These plans are 'pristine' in that they do not show modern and suburban development. The keys have been omitted as irrelevant as these drawings are just as effective as decoration. Needless to say, Almondsey and its walled towns, is totally imaginary -- regretfully.)

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WALLED TOWNS There actually is a guild to connect all the walled towns of Europe on the Internet. This is a great idea, although the last time I checked not all the members had set up web pages to link to.