Pembroke Burgage plot gardens, and the 'Journey Through Time' project

The Normans established Pembroke’s Main Street as we know it over 800 years ago

Almost one thousand years ago this area of south west Wales was ruled by the great Rhys ap Tewdwr. His wife Gwladus, a princess in her own right, had 3 children – Nest, Hywel and Gruffydd. Rhys had made a pact with William I ('The Conqueror') which lasted until Rhys's death in 1093, resulting in rapid change as the pact was broken with the arrival of the Normans in south west Wales.

This old aerial photograph shows the limestone promentory, surrounded by tidal waters, which the Normans found on arrival, and upon which they constructed the beginning of Pembroke town as we know it today. It is probable that their first building replaced an existing Welsh Llys.


Within months Arnulf de Montgomery had marched his soldiers through mid-Wales, arrived at Pembroke, and built the first simple wood and turf castle here – establishing what is now called ‘Little England beyond Wales’. Gerald de Windsor was tasked with running the Castle and repelling the Welsh. He also married Nest, thus bringing the cultures of Welsh and Norman together.

Held by Norman lords rather than the crown, in 1130 Henry I granted borough status to Pembroke to encourage business and growth by allowing and encouraging markets and fairs. The charter also stated that “all cargo ships coming into the Haven had to come to the Millbridge at Pembroke” to trade, thus ensuring the desired increase in population and trade.

A Stone Castle, followed by the building of the stone town walls, and walled plots within them.

The great William Marshall was responsible for replacing the wooden castle with stone. The town had expanded rapidly and men's status was illustrated by 'ownership of a burgage plot', which the layout of Pembroke was ideally suited to.

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John Speed's map of 1610 Early aerial photograph showing pembrokes burgage plot gardens to the south C1920

Standing as it does at the head of a long limestone ridge the town was laid out along a single road that ran from the castle in the west. Within a hundred years the number of properties had increased to over two hundred and twenty. Stone town walls were erected to keep the Welsh out, and livestock in. Built to protect this now prosperous community, strong gates guarded the East, West and Northern approaches, and important corn mills were established by the busy town quays.

The burgage plot properties were divided by high stone walls built from the narrow dwellings fronting Main Street down to the town walls surounding the town.

What is a burgage plot?

A ‘burgage’ was a tenure whereby burgesses or townspeople held lands or tenements of the king (in this case Norman lords) usually for a fixed money rent. The layout of Pembroke’s burgage plots, with their buildings fronting the ‘main’ street and their long narrow gardens running down to the town walls, created a unique situation - bounded as they were then by tidal waters to the north and south.

So - Pembroke's burgage plots are the long, narrow walled gardens that run down from the houses on Main Street to the Millpond on the north side and the Commons on the south. Their walls are mostly as old as the town walls themselves (largely rebuilt after Cromwell's seige, and the new Georgian prosperity) and all have stories in their own right. Many of these walls are in a desperate state, having being lowered or lost due to collapse or danger of collapse. We do not know what remains, since no overall survey has been carried out, and so the Walled Gardens group (Hidden Histories) are attempting to address this by taking photographs and asking owners to help with a questionnaire survey of each garden.

Below is an illustration of how the Norman settlement would have looked at about 1250, with St Mary's church and Monkton Priory close to the Castle. Evidence of the fast growing affluence of Pembroke at this time is the establishment of a second Parish and its new church further to the East.




Like Pembroke, Edinburgh is laid out along a ridge with its impenetrable Castle built on a rocky outcrop at one end. The town had an extensive system of burgage plots - whose 'footprints' still remain under the 'new' town built over the old.




Newport, in the north of the county of Pembroke, was also established around the time Pembroke was established and three burgage plots there were excavated in the late 1990s. To read the detailed and informative achive record written by Ken Murphy for CADW click here. (.pdf document. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader or similar.)







Above is a suggested layout of the town around 1320. Prosperous and still rapidly expanding there are now more than 250 burgage plots. The town walls are complete and burgage plots extend beyond the great East Gate.

