A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

By Alan Abbey

    Cellars; Simple things, apparently. Mere rooms beneath the house above with various and nefarious uses. Not much to get confused over really, the foundations of the building help form a useful space and a cellar is born. Cellars, however, are incredibly resilient and can easily outlive their parent buildings. They can outlive several buildings for that matter, a succession of buildings can be built and replaced and still the cellars remain.

    Take the Plough Inn in East Street, Sittingbourne, for example. Parts of that cellar were over 300 years old and despite the building’s demise the cellars still survive. They were used as a handy spot into which the rubble was dumped to save removal costs and fill a rather large hole where the new building needed to be. The new building is almost finished and the ancient cellars remain, hidden, filled in, but still very much a part of the site as a whole. When the new building is eventually pulled down and itself replaced, the old Plough cellars will remain. Such are the things that archaeology is made of.

    At Brenchley House, built in the late 18th century, this same story has been played out for centuries already. The cellars that remain have been the cellars to several buildings and this history has shaped them into the plan you see above. This plan, however, bares little correlation to the building itself. Only the front half of Brenchley House sits over the cellars for example, the back half is built well beyond them. This is the first clue to the true history of the site, given the cellars dimensions the building just doesn’t fit.

    These cellars are in two main ranges, the east and the west, running parallel with Sittingbourne High Street. The brick work at the front of both ranges is quite early, using an ‘English Bond’ style that actually seems to continue into the building next door, ‘Highs’ the optician. This could indicate that a building earlier in date than both Highs and Brenchley House occupied both sites. The English Bond style itself would indicate an early structure, it was mainly used from the late 16th to early 18th centuries. We know that an Inn called the Cross Keyes once stood on the site in the 17th century, but have no real idea of its exact positioning. Was it over the whole site, or just a part of it? The name ‘Cross Keyes’ also adds to the question pile. The name is one that was used by the church for the Inns it set up to accommodate its guests etc. on pilgrimages or local business. It is doubtful that such a system would have been possible after the Reformation, the church’s socio-economic influence being very much reduced, so might this indicate that the Cross Keys in question is even earlier than the English bond brick work suggests? It is quite likely that the name came with the building and when sold off by the Crown, as most such Church property was, the name was kept as that was how the building was known already. I am doubtful that the name, with its religious connotation, was  used too readily after the reformation in new buildings, that it remained in use is more reasonable. However, without firm evidence all this remains supposition. It does, however, give an indication as to the possible age of the cellars.

    The next point to consider is the position of the cellar entrances. Each range has its own separate entrance but that entrance is set back some distance from the cellars themselves. This is especially true in the western range, here there is over 5 metres of passage way from the door to the cellar. Is this an indication of an earlier building affecting the cellars shape? Is it at all possible that an earlier building, at least on this western range, ran on a north / south alignment rather than east / west along the high street? Note the disparity in length between the two ranges and the fact that the west range is also noticeably deeper. There is some evidence that a doorway once connected the two ranges but exactly when is open to debate. Was it open originally and  sealed before Brenchley House was built? Was it sealed by the owners of Brenchley House to create two separate cellars, which then poses the question of why?  To add to the argument, the cellars under Highs the Optician look as if they could be an integral part of the Brenchley ones, although when and exactly how is still being considered. If they are, then the relationship between the east and west range will require even more thought.

    Notice too how the cellar entrances are offset from the cellars themselves. This is especially noticeable in the western range, the passages are set outside of the cellars own sides and have to curve inwards to allow entrance. Note the two areas marked with a large asterix. Are these the boundaries of the adjoining buildings? Or, are they, as has been suggested in the book on Brenchley House by the 1954 students of the School housed there, areas that have been ‘boxed in’? That may certainly explain the odd positioning of the cellar entrances but if so what has been boxed in? Why would such boxes need to be so deep? Further examination of the adjacent buildings may provide some answers and such work is underway.

    Each range also has an internal dividing wall that create large ‘stall’ like divisions. These are made from brick and both have the same curious feature, at least one vertical timber post that has been completely enclosed within the brickwork. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just build a brick wall between these posts rather than encapsulate them? The mortar and brick work has crumbled away at the base of these posts which is how we noticed them. It is possible that the posts are part of a much earlier wattle and daub style partition that, when Brenchley House was built, had to be ‘strengthened’ to support the weight of the much larger and heavier three storey brick construction. If these posts are evident in both ranges, does that suggest that the cellars do share a common history? Or could it simply mean that the wattle and daub system of internal partition was common period feature in the cellars of two separate buildings?

    Each range also shares another common feature, brick built recesses. As the plan shows, both ranges have areas containing these curiosities. The Girls in 1954 assumed that they were created to house barrels etc. from the cellars Public House and Inn phase. Upon examination, however, they are clearly far too small to house such things, they also lack any type of hook in their tops from which things may have been hung. Peter Bell, the Conservation Officer from Swale Borough Council, offered the possibility that the recesses are actually a by product of the creation of brick shelves, the surface being the required feature of the builder, not the recesses. This does seem perfectly reasonable but does not fit the bill for all of them. One, in the western range, is quite unique and far different from the rest. Not only is it almost a metre deep, many times that of the others, it has been created far more elaborately. Whilst there is a flat surface above it this could easily have been created using a far simpler design. What could this have been used for?

    Finally, on the top left of the plan you will notice a square marked ’Area 4’. This area caused much confusion and excitement as it was first thought that it could have been the remains of a far earlier, possibly medieval, building. It has its own wall separate to that of the cellars in which an archway was clearly visible. The cellar wall runs flush with the areas wall and had been broken down to give access to this area. Upon a closer inspection, however, the bricks in this area were yellow, making them very much a 19th century addition. Yellow bricks do not appear until c.1820, this small but important fact forced a re-evaluation. It would now seem more likely that this area was created as some form of secure area after Brenchley House was built.

    I have only scratched the surface in this article, there is still much to learn and discover in these cellars and the research continues in preparation of our forthcoming book on the history of Brenchley House.