MANY visitors and locals make their way around Southampton’s High Street and old Town unaware of the labyrinth of cellars and vaults beneath their feet for Southampton has more medieval wine vaults and cellars than any other town or city in Britain.

The development of Southampton as a commercial centre for the wine trade goes back nearly a thousand years to the time of the Angevin King Henry II, the great grandson of William the Conqueror.

He became King of England in 1154 and was the first of the Plantagenets, a dynasty that ruled England for over 300 years.

In 1152, as the Count of Anjou, Henry had married Eleanor of Aquitaine and she brought to the marriage rich wine producing land in south west France stretching from the Loire to the Spanish border.

As King of England Henry controlled large parts of Northern France, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. These land holdings known as the Angevin Empire made Henry and Eleanor powerful monarchs.

Henry took a special interest in Southampton as it was an important point of entry into England via the English Channel from Normandy and Western France.

An important commodity at that time was wine which was produced in abundance in Aquitaine and along the Loire i estates controlled by Henry. He arranged for this wine to be imported into England through Southampton.

French merchants were located in the town to manage the trade and stonemasons were employed to build houses with cellars beneath them so that the wine could be stored at a controlled temperature and also securely as it was prized commodity.

The town itself was also fortified with a castle and enclosed by walls.

To construct a wine merchant’s house a deep rectangular hole was excavated around the bottom of which a low stone wall was built. Wooden formers were then used on which to build an arch supported by the walls for the ceiling of the vault. When the arch was set the former was moved along and the next section completed.

Stone from the Isle of Wight was principally used although in some instances stone from Caen in Normandy was used for finer work.

The binding material was a lime-based mortar which was difficult to judge if set and many a stonemason lost his life prematurely when removing a former only to have the section of vault collapse and crush him.

The skill of the stonemasons is reflected in the complexity of the vaults they created and many different styles can be seen in Southampton.

The largest and one of the simplest is the Castle Vault, entered via the City walls beneath the Juniper Berry pub, which has a simple barrel vault ceiling. To build a large vault of this kind requires a deep excavation as the depth of the excavation has to be more than half the width of the vault.

Stonemasons became inventive and very skilful in their work over time and this is can be seen in a vault at the bottom of the High Street where they constructed a wide vault with an elliptical roof which meant that the excavation did not need to be so deep.

The Undercroft in Bugle Street is one of the most sophisticated vaults in Southampton where the masons constructed a vault where the ceiling is principally held up by ribs rather than the walls.

With the decline of the wine trade the vaults have been used for other purposes such as workshops and store rooms.

Eighty years ago they played a vital part in the protection of the citizens of Southampton during the bombing of the Second World War when they were used as air raid shelters and saved thousands of lives. At this time many vaults had a concrete floor added.

More recently the vaults have been used as exhibition spaces by arts students and as venues for the very popular Music in the City, a weekend long free music event that takes place around October each year.

They have also been used for film locations.

You can see inside many of Southampton’s historic medieval vaults by joining a guided walk organised by See Southampton or Southampton Museum Services.