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Revealing the Past of Southgates

The South Gate is one of the best-known buildings in King's Lynn - it's guarded the southern approaches to the town for nearly 600 years. But what is Southgates?

A neighbourhood rather than a building, Southgates is the area of King's Lynn around the South Gate. Historic England has been investigating it as part of the King's Lynn Heritage Action Zone (HAZ). We've carried out what we call a Historic Area Assessment, which means we look at every building, of whatever date, and then consider the historic and modern character of the area as a whole.

Town sign for King's Lynn mounted on brick wall
The town sign on the Southgates Roundabout © Historic England

Coming soon - free talk about Southgates by architectural historian Jonathan Kewley

All change

It's an area that has seen many changes over the past century. No buildings seem to survive from before the 19th century except the South Gate itself and the intriguing building next to it, the former Honest Lawyer pub.

Three story house on street corner
The former Honest Lawyer public house © Historic England

Southgates' industrial past

The area had an industrial phase. South of the Wisbech Road was the very fine domed Georgian gasworks. And there were timberyards and shipbuilding along the River Nar. All of these are now gone.

The River Nar today, looking north from the Wisbech Road
The River Nar today, looking north from the Wisbech Road © Historic England

Former transport hub

Transport was always important. Stage coaches left from a former inn just inside the South Gate. At the bottom of Vancouver Avenue is the town's bus garage, the oldest part built in the 1920s, designed to reflect the classical architectural style. Diagonally opposite it is the former Ford garage with its own turret to match the South Gate. The word 'ford' in the brickwork leaves no doubt which dealership it was.

King’s Lynn Bus Garage
King’s Lynn Bus Garage, dating back to the 1920s © Historic England DP219056
The former Ford garage on Out South Gates
The former Ford garage on Out South Gates © Historic England DP219058
Signage 'ford' on the side of a brick building
Signage on the former Ford garage on Out South Gates © Historic England DP219060

Current clues to the past

But it hasn't all been change. If you stand on Nar Ouse Way, the new main road leading south, where the cul-de-sac called Kellard Place branches off, you will have behind you a timber merchant's yard, to your right a pub and hotel, to your left the River Nar, and ahead of you the South Gate. All of these elements and uses existed in the area 200 years ago.

Kellard Place
Kellard Place © Historic England

What’s likely to be underneath Southgates?

The survival of archaeological deposits is difficult to predict. A lot depends not only on what was once there but also how the site has been treated over the years. There could be traces of 17th century English Civil War defences, and just possibly something from the town's medieval defences, which were also mainly earth. There may be relics of the shipbuilding industry, and of the waterways in the area, which may have changed their courses over the centuries. We might also find out more about a mysterious building which appears in Georgian pictures north-west of the present roundabout.

One way of being able to predict what may be below is to conduct a detailed survey of the ground, showing bumps and ditches. Once on paper, these may make more sense than when viewed on the ground.

Historic England has used a technique called Analytical Earthwork Survey to produce a detailed map of Southgates Park, which can inform the future use of that area. The survey clearly shows the line of the medieval town ditch and located the buried remains of one, possibly two, Second World War communal air raid shelters.

Analytical Earthwork Survey of Southgates Park
Analytical Earthwork Survey of Southgates Park © Historic England

How can I find out more about Southgates?

You can download the full Research Report from our website.

You can also come along to a talk on Southgates on Tuesday 12 June at 7pm in King's Lynn Town Hall by Jonathan Kewley, one of Historic England's architectural historians who's been working on the project. It's a chance to find out about this area - perhaps more often driven through than explored -  and to get the background on how a subject like this is researched.

It's free but you need to book by emailing Laura Wiffen at Laura.Wiffen@West-Norfolk.gov.uk.

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