Located between the rivers Frome and Piddle, near to Poole Harbour, Wareham has long been an attractive place for people to settle. There is plenty of evidence of pre-historic and Roman activity in the Wareham area but it was in the Anglo- Saxon period (410-1066) that Wareham developed into one of Dorset’s most important towns.
With its wealth and important location as a main Anglo Saxon port, Wareham also became an strategic target for hostile Viking raids. The Anglo Saxon’s answer was to create a series of defensive walls to surround the town. These walls are still so well preserved you can walk along them today!
Wareham Walls – A Saxon Defence!
In 875 AD a Viking army under Prince Guthrum attacked the Saxon town of Wareham. It was not until some months later that King Alfred finally managed retake Wareham for the Saxons. To protect Wareham from these type of Viking sieges the town was created into a ‘Burgh’ town on the orders of King Alfred.
Burgh towns are considered one of the earliest groups of planned medieval towns in Western Europe. They were typically protected by defensive walls to provide local people a safe refuge from hostile invaders. According to the Burghal Hidage, a document which dates to the early tenth century AD there were thirty five fortified centres in Wessex, including Wareham.
Wareham is unique in being the only burgh town for which the defences survive largely intact.
Wareham’s Scheduled Ancient Monument
Wareham is surrounded by its defensive earthworks or walls on three sides of the town. There was no known defence on the southern side, where it was probably protected by the river Frome and the boggy terrain.
It is difficult to date the origins of the walls and there may have been some earthworks prior to the Viking raid. However, they were certainly reinforced substantially during the Saxon period.
Excavations have revealed that the earth walls were built up and and topped with a timber faced rampart. During the reign of Ethelred the Unready (10th century), the walls were reinforced and a stone wall of at least 2 metres wide was added to the earthworks.
Wareham’s walls were the 4th largest in the Kingdom of Wessex. They extended over 2200 yards and it is estimated that it would have take approximately 1600 local men to defend and maintain them. Taxes would been paid by the townspeople in order to maintain and defend the walls. Excavations of the walls also revealed that after the Norman Conquest some of the stone wall on top of the earthworks was robbed and most likely used to build Wareham’s new castle. The walls probably never retained their full defensive strength again.
The walls were classed as a ’Scheduled Ancient Monument’ in 1978, which means they are a nationally important archaeological site and protected as such.
Wareham Walls’ Walk
Today the walls are large grassy covered earth mounds (don’t expect to see stone walls!). They make a very pleasant walk around the old part of town. There are good views to the river and surrounding countryside. The walls have also been conserved for wildlife with some grassy areas left uncut for the encouragement of wildflowers. The footpaths are always kept well maintained. There are seven informative panels along the walk telling the history of Wareham and its walls.
Please note that the walls are a protected Scheduled Ancient Monument. It is an offence to do damage to them in any way.