There have been very few excavations in High Street but one took place in the mid 1970s on the south east side of the corn market. In the 1960s, Nos. 39 to 57 High Street consisted of a row of shops including Cullen’s Stores, a hairdresser, a shoe repairer, Morris’s greengrocers and Sattele’s tobacconist shop. According to the inspectors of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, the buildings had been built as houses in the 17th and 18th centuries and much altered over the years. One of them stood on the site of an earlier house belonging to the merchant and businessman, Peter Hiley who entertained King Charles II to lunch there in 1665, (as mentioned more than a few times on this blog!). A plaque with the details of the visit was on display on the wall of the later building. According to the historian Joseph Moore writing in 1788, the house was then occupied by Thomas Young Bird, a mercer (cloth merchant) and draper.
In the mid 1960s, this row of shops and the buildings behind them in Castle Street were demolished as part of the clearance programme in the old town. It was planned to build a block of offices there with a car park at the back, and in the 1970s, a rescue excavation was carried out in advance of construction. In fact in the latter part of the dig, the buildings were going up as the diggers were still going down! It was a rare chance to investigate the older history of part of High Street.
The dig proved that the area had been inhabited from at least the 13th century, the earliest traces being medieval ditches and pits containing fragments of pottery dating from 13th to 15th centuries. There were also the substantial foundations of several stone buildings with hearths and cellars which pre-dated the demolished buildings on the site. These 15th or 16th century houses were built with their long sides to the street, suggesting that space was plentiful along the main street at the time. In the complex of buildings behind High Street there were also several wells, 12 to 15 feet deep, containing water that was still pure and drinkable.
The site produced a rich collection of finds including lots of local and imported pottery. Besides medieval cooking pots, jugs, pancheons and pottingers there were German Bellamine jars, Dutch cockerel dishes and bowls from Spain and Venice. One pit contained a mass of clay pipes ranging in date from 1630 to 1835 but mostly from the late 17th to early 18th century. Smoking, of course, was a favourite pastime from the date of the introduction of tobacco, and clay pipes were easily broken and highly disposable. There were also lots of hefty glass bottles and fragments of delicate drinking glasses.
All sorts of individual finds hinted at the lives of the people who lived there over the centuries, scraps of leather shoes, iron keys, a child’s wooden spinning top, the handle of a fan, buckles, a spur. It is intriguing to think that a few of the objects may have belonged to Peter Hiley or Thomas Young Bird.