Gates, bars and gargoyles

Words, map and photos by Dav White

Throughout the ages, Scarborough has had a defensive line around it. 

This has taken the form of a dry moat and a wall made from earth and stone. 

The wall had gates or bars, used for checking who was entering and exiting the town.

The difference between a gate and a bar is that a gate is on a hinge and a bar is an obstruction or a barrier.

A bar for serving drinks is called a bar for this reason, as it is a barrier to control the sale and serving of drinks.

According to the French writer Foucault, the purpose of gates, bars and town walls in the Middle Ages was “to symbolise the boundary between the community and the spaces of exclusion”.

He describes a time where towns and cities in their infancy would strengthen their small communities by excluding everything they didn't want or understand. To be excluded was to be put out of town, beyond the walls.

This could mean getting rid of the bi-products of town life, like household waste. But it could also mean people with problematic behaviour or views considered unacceptable, and people suffering from disease.

This approach encouraged suspicion, fear of the exclusion areas and xenophobia - the fear of strangers. It had a profound effect on the cerebral as well as physical landscape, just as our decisions affect the structure of the places we live, and the places we live affect the way we think.

The land outside the town walls became the wilderness, inhabited by the uncivilised.

The bars in Scarborough’s town wall were at the castle and in Newborough, Auborough, West Sandgate and East Sandgate.

The wall and a dry moat or ditch encircled the town from the beach to Bar Street to the castle.

In the 1500s, John Leland, the father of English local history, described Newborough Bar as “meately good” and Auborough Bar as “very base” and “a very flat affair”.

It is not known when Auborough Bar crumbled away but the foundations were uncovered in 1812. An old print shows its arch still standing in the early 18th century. Much of its stone was used to redevelop the houses on Auborough Street.

Historian Dr M Andrews describes West and East Sandgate as gaps in the old wall along the foreshore.

Repairs to a small bridge across the Dam Geth stream are mentioned in the town records but there are few descriptions of what the entrances to the town from the sea looked like.

Historian Joseph Brogden Baker speculated that the old town might have started as two Saxon settlements, centred around Tut Hill, near the harbour, and Dumple, the area at the bottom of Tollergate.

Dumple is derived from dun, meaning fortified hill, suggesting an enclosed community prior to the ancient town walls, so East Sandgate and West Sandgate, whether physical or just gaps in the wall, will certainly be older than the castle’s barbican.

Photos of the original 12th century Newborough Bar, if there are any, have yet to emerge, so we have to rely on drawings and paintings.

In 1843, a magnificent folly was built on the site, for ornamental purposes rather than as a defensive structure. It was demolished in the 1890s as it was deemed a traffic hazard, following the advent of the tram and motor car. In the photos we have of it we see it draped with banners advertising relish and tea.

A folly is a building, or part of a building, made for ornamental rather than functional purposes.

Other follies in Scarborough include Peasholm pagoda and two attached to Dean Road’s former jail and the Castle by the Sea building. The latter, like Newborough Bar, are adorned with turrets, castellations and arrow slits. The old jail even has chains for a drawbridge that never existed. There are many low-status buildings in town with added decorative features which add to the craftsmanship of the building.

The grotesques figures and carvings originally found on the outside of churches from the 12th to the 16th centuries became known as gargoyles.

Half-human and half-fantastical animal, they originally represented the twisted, tortured souls of the damned, who were barred from entering the sacred space inside the church.

Gargoyle is derived from the old French word meaning gullet or throat, as the figures were eventually used as part of the ends of guttering - as water spouts. Gargoyle is from the same root word as gargle. 

Look at the only gargoyle on the side of St Martin’s Church on South Cliff for example, above the down pipe.

Most important structures during the medieval era contained at least one gargoyle as a gargling water spout. The old jail has two gargoyles either side of the entrance and up on the twin turrets.

Gargoyles were “originally used for teaching how we can be corrupted and become prisoners to folly; their wan smile is anxiety in the form of an agile grimace”, Foucault wrote in Madness and Civilisation.

The gargoyle, once a damned creature stuck in limbo on the outside of churches and cathedrals, has come to represent our anxiety and fear of the unknown.