7. 21st Century – The Future … … … plus Archaeology to date
At the time of writing, after a considerable time lying vacant and on the market, Grey Friars and Hillcrest, along with All Saints House next door, have been acquired by a company with a high-quality portfolio of High Street retail, business and hotel properties.
Conversion to a luxury hotel using all three buildings is in progress. It is encouraging to witness the standard of care taken in the renovations and the sympathetic nature of the additions joining the premises to form a new entrance.
For information on the new hotel, visit www.greyfriarscolchester.co.uk
The site of the Grey Friars’ settlement has been subject to major disturbance over the last couple of hundred years, but relatively little has been discovered about the friary itself. The Colchester Archaeological Trust (CAT) have taken a great deal of interest in the site, however, and give us the best analysis of what is known so far. They do note, however, that compared to the documentary evidence, the archaeological evidence is sparse.
Some of the earliest recorded attempts to interpret the site through archaeology come from the mid-1800s, when the Botanic Gardens failed and began to be redeveloped. In one of her extensive reports for the Trust, Kate Orr tells us that William Wire (the diarist quoted previously with reference to the balloon flights above the site) recorded between 1847 and 1857 the discovery of several skeletons at Grey Friars, found in a row with heads orientated to the west. On the lot map accompanying the 1847 sale catalogue for Grey Friars (Essex Record Office C32), Wire wrote that they were found in the kitchen garden and that he believed they were probably inmates from the friary. The upper car-park (behind All Saints House) is on the site of the kitchen garden.
William Wire wrote (usefully, albeit not entirely accurately): “The whole of this property belonged to a monastic order named the Grey or preaching friars for an account of see Morants History of Colchester and Fosbroke’s Monachesm all attempts to get at the desired information as to whereabouts the monastery stood has failed unless it occupied the site of the dwelling house forming part of lot 1 [The current Grey Friars centre section of 1755/80] as that is still known by the name of The Friery no foundations that I am aware of have been discovered in the Botanic Garden and the only remains of a building was a stone window discovered a few years ago and which I believe is now ornamenting the garden in detached pieces instead of whitened flint stones. In the garden of lot [?] several Roman coins have been found and in the kitchen garden at the depth of about four feet from the surface skeletons have been discovered ranging from east to west the head towards the former point the feet of one being placed against the head of the other not a fragment of wearing apparel was discovered with them nor yet any ornaments the skulls had low foreheads and the teeth worn down by grinding giving the same idea of the monks general character who occupied the premises as that related of them by writers on the monastic orders.”
To the north of the car-park, a watching brief on ground-works at the rear of 67 Castle Road in 1997 recorded a late medieval pit or trench containing food waste and domestic rubbish which is probably associated with the friary. To the west, a long archaeological trench excavated by the Colchester Excavation Committee at the front of the Central Clinic in 1963 recorded early medieval pottery at the east end, giving a hint of the proximity of the friary site.
In recent years, CAT have carried out various small digs at Grey Friars on the occasion of minor ground-works or building adjustments to the site. These and previous investigations had tantalisingly demonstrated the existence of medieval, post-medieval and possibly Roman archaeological features, most of which are to be found at approximately 1m below ground-level. Some Romano-British material was also found. There was one possible Roman feature, a robbed-out foundation, but this could equally be medieval as much Roman material was recycled in later buildings. Roman artefacts were found mixed in with deposits from later periods in several places throughout the site. One Roman coin, several tesserae, some opus signinum mortar (containing crushed Roman tile), and a small quantity of Roman pottery were retrieved from trenches in the north-east corner of the car park. Particularly evident in abundance was Roman tile, most likely having been reused in the medieval buildings. In the 1990s, pieces of Samian pottery were spotted when a flowerbed was being dug over, the material having been transferred in soil which had come from a house in Roman Road. These were similar to fragments and rim sherds found on land at 41 Castle Road in 2000, which also included some hypocaust tile fragments. Work at 24 Castle Road in 2000/1 revealed small quantities of Roman pottery, mortar, tile and tesserae (cubes of stone). A tessellated floor (made of tesserae, laid on a bed of mortar) was recorded to the rear of the Grey Friars building in 2004, at 1.1m below ground-level. This appeared to be part of a house that faced the main Roman road later to become Frere Street and High Street, but very little else was found. More recently, in March 2013, a draining trench in the yard between Grey Friars and All Saints House revealed evidence of a Roman mortar floor and part of a (possibly later) foundation. The floor may have been associated with a Roman house facing the High Street, far enough away from the 2004 find to be a separate house. Broken pottery, tile and brick were found in the spoil from the digging. The scarcity of substantial Roman features may be explained by later disturbance or masking by medieval and post-medieval activities. One piece of Anglo-Saxon pottery, found in the north-east corner of the car park, hinted at occupation on the site between the 5th and the 7th centuries, but as it had likely been moved from its original position it was not significant proof.
Tile – Castle Road, courtesy Linda Michael Samian Ware fragment – Roman Road (CAT)
Further south, towards the High Street, no foundations were exposed but there were two probable medieval sand-quarry pits. A linear spread of building rubble appears to have functioned as some kind of surface or walkway. This and a large pit filled with building rubble are most likely derived from demolished friary buildings such as the church, cloister, precinct wall or gatehouse. Although no graves were exposed, one piece of skull was found near the north edge of the upper car park (behind All Saints House), but it was probably already moved from its original position. Activity following the Dissolution is evidenced by a number of spreads of building rubble.
In 2007, a wide medieval foundation which may represent part of the friary church was found on the unpaved area between the upper and lower car parks. Its size, its east-west alignment and the medieval pottery associated with it all support this theory. Next to it was a large amount of building rubble. A copper-alloy buckle typical of that worn on a monk’s girdle was found amongst this rubble. Three pieces of floor tile and four fragments of worked stone all suggested a friary building. Another medieval wall foundation, at right-angles to another and probably part of the same building or perhaps a cloister attached to the church was found in the north-east area of the car park. The layer of demolition debris sealing these features contained medieval and post-medieval material indicating that these buildings continued in use well after the Dissolution of 1538 as evidenced by records of the redistribution of ownership by the King’s agents (see Chronology which follows). This also ties-in with the various early maps and drawings showing the friars’ buildings set back some distance from the main street and with a large gap between them and the gatehouse. How far north the buildings reached, however, is still a mystery. Exploratory trenches dug when the northern car park wall was being rebuilt were inconclusive, rarely reaching natural ground. The friars’ calling, however, suggests that their church would be the building nearest to the public highway (for accessibility), with their domestic buildings further back.(below – possible church foundations excavated)