This layout has changed little in eight hundred years, and is part of what makes Pembroke special. Few other towns can rival Pembroke's uniqueness; many would have begun life in the same way - for example Edinburgh as seen in the sketch above - but the original layouts are now lost or incomplete.



What were burgage plots used for?

Burgage plots were 'owned' by the burger or freeman who paid dues for the land his home was built on. These narrow, long strips were where, in Pembroke, everything to do with the day to day running and success of the town took place.

Many plots would have had smaller dwellings within them, and outbuildings of all types. These would have been occupied by servants and occupational workers, for stabling, businesses such as leather craft, footwear, cloth and wool producton, dying and weaving, pottery and carpentry, candle making and all forms of furniture production. Livestock were a vital part of people's needs - especially pigs and ducks. Some 'gardens' woud have had breweries, blacksmiths and tin plate workers. Storage was essential both for the family food supplies and animal feed. Some of the land would also have produced fruit and vegetable, with space for drains to take away sewage from the main house, and rain water storage systems.

Fresh water was essential and this would have been a problem for the town, with springs on both sides to north and south at sea level, but lying outside the solid town walls.

Burgage plots today

A 'Pembroke Walled Gardens' group has been set up to learn, research and collate data about what we have lost, what is 'hidden' and what we still have. Contact Pembroke 21C Community Centre if you would like to be involved or know more.

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The Journey Through Time Burgage garden project

Many of Pembroke's burgage gardens today are unseen, overgrown and/or unloved. A few have even been levelled by order of the Local Authority in order to create a car park for shoppers. So, an exciting project has been developed through a partnership between members of the Tabernacle Chapel in Main Street, volunteers from the Pembroke Story project, and the Town Walls Trust.

The Tabernacle's burgage plot garden has long been unused and church members were keen to create a place of peace and solitude for themselves and local people. The Pembroke Story (and 21C's Town Heritage and Environment group) has wanted to raise the profile of our burgage plots and gardens and to promote them nationally, and the Town Walls Trust has adopted the stretch of old Town Wall and the Lime Kiln at the bottom of the Tabernacle burgage plot. They will be promoting the project inter-nationally as time goes by. Out of this the 'Journey Through Time' project was born.

The burgage walls are mostly in very poor state of repair, and we don't know what has been lost or is in the process of being lost. Raising the profile of the plots, and finding new uses is the way forward and will help towards re-generating the town by creating an attracton that will can take people from the Main Street level, through a wonderful Gothic chapel, down to a little Victorian schoolroom below, then out into the 'garden' where they can follow a journey through the eras back to the lowest level where once there were tidal waters, and the cave there would have at least been used for shelter. If it was deeper than it appears at present it may have been a dwelling place as well - there is much to discover. The journey of course actually begins down at the town wall below, at the gate into the Tabernacle garden on Gooses Lane on the Commons and which will then wend its way up to Main Street - interpretation panels and detailed information will describe the journey with text, and pictorially. The project will also be an attraction for visitors and residents alike, and will be run by volunteers while creating jobs, and providing opportunities to learn important skills such as stone-masonry.

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The burgage plot garden to the rear of the Tabernacle chapel in Main Street would have been two plots until the chapel was built in 1879 on the site of two old terraced Main street houses (nos. 89 and 91). Like many of the other burgage plot gardens in the town, it is now very overgrown with scrub and trees.


As a necessary part of the Journey Through Time project a variety of surveys were undertaken before any work could commence. For access to this information please follow the relevant link below. (All the documents are in .pdf format, and require Adobe Reader or similar.)

The most recent evaluation document of the Tabernacle Town Wall can be found here.

Tabernacle Geology Survey by Sid Howells (Sept 2013) here.

Badger Sett Survey here.

Tabernacle Garden - Basic Habitat Survey (Sept 2013) here.

Pembroke Town Garden here.

Kite Ecology Bat Survey here.


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